The basic ingredients for the Sea, Sky, Sand, and Street project came together in a matter of days, and, considering that there was no well-thought-out plan, it worked remarkably well. The idea was straightforward enough. Take an iPhone, a good quality iPhone photography app, sixteen days in the county of Norfolk, a bit of experimentation, and what do you get? An 80-page book with over seventy photographs. Well, two books actually!
What started out as experimental photographs taken on a mobile phone blossomed into something much bigger. The change in my attitude towards mobile phone images really started after using an iPhone. Before that, the mobile phone camera was a gimmick or a toy of limited use, at least in my eyes. Simply put, it was only suitable for snapshot family photos or capturing a night out with friends. Maybe the early camera phones were exactly that, but the technology and the image quality have moved on at a fast pace. In 2009 I purchased a Nokia 5800 that had a pretty good camera but a poor operating system and a limited range of photography apps. The iPhone (and other later Android smartphones) changed everything. The small size and excellent photo software apps made the phone the ultimate camera, darkroom, and distribution tool. All in one.
During the summer of 2010, I used an iPhone to photograph the making of a film in Whitby for the Solo Photo Book Project. The online project where the aim was to create a PDF photography book with 35+ images, in just 31 days. The resulting ‘Polaroid’ type images taken for the project looked great and I really believed that I’d reached the end of what I could do with a phone. Wrong again. Photography apps can provide plenty of choices of visual styles for a photographer. Using apps does have drawbacks though, with the style becoming repetitive if used too often. A rethink was required for any future iPhone projects.
During the summer of 2011, the Solo Photo Book Month project came up again, and I was faced with a problem. I had no idea what to shoot. Just a week before my Solo Photo Book Month project was due to start, I was out taking a few images, here and there, using my iPhone, when I started using the Hipstamatic iPhone photography app for monochrome images. I’d had the app on my phone for some time but had never really seen what it could do. The basic idea for what eventually became the Sea, Sky, Sand, and Street book started right there.
Simplicity was key, with the images to be displayed in the order they were shot, to form a loose narrative structure guiding the viewer through the various locations. A gritty black-and-white tone was used to stay away from the distraction of colour and the picture-postcard style. It also made a change from shooting colour as I had on previous book projects.
iPhone photography has become well-established as an image-making platform over the last few years, but the new technology wasn’t always seen as a viable image-making tool. The iPhone was, however, soon adopted and used successfully by many established photographers like Todd Heisler, David Guttenfelder, and especially Ben Lowy to document photojournalism stories around the world. Lowy on his website said:
Small mobile phone cameras are innocuous and enable a far greater intimacy with a subject. It was a liberating experience; to point and shoot with a small device, unhampered by camera bags full of gear and reacting to the world around me.Ben Lowy
Yet many photographers did harbor doubts about the value of iPhone photography. Why shoot on a phone when you can use a ‘proper camera’? Was it even photography? Somehow I suspect that the early adopters of the 35mm camera may have met with similar remarks.
Point and Shoot
Two factors favour the use of a mobile phone camera like the iPhone – speed and its low-key presence. A camera instantly draws attention as soon as you raise it to the eye. Not great when taking candid street photos. The second benefit comes from the phone’s point-and-shoot use. Often it came down to using the phone just like that – point and shoot. The results were often surprisingly good. Several images taken for the project were literally shot as I walked by – the last shot featured in the gallery being one of the best examples. Potential images were often gone in moments.
Could I have used a ‘proper’ camera? The answer would probably have to be yes, but the photo opportunities would have been far less frequent and much of the spontaneity would have been lost. One final reason for using a phone was to prove its worth and to push boundaries. Cameras come in all shapes and sizes, and at the end of the day, it’s about whatever works for the photographer whether it be an old shoebox, a 20×24 Polaroid camera, or an expensive, state-of-the-art digital camera.
Using the Hipstamatic App
An important ingredient of the project was the use of the Hipstamatic app. I hadn’t actually used the app very much until that point and I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the images produced. The dark black and white, slightly warm-toned images stripped away any colourful seaside distractions. The contrasty style instantly appealed to me. Another reason for choosing monochrome was because I’d shot the previous two Solo Photo Book Month books in colour. I really wanted to finally create a monochrome documentary photography book. Having said that, the final Hipstamatic settings really came about more by experimentation than design.
Does the aesthetic styling of Hipstamatic distract the viewer or undermine the photography? It depends on how you view photography. Can a photograph be truthful or pure? No is the simple answer. Photography is itself, a filter. To say your photos are pure or the truth seems a rather arrogant statement to make. Does Hipstamatic’s aesthetic ‘manipulation’ differ that much from a dodged and burned darkroom print? I think the difference is negligible. The post-production work is just done in-camera.
Others will undoubtedly have a different view regarding the purity of the image. It really comes down to your own personal philosophy toward photography. Camera technology in mobile phones has improved immensely over recent years. Phone cameras are increasingly being used to produce new exciting and creative work. Like it or not, the mobile phone camera is here and evolving fast.
The images for the book were taken within a sixteen-day period from June 23rd to the 9th of July 2011. This dateline later helped in the editing process of the book. Images were literally added in the order they were taken with the last image taken being the last image in the book. It simplified the editing and design process significantly.
Locations varied from busy seaside resorts to quiet places of pilgrimage in an attempt to show the distinctive variety offered by the county of Norfolk. Wells-Next-The-Sea, Hunstanton, Sheringham, Weybourne, Titchwell, Thornham, Brancaster, and Walsingham were just some of the locations covered in the project.
A Place of Pilgrimage
The pilgrimage village of Walsingham was especially singled out for attention in the book. It’s a fascinating place, often described as ‘England’s Nazareth’, where thousands of pilgrims and tourists visit each year. The notion of a pilgrimage may seem like something out of the medieval era to many. However, a steady stream of the faithful, from all over the UK and the world, make their way to the Norfolk village every year.
The peace and quiet of Walsingham mark a sharp contrast to the bright lights, colour, and hustle & bustle of the seaside resorts, just a short journey away. If anything, the images within the book focus on that contradiction, that diversity, and consequently the broad appeal of the county of Norfolk. Even in the era of cheap flights and foreign package holidays, Norfolk is still attractive to tourists because of the diversity and the timeless family seaside holiday experience it offers to visitors. For generations of families, who return each year, it remains the place to visit.
The styles of photography employed over the sixteen-day shoot alternated from street photography, landscape, still-life, and documentary. The total number of images shot came to just over 400. This was reduced down at the editing stage to just over 70 photographs for the book and 115 images for the website’s extended gallery. No post-production work was done on the images before inclusion in the book. The photographs came straight off the iPhone in the order they were taken. The only real problem I encountered was thinking of the project name!
Two versions of this project exist – the first being the 2011 Solo Photo Book Month PDF book version called Sand, Sky, Sea and Street. The second is the redesigned full book version with the re-arranged name to help differentiate between the two books. The difficult task of naming the project was finally solved by using the main elements that feature in the photographs. Sadly this turned out to be the final Solo Photo Book Month project I’d shoot.
At the end of 2011, the popular online project finally closed up shop due to growing costs. Of the three books I produced over the four years, SoFoBoMo ran, this one was by far the best. It was a great way to end my association with the Solo Photo Book Month project.
Lots to choose from but if I HAD to pick a favourite, I’d go for the windswept beach at Brancaster with the family (and the windbreak) in the foreground. I’d gone to the beach to photograph an old shipwreck but quickly realised that access was near impossible (not to mention very dangerous!) due to the tides. The intriguing-looking shipwreck was the SS Vina, an old cargo ship that was towed to Brancaster to be a target as part of the RAF bombing range located at Brancaster Beach during World War II.
On the way back to the car, I saw this image. The wind had picked up, blowing sand at great speed across the beach, and it looked like a storm was brewing up. Norfolk can produce brilliant summer storms that follow the coast and later that evening a storm did appear.
Sat on the beach where the family captured in the photo, tucked in and hiding behind the windbreak. It captures perfectly the typical British seaside holiday ‘whatever the weather’ spirit of endurance.
A RANGE OF MATTED ART PRINTS, FEATURING PHOTOGRAPHY FROM THE SEA, SKY, SAND, AND STREET PROJECT, CAN BE FOUND HERE
Purchase the Book
BUY THE 80-PAGE ‘SEA, SKY, SAND AND STREET’ PHOTOGRAPHY BOOK FEATURING OVER SEVENTY IMAGES HERE