Painting With The iPhone
by Peter Frank
Photographic discourse has been turned on its head by a hoard of new devices––and a concomitant cascade of new images. Photographs are now a common part of daily communication, public and private, as integral to the way we interact with one another as is language. (Video is too, mitigated only by the time factor: while you can look at a photo or read a sentence at your own pace, you have to view a video at its.) If this is the case, then what happens to the photograph’s hard-won (and still not fully secured) status as Art? Can a medium so readily available to everyone, and so universally exploited, still allow for artistic expression?
Bob Poe, for one, believes so. In fact, he discovered so when he began using the very device that would otherwise have “mainlined” him into the universe of photo-communication. Wielding his iPhone, Poe found that the images he was able to capture––indeed, the images that the ubiquitous, almost sinisterly multipurposed machine tended to capture accidentally, triggered by random button-pushes by wayward digits and other bodily extensions––struck him as alluringly mysterious and beautiful. Poe blew up various of these images––some truly accidental, some taken in the spirit of such accident––and printed them onto canvas. The result wasn’t simply artistic photography; it was, at least in the better cases, photographic art.
Countless would-be artists, working either with or through the camera, have “cheated” by affixing the digital projection of their images onto textured surface. The results mimic true painting to a greater or lesser extent. Most are lesser. Poe’s are greater––all the more astounding given the relative informality, even crudity, of his medium’s mechanism. The relative success of his photo-prints, which at their best look much like gestural or organic abstract paintings, builds on the very flaws left in the media at hand. That is to say, Poe recognizes that iPhone photographs are offhand, inexact, and bespeak the optical sensitivity of machines rather than human eyes. He recognizes further that their gritty qualities are amplified when they are expanded beyond the tiny screens on their pocket-size mechanisms. And further still, Poe recognizes that, when printed onto linen as opposed to paper support, the already funky images are subject to yet greater degradation. But it is this very process of degradation that yields a tenebrous allure, a vibrancy that approximates painterliness and turns random streaks of light into potent trails and rhythmic patterns.
In a sense, Poe is a kind of chef, combining and cooking his ingredients into dishes that not only assert the distinctive sensibility of the chef, but propose a whole new cuisine. It is a cuisine that seemingly comes of the hot-plate, but, subject as it is to alternating stages of degradation and refinement, it emerges enwrapped in unanticipated aromas and proffering unlikely but enticing flavor combinations. Given what he works with and what he proposes to do with it, Poe’s project should prove folly, but in fact proves fascinating. Sure, some of his images prove more delicious, more seductive, more artful than others, but that any work, and that so many work this well, demonstrates that the man is on to something.
Is Bob Poe truly a photographer? Is he taking photographs or making them? Is he in fact making photographs at all, or are these apparitions something else? To answer with another question: does it matter? And isn’t Poe just playing with his toys, and our eyes? Well sure, but that’s what all artists do. Except, perhaps, when it’s propaganda, art is nothing if not play, for artist and viewer alike. Poe happened to hit the “play” button on his iPhone, and the rest is, well, Art.
Peter Frank is Editor of THE Magazine Los Angeles and Senior Curator at the Riverside Art Museum, Riverside California.