A Painters Touch by Mike H
I came across Marie a few months ago on the site iphoneart.com. At first I couldn’t tell if I was looking at a painting, or a photograph. The fusion of the two arts blended seamlessly with her unique style and ideas. After looking through a few of her photos I felt an immediate connection, being that a lot of them were of my home town, New Orleans. You can almost hear the brassy jazz playing in the way her photos captured the mood and essence of the city. And since then she has quickly become one of my favorite artists… Look through her gallery and you’ll see why.
M: Mike Ma: Marie
M: So let’s start off with you telling us a little about yourself…
Ma: I am an artist in Atlanta, Georgia. About eight years ago I got tired of my job as a corporate IT executive and figured I would take a year off to make some art, which was my true passion. Well, I never went back. Nowadays, I paint and teach – figure/portrait drawing and watercolor – and I keep an occasional geek project going on the side.
Photography started out for me simply as a way to get reference photos for painting. My iPhone epiphany came fairly suddenly one Friday afternoon in early 2011. I was looking at a Bob Krist’s Nikon blog, and he posted a few his grandson’s Hipstamatic shots. I was intrigued. What was this Hipstamatic thing? I immediately snagged a copy from the App Store and took a picture of my dog. Looking back on it, that’s the ultimate cliche – a Hipstamatic picture of my dog. However, it remains my favorite picture of her. She has always been suspicious of my big dSLR, and in most of my dSLR shots of her she looks very serious – frowning as if to say: “What is that machine you are pointing towards me?” With the Hipsta shot, she was totally at ease, with a spunky smile that is so typical of her personality. If my dog could be that comfortable in front of an iPhone, I thought, there could be all sorts of possibilities for pictures of people.
Luck would have it that a major ice storm – with heavy snow, followed by partial melting, followed by a hard freeze – rolled into Atlanta a few days after my Hipstamatic/dog epiphany. The whole city was one big ice skating rink. Classes were cancelled, and I couldn’t get to my studio. I couldn’t even step off my front porch for almost a week. My project for the week was to learn everything I could about my iPhone camera and apps. I googled “iphone art” and discovered iphoneart.com, which remains my favorite iPhone photography site. I would study the images on iphoneart.com, and then I would get apps that were listed next to the images. I set a budget of $5 per day. By the end of the week, I had a good collection of apps – Iris, Filterstorm, Photowizard, PictureShow, Lo-Mob, and others – and I knew how to use them.
About 6 weeks after the ice storm, I went to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. Although I took my dSLR with me, I came home with about a dozen dSLR images and close to 1,000 iPhone images. As was the case with that first photo of my dog, I discovered that people, too, were much more comfortable in front of an iPhone than in front of a dSLR. I have barely touched my dSLR since then.
This image started out with a series of photos I took of a fellow miming street preachers in front of St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans. The preachers were standing behind him, broadcasting with bullhorns that just about everybody – including Catholics, drunkards, educated people, environmentalists, “hippie capitalists” (whatever they are), sport fans, gays, and “general heathen” - will burn in hell. This guy – complete green body paint, pink beads, and a corset - was miming every word and taking a break only to go kiss another guy. Originally, I wanted to work the preachers and their signs into the final image, but the signs were huge and overwhelmed the image of the green guy. When I edit a picture, I look for something in the original image that speaks to me, and then I eliminate anything that distracts from my artistic vision. In this case, I really wanted the image to be about the energy and movement of the green guy – and not the signs.
M: Yea I’ve noticed that too, about how people tend to be more relaxed around a camera phone. They don’t try as hard to look a certain way and just be themselves. And I think maybe it’s because they wouldn’t expect that photo from a phone to be hanging on a galley wall… Yet! It’s interesting you mention being a painter, one of the thing’s I always notice about your work is that some of it does kind of look as if it were painted, even some of your more street styled shots. How has that helped you artistically in your photography?
Ma: First, my muses are almost always painters – anything from early masters such as Michelangelo or Franz Hals to more modern examples such as Francis Bacon or Larry Rivers. I don’t know nearly as much about the history of photography. My visual psyche is steeped in the western painting tradition, and the historical references tend to creep into how I shoot and app a photo. “The Transformation of the Skull and Bones Dude” is a good case in point. It was a street shot of a guy sitting on the steps of a building in New Orleans. His hat and the feathers, though, reminded me of something from a northern European master painting. I stripped out the background, recolored his feathers from black to red, and generally rearranged the whole image until I got the feel I wanted, which was racially different from the original snap.
Second, I don’t see photographs as having any particular truth or reality. Let me explain that. A few years ago I did a series of plain air paintings in a cemetery. Without exception, the paintings looked more like reality than any photograph – and a lot of people photograph the place. (And that’s not just my opinion.) No camera can capture the dynamic range that the human eye can see. The camera can’t tell which details in an image are important or meaningful. The color depends on what kind of film or white balance setting you use. The camera has no notion of three dimensional space. All of this is okay, of course. I am not saying that cameras are bad because they don’t see what humans see. What I am saying, rather, is that cameras have their own visual language, which is not reality. As a painter, I strive to show what I see, rather than what the camera sees. I am completely willing to do whatever editing or apping is necessary to make a photo match my personal vision.
Finally, when I take a photo or app a photo, I approach things much as I would approach a painting. I try to find some specific visual element that speaks to me – light, color, texture, movement, and such. Basically, I decide what the photo is about and eliminate anything that doesn’t support my vision. If the image is about light and shadow, I will eliminate color. If the background doesn’t support my story, I will eliminate the background.
This is sort of an average picture of a guy sitting on the hood of a car on Mardi Gras day. The light, however, was terrific. Originally, it was a color Hipstamatic shot, but the color distracted from the beautiful light, and so I processed it in black and white.
M: I pretty much do the same. When I first found you, I saw a photo of yours on IPA (iphoneart.com) that was used as the base image for a editing challenge, a close up shot of a man and woman in costume standing in a doorway. I immediately recognized the doorway as a place on Frenchman st. in New Orleans, a city that is so recognizable that I can pinpoint a doorway that wasn’t even labeled. A lot of your work seems heavily influenced by NOLA, and for me being from there I can understand why. Lets talk about your attraction and how you became to be influenced to the crescent city…
Ma: There is no doubt that I have a love affair with New Orleans. Although I have always been fond of New Orleans, my real obsession started almost exactly four years ago. I took my sister-in-law, who is a big fan of traditional jazz, into to the Tremé to see the Backstreet Cultural Museum so she could learn more about the roots of jazz. It’s a small, unassuming place that focuses on the African American traditions – second lines, funerals, and Mardi Gras Indians. I was chatting with the director, Sylvester Francis, and asking lots of questions. After a while, he stopped and said: “You are really interested in this stuff, aren’t you? If you really want to see what this culture is all about, go up to Charbonnet Funeral Home on Saturday morning. Big Queen Barbara Sparks died a few days ago, and there are going to be tribes from all over, uptown and downtown, at the funeral.” I protested a bit. I had never met her. How could I go to a funeral for someone I never knew? He assured me that it was okay – that it was going to be a great funeral, and he thought I would like it.
So, I went to the funeral home on Saturday morning. I was still a little uncomfortable. Not only did I think I didn’t have any business going to a funeral for a total stranger, I was the only white person anywhere around. I stood outside, debating whether or not to go in. After a while, Mr. Francis walked up. I asked him again if it was okay for me to be there. He assured me again that it was fine, and he took me by the arm and led me into the building.
As soon as we walked through the door, there were three Mardi Gras Indians standing at attention. They were three big guys wearing unbelievably elaborate suits of feathers and beads, with headdresses that extended another three feet above the tops of their heads. I literally gasped. The mannequins and pictures I had seen of the Indians did not even begin to do justice to the magnificence of the reality.
The service began with a slow and steady, dirge-like drumming of tambourines. In a few seconds, a voice in the back of room called out “Mighty – Cootie-Fi-Yo,” followed by a response from other voices. I thought, “Toto, we are not in Kansas anymore.” Later, I found out that what I was hearing was “Indian Red,” the sacred anthem of the Mardi Indian culture. For the next two hours, people talked about standing tall in the face of adversity, of sharing with friends and neighbors, of maintaining the ties of family and culture and tradition. As people spoke, I found myself falling in love – with a culture and with a city.
I live in Atlanta, where most folks are obsessed with big screen TV’s and expensive cars. They eat at chain restaurants and shop at chain stores, which are the same in Phoenix or Houston or Orlando. They sit in traffic for hours on end. There is a comfortable blandness about the culture. New Orleans, on the other hand, has a different set of values. Community and tradition matter, and yet the city embraces a wide range of lifestyles. If you want to dye your hair green, or have lots of tattoos, or dance in the street – it’s all okay. Overall, New Orleans has cultural richness that is missing in so many American cities.
The Transformation of the Skull and Bones Dude
This fellow was a member of the Northside Skull and Bones Gang. The skull and bones gangs are an Afro-Caribbean tradition, where men dress up in skeleton costumes on Mardi Gras morning and walk through the neighborhoods, shaking their fingers and saying “You Next.” Some folks says their purpose is to scare away evil spirits and others say their purpose is to remind revelers of their mortality. Anyhow, it is a very old tradition that has been practiced for many decades, if not centuries. I was especially interested in the contrast between the very modern feel of his glasses and the very antique feel of his hat.
M: Well said, the culture is so rich there that you could look and act any way you want, and no one will notice a difference – it’s just business as usual in nola. I know that place in Tremé, it’s on Henriette Delille st. I think, looks like a house. And now that I live in Orlando, I can definitely relate to what you’re saying. You ever consider moving there?
Ma: You know the place. It was a house, then a funeral parlor, and now a museum. I absolutely have considered moving to New Orleans, but I have a house here in Atlanta. When I think of the effort it would take to get the house in shape to sell… well, it’s easier and cheaper just to visit New Orleans. Maybe one of these days….
M: In the few years mobile photography / mobile art has been around, we’ve seen some major jumps towards it becoming recognized as a legitimate art form. Things like the MPA’s (Mobile Photo Awards), The grant from IPA, and now the LAMAF (LA Mobile Arts Festival) coming up later this month – which you are a part of – amongst many others. Where do you see us all with this going in the next five to ten years and how has it evolved for you personally?
Ma: Good question. There is no doubt that mobile photography is well on its way to becoming an established art form. Last year the International Photography Awards, which recognizes the finest achievements in photography, nominated Karen Divine as “Discovery of the Year” for a series created and edited entirely with an iPhone. Six mobile photographers – Cindy Patrick, Alan Kastner, Souichi Furusho, Carlein van der Beek , Helen Breznik, and Jordi Pou – were represented at the Latitudes International Photography Festival in Huelva, Spain, earlier this year. What we are seeing now is only the beginning.
Personally, I am beginning to see mobile photography more as an end in itself and not simply as an intermediate step on the way to a painting, which is a big change for me.
Artistically, the challenge of mobile photography will be to make images that stand out from the crowd. First, let’s consider street photography. There is no doubt that the iPhone (or Android) is a great tool for street photography. It is such a good tool, in fact, that we are being flooded with street photos. What might have been a good street photo 20 years ago would now get lost in the crowd. So, I think that mobile photography is raising the bar for street photography in a major way. An image has to be truly stellar – with perfect composition and a great story – to stand out. Although I love to shoot street photography, and almost all of my images start off as street shots, I rarely post true street shots unless the image has something really unique to say. Street photography will continue to be a major component of mobile photography, but the work that stands out is going to have to be extraordinarily good.
Second, we will see a lot more explorations of alternate realities, either the subconscious or the surreal. I have no problem with pictures of sunsets, but there are probably a million great sunset photos on IG. After a while they all start to look the same. The medium, I think, will evolve toward work that is unique, which probably implies unusual juxtapositions of images and ideas. I am beginning to work on exploring some of these ideas in my own work, but it is not quite where I want it to be yet. Give me another few months.
This was shot on Canal Street in New Orleans, early on Mardi Gras morning. The image is so quintessentially New Orleans, with the Caribbean and African American influence of the skeleton costumes and the very Catholic reference in the sign: “Sin-Repent-Repeat.” The major edit on this was to desaturate and blur a salmon-colored building in the background. Otherwise, it’s pretty much as seen.
M: I have noticed more and more surrealistic type images popping up, sometimes when looking at IG, I feel like I’m in a head shop, haha. That’s cool how your transition into the mobile arts spawned from painting, do you find yourself starting to favor working on the iphone/ipad more then the brush and canvas?
Ma: Absolutely. When I used to shoot reference photos with other cameras, I could get a general idea of where I wanted to go with a painting but I still worked out a lot of the ideas on paper or canvas. Somehow, I never felt comfortable with using a mouse or tablet to work out the details. The touch screen, however, was a real game changer for me. There is a tactile feeling about drawing directly on the screen that I find irresistible. A lot of my mobile work involves painting, usually with ArtRage or ProCreate, directly on the screen. Once I get to the end of one of these pieces on screen, I don’t feel much like painting it again on a physical surface.
M: Same here. I recently tried using a stylus, but brought it back because I couldn’t get used to not using my fingers on the screen. So tell us a little about your process… Say you just took this great photo and you’ve got all kinds of ideas going through your head about what you’re gonna do. You can’t wait to get home and edit it. Is there any specific apps that you often turn to first, do you put on some music and dig in? Or are you just a commando who can get the edit you’d be proud of under any kind of environment?
Ma: Although I have an assortment of styluses, and I will confess that I am quite fond of my Nomad brush, most of the time I just use my finger for editing. My editing process is usually slow and deliberate, which is why I rarely post more than one picture every few days. Occasionally, I get lucky and get a picture I can post immediately. More often, though, the images have to percolate for a while. I will pick a few candidates that seem to have potential, and I will look for something that speaks to me in an image. Sometimes there is a story line, or color, or a pattern of light and shadow. It really helps when I have a good image to start, but sometimes – more often than I would like to admit – that’s not the case. Sometimes there are technical constraints – a huge crop or bad light – that will limit me to a lo-fi, grungy solution. So, I figure out what matters to me in the image and then figure out if there is a way to express my vision within the technical constraints. The tough part is always figuring out what to say – what the picture is about. Once I have figured that out, my editing is basically a ruthless process of eliminating anything that doesn’t contribute to my story.
It might be easier to use a specific example of the Sunday Blues Player (pictured below). This started out as an awful snapshot, captured in bright midday sun. Not only were the shadows on his face completely blown, but I had framed the shot so poorly that I had cut off his elbow. At the same time, I loved the way the diagonal shape of the shadow of his face and jacket played against the curves and circles of the saxophone. I didn’t like the composition without the elbow, and so I knew that I was going to have to draw his elbow manually if I wanted the piece to work. So, I cut out the lighter portion of jacket, which was actually dark blue, and redrew the whole jacket with an elbow and a lighter color in ArtRage. After that, I played with shapes and marks and edges until I got something I liked. There is a little squiggle over to the right that I had to tweak for a long time to achieve balance, and I am still not sure I got it right. Sunday Blues Player is an exceptionally extreme edit. I usually don’t create body parts from scratch, but I am certainly willing to do it when necessary.
Sunday Blues Player
On the app side, oh gosh, I have way more apps than I need. Most of the time, though, I stick with the general purpose editing and layering apps – Snapseed, iPhoto, Photowizard, Filterstorm, Photoforge, Laminar, Superimpose, and Juxtaposer. Sometimes I will bring in subtle pieces from what I call “spice” apps: Percoloator, iColorama, and some of the texture/grunge apps. Lately, I have been obsessed with some of the painting and drawing apps, ArtRage and ProCreate in particular. I generally stay away from the one-button apps filter apps and the faux-HDR apps, although I won’t hesitate to use them to solve specific issues. My app rule is pretty simple. When people see a finished piece, I want them to see the image and not what app I used.
M: Pretty solid rule to live by. So who are some people that inspire you artistically, be it painting, photography, musical, film, etc? Or who are some of your favorites?
Ma: I am really kind of old fashioned. As I mentioned earlier, most of my influences are painters, any time from the Renaissance to the present. My musical taste leans toward classical and opera, with a big dose of anything from New Orleans. I am still learning about photography, but some of my current favorites include Saul Leiter, Jerry Uelsmann, and Joel-Peter Witkin.
On the iPhoneography front, there are so many people I admire and who inspire me that I hesitate to mention specific names. I could easily put 100 people on that list, and it is a pretty eclectic list. I am a huge fan of Travis Jensen’s street portraits and Helen Breznik’s self portraits. The surreal explorations of earlybirdninja and Sirreal always amaze me. Carlein van der Beek’s sense of composition is simply impeccable. Finally, I have to give a special shout out to my dear and outrageously talented friend, Lynette Jackson (p67_bylynettejackson), the master of mid-century modern. Lynette lives here in Atlanta, and we get together about every six weeks or so to talk about iPhone photography. Even though our styles are very different, we learn a tremendous amount from each other.
M: Ok. Final, and most important question: You’re from Atlanta, you love New Orleans… Saints are playing the Falcons… Who are you cheering for?
Ma: Saints all the way!!! Who Dat!!!
M: Right answer!!!
Ma: Finally, I just want to extend a huge thank you to you, Mike, for all the time you have put into pulling this interview together. I am a relative newbie on IG, and I really appreciate the opportunity to share my images and ideas.
Contact info: IG Handle @kaphinga
IPA link: http://www.iphoneart.com/kaphinga