Weekly Feature

2013-12-04 / Lifestyles

Zen and the art of iPhone photography

How one woman captures the extraordinary out of the ordinary

Cathaleen Curtiss photographs an idle grain elevator along the Buffalo River using her iPhone. 
Photo by Mickey Osterreicher Cathaleen Curtiss photographs an idle grain elevator along the Buffalo River using her iPhone. Photo by Mickey Osterreicher I t may seem odd to think of modern cellular devices as visionary tools paving the way to personal reflection.

Yet situated in the backside of an iPhone — one of the most popular and technologically capable means of mobile communication — is a small camera lens with the potential to seize and convey a moment as far as personal perception and imagination allow.

For a society that expects a world of information in an instant, the “smart” cellular phone is buried in stigma, blamed for estranging humankind. And true, the technology does open a wormhole of obsession, but more importantly, an also overlooked opportunity.

The way in which Cathaleen Curtiss uses her iPhone proves technology is an innocent player in the war on societal alienation. For the former professional photojournalist and high-powered executive, her phone is an instrument of appreciation — a means of viewing the world in a different light, one picture at a time.

Curtiss’ photograph of the same grain elevator as it stands through an inspired lens: her smartphone and artistic eye. 
Photo by Cathaleen Curtiss Curtiss’ photograph of the same grain elevator as it stands through an inspired lens: her smartphone and artistic eye. Photo by Cathaleen Curtiss For the last three years, Curtiss has been snapping one photograph on her iPhone each day. What started as a New Year’s resolution in 2011 turned into an inescapable hobby — a way of noticing something special — to her eye, something beautiful — such as an old, distorted basil leaf dried to the inside of a glass vase. By midnight each day she shares the final product and posts it to her personal Facebook page.

“For me, it’s a way to not only record things that are important, but just slow down,” said Curtiss, who admitted to always carrying her iPhone.

“I always say, ‘It’s a good phone to have on my camera.’”

Curtiss’ blog, www.cathaleencurtiss.com, is also a chronicled reminder of past experiences from international travels and trips to her family’s Michigan farm to her first winter living in Buffalo.

“You just find something each day that’s good,” said Curtiss. “It just forces you to remember that yeah, maybe my whole day was miserable, but here’s some beauty.”

An award-winning photojournalist, Curtiss worked as a White House photographer for 12 years with The Washington Times newspaper, covering the Reagan, Bush Sr. and Clinton administrations, and also spent 14 years as vice president of global photography at AOL when technology — the Internet and smartphones — was just beginning to advance in society.

With extensive knowledge based in traditional film photography, Curtiss noted that her iPhone photography is more than just taking and making a pretty picture — it’s about conveying a truthful story and using the techniques available by way of the tool, the camera — specifically, her iPhone 5.

“Predominately, I am a photojournalist, which makes my iPhone photos a little different than just artistic because I can’t set them up — like, the journalist in me won’t let me set it up — it has to actually have happened or be something that I see,” she said.

But because of her ingrained behavior to want to focus a picture and get the right lighting exposure, Curtiss also takes advantage of the myriad of applications available for photography on the iPhone, which complements those techniques used in film photography.

The phone’s camera being her primary device, Curtiss noted that people often overlook the offerings of the basic system and neglect to focus their photo, which can be easily achieved by rotating the phone’s plane and corresponding image to the desire of the photographer’s eye.

“It’s only like a quarter of an inch completely changes what you’re looking at,” she said.

According to Curtiss, one of her favorite additional applications is HDR, which is offered in both free and paid versions, and allows the user to take a picture while controlling two different exposure points. Requiring only the phone photographer’s finger and judgment, HDR will set the highlights and shadows in a single photo by simultaneously taking and combining two separate shots of the same picture.

But image filters, as applied through applications such as Instagram, alter the state of the photograph, Curtiss said, and are frowned upon in her expertise, as she questioned the need for purposefully crafting a “gimmick” of an image.

For Curtiss, adapting to these and other related programs of convenience proved an ethical struggle.

“It took me a while when I started doing pictures for fun and more for artistic reasons than journalism — it took me a while to convince myself that I could even do this because it feels like I’m manipulating it beyond reality,” she said.

In addition to having her smartphone photography shown in several exhibitions, including one ongoing through mid-December at Daemen College where she currently works as the director of entrepreneurship, Curtiss has taught multiple workshops on the technique and artistry of iPhone photography at CEPA Gallery in Buffalo.

Proving the accessibility of smartphone photography, Curtiss said she’s had students ranging from ages 13 to 83 in her classes.

In addition to covering phone basics and specific application use, Curtiss said she’ll typically send her students on a walking photography tour outdoors to practice with their iPhones before returning for constructive criticism.

“I try to explain to them … don’t just go out and take this generic overall photo; look for the details,” she said.

“It took me 30 years as a photojournalist to learn, but it’s just really looking at all the angles when you’re seeing something,” said Curtiss, noting the image of hands in prayer around a holiday table as opposed to a group of people around a table.

Curtiss’ steadfast advice, regardless of the type of camera, is to try and find the beauty in even the simplest of things.

“The best camera is the one you have with you,” she said.

“A really good photographer with a toy camera is going to make a better picture than someone who doesn’t have an artistic eye with the best camera in the world. It’s what you see and how you take it.”

email: acelano@beenews.com

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