When a flower or fog-enshrouded landscape catches Knox Bronson's eye, he reaches for his iPhone.
It doesn't matter that the cell phone camera lacks a flash. It doesn't even matter that it can't zoom. With a sharp eye, a handful of apps and some creative muscle, Bronson, a composer and singer, has all he needs to make a work of art.
In fact, the Berkeley resident is so enamored of the iPhone camera's charms that he recently set up a Web site, pixelsatanexhibition.com, where anyone can submit photos taken with an iPhone.
While hundreds of the cell phone camera's fans are passionate about their medium and flock to Web sites such as flickr or use blogs to share their photos, iPhone photography is still very much on the fringes of the mainstream art world. So using a selection of grainy, artful images from his Web site, Bronson and Oakland resident Rae Douglass have mounted "Pixels at an Exhibition" at Berkeley's Giorgi Gallery, which they believe is the world's first gallery display devoted exclusively to iPhone photography.
Submitted by both seasoned and amateur shooters from around the world, the iPhone photos capture fleeting instances such as a bird momentarily resting on a cafe table or a surfer riding a wave. Some, such as Valerie Ardini's black-and-white shot of a couple in the rain, recall traditional street photography. Others, such as Marty Yawnick's colorful shot of a dusty Texaco gas station, are all about design and composition. Many of the images bear the distinctive look of photo apps, or software programs created specifically for the cell phone cameras. They allow users to creatively manipulate their photos to approximate the look of vintage nondigital equipment, toy cameras or other special photographic effects.
And the iPhone's portability and accessibility make it immensely appealing to photographers and artists who aren't constantly lugging around heavy equipment. "We have it in our pockets," Douglass, 48, said. "You can capture those spontaneous moments."
As to how the Web site and exhibit all began, Bronson says, "I just got obsessed with taking pictures with the iPhone." Bronson calls himself an "Apple fan boy" but says the iPhone camera's allure goes beyond brand appeal. With lower image resolution than other cell phone cameras, such as Google's Android, the iPhone makes a person "work a lot harder" to get good shots.
"There are no iPhone professionals yet that I know of," Bronson, 59, says, "Everyone is an amateur." Even being a seasoned, skilled photographer doesn't necessarily guarantee success. The iPhone's poor lens, fixed shutter speed and lack of focus (at least on earlier 3G models) means there is very little user control beyond the subject, idea or mood that the photographer wants to capture. "It's all on you," Bronson says.
Douglass, an artist who oversees the Giorgi Gallery, lets his fingers dance on his iPhone's glass surface as he scrolls through the more than 2,000 photos he stores on the phone. Although he's been known to work with everything from a Canon digital ELF to a 4 x 5 large-format camera, these days he often turns to his cell phone camera. That's why he was so enthused when Bronson floated the idea of mounting a show.
While all the prints are no larger than 4 x 6 or 5 x 5 and are mounted on uniform squares of white museum board, they never feel repetitive. And the grainy, atmospheric quality of the low-res images lends the photos an almost anachronistic feel, which Douglass likens visually to the experimental work of photography's early pioneers.
But much of their appeal comes simply from the photographer's sharp eye and sensibilities. "If somebody gets into making pictures (on the iPhone), their personality begins to emerge," Bronson says. "They have a style."
California College of the Arts professor of photography Chris Johnson has seen that growth happen firsthand. He recalls a student whose work on the iPhone felt more compelling and fluid than the images created with traditional photographic tools. And he understands the appeal of the iPhone camera's lo-fi aesthetic and finds it interesting that people are attempting to treat the device — at least conceptually — like a traditional camera. But he believes that the iPhone's ability to generate text and capture video and audio as well as static images points toward creative uses which extend far beyond the boundaries of still photography. It's more of a diaristic tool, capable of transmitting a user's "stream of consciousness" with great immediacy and intimacy, he says.
Still, although he hasn't seen "Pixels at an Exhibition," he thinks it's an interesting step to translate the traditional snapshot aesthetic to the iPhone camera and print the photos instead of just sharing them on the Web.
"This is what artists are always trying to do, he says. "They're capturing the mystery of experiencing, and sharing it."
through Feb. 27