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In the Land of Montezuma

In the Land of Montezuma by David Norbut

As a photographer, I am constantly attempting to balance the inner struggle between shooting with my iPhone camera (often times the Hipstamatic app) and my DSLR, a full frame Nikon D700 with my go to 50mm lens.

A couple of weeks ago, I traveled west to Arizona. This was to be a 9 day vacation with my wife and her folks. This would prove to give a full understanding, right now at least, of where I stand on using my iPhone or my big camera in my personal work and travels. I set out knowing already the direction I was attempting to go in. I knew I wanted to shoot Hipstamatic, but I am also aware of its limitations. The greatest and sometimes worst aspect of Hipstamatic is its unpredictability. However, if you use it enough you can start to harness your outcome and take some stunning photos. Another thing I wanted to try to capture was a series shot simultaneously in both color and black and white, something I haven’t done before. I had some experiments ahead, as my color experience with Hipstamatic is quite limited. I have only shot with one or two color combos over the last year and a half. Lastly, I was armed with my Nikon, knowing I would use it simultaneously but reserve most of its use for the best subjects, scenes and situations.

Over the next week or so, I would be carefully monitoring my shooting in an attempt to understand why I do what I do. Because, as a classically educated photography graduate, I have some inner struggles on abandoning my humble beginnings. I am trying to balance this modern era of mobile photography with my origins in traditional photography. While I feel that the legitimacy of shooting photography from our phones is being questioned less and less, there are still some improvements to be made. Therefore, the more we pay attention to what works and when, the better equipped we can be with whatever camera we are carrying.

We arrive at the airport in Phoenix with friends and a rental van waiting, and I’m thrilled to be back in a place so close to my heart. Within 20 minutes we are on the road to Sedona. For those of you who haven’t been there, it’s a town nestled in an otherworldly landscape of giant, red sandstone formations in the northern Verde Valley region of Arizona, US.

This would be my fourth visit. My first trip here years ago, was a beautiful experience. I had never seen the West. On this first trip I proposed to my wife right in the heart of Sedona. Surrounded by family and friends, we celebrated in this wonderful place, and it set the tempo for the rest of our trip and all of our future trips. For me Arizona is full of wonder, the great wide open, relics of the past scattered along a ruggedly stunning landscape. Being from the East coast, everything out West is new, different and wild. This place brings out the intense wanderlust thriving inside me.

After dealing with airports and traveling for most of the day, I’m distracted by the beauty of this place, recalling memories, ready for a meal and thirsty for a beer… not necessarily thinking about what combos I wanted to try out on my Hipstamatic.

Several days of experimenting later, and I’ve yet to find a color combination. The black and white side of the series isn’t a problem; I’m very comfortable shooting the Hipstamatic combo of JohnS and Blackkeys Supergrain, a very heavy contrast combo. If used correctly, I feel it works wonders in portraits and street scenes. It’s the color side of things where I was at a complete stand still.

I had been working with several combinations in Hipstamatic and even tried shooting with Procamera and adding vintage filters in Snapseed to try and capture the colors and moods I was engulfed in. While continually getting mixed results, it hit me. On the third morning, after already visiting Jerome and Sedona, I woke up at our main base in Marana, a small desert town located slightly west of Tucson. I’m up at the crack of dawn, wandering out at sunrise. The sky in Arizona has its own shade of blue, especially in the morning. This particular morning, I was reminded of a photo I’d seen.

Fellow Juxter and incredibly talented mobile photographer (and expert on all things Hipstamatic… see @punkrawkpurl and @hipstaroll), Tammy George posted a photo of a barbwire fence with some fabric stuck in it, under a warm blue sky.  I remembered that image and wanted the look of that sky and the way the sunlight had been captured just right. But all I could remember was the the Hipstamatic film she used. I opened Hipstamatic went for the Cano Cafenol film and paired it with the Tejas lens, snapped a shot of an agave in the morning sun, and boom! It was exactly what I wanted, sans the black grungy frame that comes with that film, but I could always crop that out later. I thought to myself with excitement, “I’ve finally found my colors out here!”

I was now set. I would take the portraits and street scenes in black and white, and shoot the details and more organic desert scenery in my new found color combo. And hope that they would look good together as a cohesive Southwestern Series.

One thing about being in this vast expanse of desert country is that there are a lot less portrait opportunities walking around. But the folks I did come across were truly one of a kind individuals. My approach and skill had to be on point. When I did come across a character, one I wanted a willing portrait of, I was friendly and I told them the truth about myself. I explained my love for this place and that I’m working on a series to try and capture the true essence, the land and its people. As the subject becomes comfortable, I shoot nonchalantly during our conversation to try and catch the natural moments and avoid my portraits turning out like mugshots. I shoot twice, usually 2 frames per camera.

This is where the inner struggle I mentioned comes in to play. It’s not a matter of what I prefer to shoot with. The iPhone, to me, is just another tool of the trade. The struggle comes when trying to decide to use one over the other. If it’s the right situation I can just shoot with both, but that’s not always the case. Some interesting examples proved certain things already on my mind.

Anyone who takes photos both on Hipstamatic and on a manual set DSLR knows that the Hipsta app is automatic, it’s focus is set and there’s no aperture or shutter speed to mess with. In spur of the moment situations, you open the app and instantly take the photo. There’s no time wasted setting the camera for the photo, and once you learn your lens/film combos, you have a basic idea of what you’re going to get.

Using a manual setting on a big camera, especially when your on the move, it’s a constant game of adjusting aperture, shutter speed and focus to attain the best image. And while I do enjoy that part of it and it has become second nature, it has on occasion tripped me up… and that can blow an opportunity.

The next stop on the trip was Bisbee, an old copper mining town only a few miles from the Mexican Border on the eastern side of Arizona. This place is built into the side of a mountain, and it has an interesting and haunted history. In the first bar we sat down at we are already hearing tales of murder and all other sorts of local drama. The bartender told us about a coworker who had just died the day before, and then went on to tell us of the deaths of several previous boyfriends, some of them murdered and some accidental. Never the less, we got the feeling there is a lot of death in this town. The spooky vibe was already upon us in a real current kind of way.

We spent the night in an old trailer park full of old, renovated Airstreams and other similar models over half a century old. Tons of cool history here and a lot of subject matter for my color side of the series.

The next morning we got breakfast right up the road from where we were staying. The road we parked on was straight from another era, with old cars and trucks lining the street. There was even an old Greyhound bus, that now read “Strayhound.” Old signs and boarded up buildings, the textures and colors were like a dream. With the exception of a motorcycle garage, a gym and our breakfast stop, everything looked abandoned. This place was a complete mystery to me. If I had to guess, I would say all these relics parked up and down the road probably belonged to the same folks that owned the motorcycle garage, Arizona Thunder. I spent a good 20 minutes documenting everything I possibly could before getting back on the road. I could have spent the day here. I came across another example of Hipstamatic vs. Nikon here. I took two identical shots and I felt that in this situation the look that the Hipstamatic app lent to the image triumphed over the DSLR version. What I started to realize is that Hipstamatic is my ideal, film-like post processing, without having to post process… for shooting and sharing on the fly. My only fear is that my work may decline if I’m always in this fast paced shooting and sharing mode. With this realization, I decide I just need to pay attention and perhaps slow down a bit so that I can focus on the quality of the photo regardless of the device I’m shooting with.

A new day, another new desert town. I walked through the historic town of Tombstone, AZ, surrounded by locals and tourists alike who were donning cowboy hats and other traditional western garb. All down both sides of the street there were boardwalks with awnings overhead creating areas of shade and heavy sun… and shooting with the Hipstamatic combo of JohnS lens and Blackkeys Supergrain film you have very heavy contrast to begin with.

It’s all in the light. If you are taking a portrait with this app, using this combo, it is imperative that you pay attention to where the light falls.

Evenly lit shade is ideal. When in direct sun, the face or the subject you want to be the focus of the image must be in the light, otherwise you risk dark portraits that cannot be brightened in post processing. The large amount of subjects in cowboy hats made this quite interesting to say the least. The hats made strong shadows on the eyes and it was easy to blow the shot. Most of my successful portraits in this series and all of my Hipstamtic work were taken in evenly lit environments.

Choosing where you shoot your image is one way, I have learned, to control your outcome in using this beautiful combination of JohnS and Blackkeys Supergrain. After spending a few hours here I felt comfortable that I had a decent group of portraits, and I finally started to feel this series was coming to an end. Now we’d head back to Marana and relax for the last few days of our trip… visit some brewpubs, ride a gator through the cotton fields at night, watch the horses on the neighboring farm, enjoy the quiet, still of the desert, and fill up on as much Mexican food as possible… until we return.

All in all, I had several experiences where one camera worked better than the other. What it comes down to is preference of your final image and the sharing capabilities. In some cases I prefer the DSLR and sometimes the magic of Hipstamatic overcomes. On one hand, it’s all photography. On the other, because of accessibility, my iPhone photography has reached a much, much broader audience.

My Trucker Series started with DSLR, but I started shooting it in Hipsta and posting it on IG and that basically launched everything. It got me interviewed at Juxt, which led to me becoming a contributing member, which has led to more exposure and more gallery openings and so on and so forth.

Mobile Photography has reignited my love for street photography and helped me form creative alliances and friendships with other artists, from New York City to Instanbul to my own backyard. In the end, why do I still feel that I must keep the two separate, even though I’m starting to understand how to blend both tools in my photographic endeavors? I’m not sure I have an answer yet. I guess time will tell.

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14 Comments

  1. Great work Dan, and really like how you tied in your ties to the area, your struggles between the DSLR and mobile genre (you’re not alone), and further explaining the Hipsta strategy. I really like the portraiture work… perfect for BW. Your choice of color relates really well with the geographic and culture of the region.

    • All around thanks Nick!

  2. Wonderful piece, I particularly love the photo with the cab. I’ve recently come back to Hipstamatic after falling out of love with it for a while and what you’ve said here resonates: its great for quick, immediately shareable photos, but I won’t be selling my Canon anytime soon.

    • thanks Ryan, whats your handle on IG?

      • I’m cynic72. Just followed you.

  3. This is one of the most well-considered, honest, and detailed posts on the use of filter apps I’ve read. We’re featuring this book in the Blurb bookstore this week!

    • Much Appreciated Kent!

  4. I’ve been so looking forward to this piece, David! Your black and white portraits have always inspired me, and these don’t disappoint. I’ve always felt the same way about JohnS; when you’ve got him figured out he produces unparalleled results.

    Now as for that color choice… I love the tejas/cano pairing; really a perfect choice for this scenery. I couldn’t agree more; tejas skies and warm cano tones subtly enhance that feeling of nostalgia without looking too over processed.

    You’ve really got me itching for a road trip now! Thanks so much for sharing.

    - r

    • Gracias Rachel, I’m so glad you enjoyed this series. and glad another hipsta lover enjoyed the color choice,
      be sure to document any road trip you might take
      thanks again!

  5. WOW,genuine article and a joy to read. I admire your ability to create such enchanting imagery and keep me wanting to see what photo you’ll take next. Can’t wait for the actual book to arrive!

  6. Great read David and great portraits you got there. Tricky business it is these days of what to use & when. However i do find my Panasonic DMZ F500 invaluable when it comes to taking those far off shots but it still lags behind my iphone when it comes to my first choice device for photography.

    • Apologies, that Panasonic DMZ F500 is in fact the Panasonic DMC-FZ150. Now what does that tell you ;)

  7. Wonderful David. Love all the portraits. What a place. What a story.

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  2. Blurberati BlogIn the Land of Montezuma: Hipstamatic vs. the Nikon D700 » Blurberati Blog - [...] let people turn “bad” pictures into nostalgic-tinged snapshots, should take a look at this post by photographer David Norbut. ...