Documentary photographer and photo book connoisseur Dan Milnor spoke with…
Despite working professionally for many years, celebrity portrait and editorial photographer John Keatley has never been one to carry around a camera while not on the job. When not in the studio, he finds the weight of a DSLR around his neck to be bulky, and becomes consumed by his desire to create a picture, rather than enjoying whatever’s happening around him.
That all changed when John purchased his iPhone 5. He had been reluctant to get on the iPhone bandwagon, and hadn’t really considered its camera capabilities. His first iPhone photo was an accident: “I saw some beautiful light one day and wanted to photograph someone in it,” says John. “I didn’t have my usual camera around, and didn’t even realize that I had one in my pocket.”
John made three shots of Brian with his iPhone that day, and threw them into Lightroom when he got home for some simple editing. Then he downloaded the final select to his iPhone and put it up on his (also newly created) Instagram account. Those first shots were the start of John’s ongoing iPhone Portrait series, which has since been covered by Professional Photographer Magazine, the Instagram Blog, and others.
Why are viewers so infatuated with the series, especially in an era when there are countless photographers making portraits with their cameras in their smartphones? John brings his innate ability to tell a story with his portraits. The images speak for themselves, and his captions are often just subject’s name or, “He’s a good dude.” His images also invoke more than your everyday snapshots – they look “intended”, as John calls it. He freely admits that he uses Lightroom to add contrast, desaturate the images, and even add blues to the midtones and shadows.
“I’m not so concerned with how I get there, just the end result,” John says about his technical process. “At first I just added filters using Instagram. But I thought the images looked washed out and I wasn’t proud of them. That’s not how I wanted to be representing myself or my work.”
Six months later, John has accumulated over 100 portraits – a mix of people who knows personally and strangers he’s met on the street. “I choose to photograph people because I’m interested in them either visually or because there’s a compelling story about them.” And because the iPhone is an object that everyone is familiar with – even more so than a DSLR – people tend to be more comfortable having their picture taken, which gives them a more natural, more engaging feel. Even for the ones who usually say “no” to cameras.
One of John’s favorite shots is of Jordan, his cousin’s roommate, who John photographed while staying with them in Hollywood. Jordan wrote a short story about being photographed, and says:
“No one has ever seen me and said, ‘I want to take your picture.’ I can’t quite escape the mixture of compliment and embarrassment that goes along with this….John takes, I dunno, less than a thousand photos but more than five hundred. They’re all about the same–I’m not doing much here, just sitting and doing what he asks me to do…We look at my photos and they’re the best photos I’ve ever seen of myself. The lighting is warm, my shirt looks better than it looks in real life, all of what anyone could ask for in a portrait, anything you could possibly want. But I look very unhappy in these pictures…I thought about this a lot. Weeks later I quit my job, not exactly because of this, but certainly because life’s too short to be a miserable Monday-hating-sonofabitch.”
For John, that story gives him all the reason in the world to continue the project. “This series has allowed me to fall in love with photography all over again,” he says. “I feel a lot of similarities from when I first got into photography – that adventurous excitement that I lost a little bit along the way. It became about the gear and the lighting and the process, and I forgot how it felt to be spontaneous and to explore. The iPhone has allowed me to not worry so much about all the little details.”
“I can literally do this project wherever I am because I always have my phone with me,” he adds. “I don’t have to carry around a big camera. Being able to truly live life, and then have the ability to change into an artist – that’s freedom I can work with.”
At first John thought of the iPhone Portrait series as a break from his regular routine, but he’s now pursuing book publishing options. And to all the critics out there who are sick of seeing professional photographers turn to the iPhone, John has this to say: “The most important thing is to be creating and to be true to yourself as an artist. If you think gear makes the photography, then you’re probably not a very creative artist to begin with.”