“Becoming a MoPho”: An Interview with Greg Schmigel
By Anton Kawasaki
Sometimes people wonder how the whole mobile photography movement got to the point where it is today — where the iPhone is the most popular camera on Flickr, where millions of people share mobile images online, and where over 10,000 apps for photography exist in the App Store. It’s hard to pinpoint its true origins, but it’s just as hard NOT to think of the “beginning” without mentioning the name Greg Schmigel.
Was Greg the very FIRST person to start regularly taking photos with an iPhone and with a more artistic eye?
But he was definitely the first person (that I know of) who created a website devoted strictly to photography using the device — and was probably the first person to start getting some attention for it. So for that reason, he is definitely considered one of the earliest pioneers of “iPhonoegrap…”, er…, ahem — “mobile photography,” I should rather say (see below).
Around the time I was watching Sion Fullana begin to first explore shooting street photography with his own iPhone, we both soon discovered that some guy in Maryland named Greg Schmigel already had a small online presence. We all eventually connected through the online photo-sharing website Flickr, and Schmeegs [as I affectionately call him] became one of our earliest mobile photography allies.
We finally met Greg (and his beautiful wife, Suzy) during one of their many visits to New York City a few years ago, and we all became fast friends. But unlike with many other mobile photography buddies we’ve made over the years since, we’ve never done the traditional “photowalk” experience together. Instead, Greg will devote most of the time that he’s in the city to shooting just by himself (often with Suzy by his side, but sometimes not as she does her own thing). It’s not because he doesn’t want to hang out with friends, but because he’s SO focused and dedicated to his shooting that he can’t afford too many distractions (it’s certainly true — street photographers get their BEST shots when they’re alone). You can’t help but admire his dedication to his craft. In fact, he gets so passionate with his all-day photo taking, that he’ll sometimes wind up with literally thousands of new images in his camera roll by the end of a single night.
Often Greg won’t even look at (or post-process) his photos until he gets back home to Maryland. It’s a much different approach to mobile photography than Sion and I, or most other mobile shooters that I know, who can’t help but check each photo as it’s taken, and sometimes process AND post a photo we like to an online photo sharing community (like Flickr or Instagram) within minutes. Schmigel keeps it “old school” and often waits — much like we ALL had to do when using film cameras back in the day. Using a mobile device is less about the instant sharing for him, and more about the convenience and ability for getting discreet and up-close shots.
Back in July of last year, Greg e-mailed Sion, myself, and nine other mobile shooters he admired to ask us if we were all interested in participating in an experimental cooperative that would be the mobile equivalent of the well known Magnum Photos group we all admired. We all agreed to join, and soon the Mobile Photo Group was born. We spent several weeks in the beginning going over how the group would work, what our goals would be, etc. We knew the group would have to be limited to a few members at first (despite knowing that would probably receive criticism — and it did), but we were already discussing how to slowly expand over the years. Eventually we decided to keep doing what we do best — take photos — and let whatever collaborations we had in mind grow organically.
While not necessarily the leader of MPG, I figured Greg would be a good person to ask some questions about the group that I felt might still be “hanging in the air.” And of course, I wanted to delve deeper into the mind of the man himself…
Into The Darkness
ANTON: So Greg — your website’s name, and your moniker in many other places, is “JustWhatISee.” How did you come about choosing that name, and what does it mean to you?
GREG: I got my first iPhone in 2007 and honestly didn’t have any intention of using it as a camera — that just seemed to happen on it’s own. But shortly after realizing that the iPhone had potential as a photographic tool (and a very convenient photographic tool, to say the least), I decided that I wanted to be able to share “what I saw” with others. Initially, I was using Flickr to share my early works, but soon built a site dedicated to sharing pictures taken with my iPhone. My site has been through multiple iterations — and I suspect more will come. I’ve been asked often about the name, and my answer is always the same: My photographs are, just what I see. There’s not big philosophical reasoning behind the name. It’s more of a literal name.
ANTON: Your work is as classic as it gets — pure, raw, black and white street photography with very little post-processing done to your photos. Have you ever tried experimenting with a wildly different style — and what was that like?
GREG: First, thanks for those kind words regarding my work. Black and white, as you know, has been a style I’ve stuck with for a couple of years now. I don’t see that changing any time soon, as far as my street photography goes. There something very pure about shooting black and white. I’ve always felt that shooting in black and white removes any pre-prejudice a photo might have. In other words, it strips the photograph of any preconceived message or story that might construe the beauty of composition and tones. Don’t get me wrong, I love color photography as well. But I feel that I have found my own inner peace by creating black and white imagery. And it’s also a nod to the great street photographers who paved the way for so many of us all. I always tell people, “I shoot in color, but I share in black and white.” But to answer your question, yes…I do shoot other, sometimes experimental things. For example, this week, I’ll actually be shooting plated food for a local restaurant … yes, with the iPhone. These shots, for example, will be in color. I’ve shot live band performances as well and have begun recently to experiment with portrait work, thanks to the inspiration of [fellow Mobile Photo Group member] Jim Darling.
ANTON: We’ve discussed this before ourselves, but let’s rehash for people reading this. You’ve been pretty adamant about NOT being called an “iPhoneographer,” but rather a street photographer who happens to use an iPhone as your primary camera. So…is “iPhoneography” a dirty word for you? Why the distinction, Schmeegs?
GREG: You don’t waste any time, do you Mr. Kawasaki? — I kid. But in all seriousness, you are correct. I do not refer to myself as an “iPhoneographer.” That said, let’s not jump to conclusions as to ‘why I don’t do this.’ Is it a dirty word for me? No, absolutely not. Is it an ‘overused,’ ‘misused,’ ‘often misunderstood’ and sometimes flat-out ‘annoying’ word to me? Yes indeed. The term iPhoneography came to be, I would guess, somewhere in 2008 when people wanted to put a name to this new form of photography they were creating with a mobile phone. And for a brief moment, it had an understandable meaning — photographs taken with an Apple iPhone. But, within a very brief period of time, following the birth of the term people started to try to enforce subjective boundaries, rules and/or regulations on what we were doing with our mobile devices, as artists. And soon after that, came the long-winded debate on what iPhoneography was from a post-processing perspective.
ANTON: Yes, I sadly remember all that. It was quite annoying how people tried to define what THEY thought this new way of taking photos should be, and then scoffed at anyone who didn’t fall within their strict parameters.
GREG: The whole discussion just completely wore on me personally, and on several others I have spoken with. Fortunately, Glyn Evan’s site, iPhoneography.com, kept me from abandoning the term completely. By 2009, I just kind of decided that the term ‘iPhoneographer’ was not really a great fit, for me at least. I still use the term ‘iPhoneography’ for tagging purposes on Flickr and Twitter, and I still use the term ‘Mobile’ Street Photography on my website. But at the end of the day, what am I? What are we? We are photographers. We are photographers who happen to use the iPhone as our main (and sometimes only) camera. Being called an ‘iPhoneographer’ isn’t going to upset me. I (and you, most likely) have met some of the most creative people ever in the last 4-5 years, since the birth of iPhoneography. And some of the things that we have accomplished as artists in the past years — photographically — have been a direct result of this ‘dirty word’. Call me what you will. Just don’t call me while I’m out shooting. I need all the battery life I can get.
ANTON: [Laughs]. Now I know why you always text instead of calling! So…you’ve experimented with many other cameras, though you always seem to come back to the iPhone as your primary shooting device. What’s been your experience with these other cameras, and what makes you prefer the iPhone to all of them?
GREG: I have had my share of camera’s on the street, but for some reason, I do always find myself reverting to my iPhone as my main camera of choice. Weird, huh?
ANTON: Not weird at all!!
The Man in Chinatown
GREG: Honestly, I think it has to do something with the fact that I got into street photography with the iPhone. It just seems like my natural fit for me. Of recent, I picked up the Fuji X10, the sexy, street-shooting little brother to the X100. Now, don’t get me wrong, that camera kicks some serious ass, and I’ve enjoyed using it. But what I’ve come to realize is that whether I’m using the X10, my vintage Yashica GT Rangefinder or my iPhone, my photographs — from a style perspective — all seem to have a consistent look and feel that I’m really happy with. So at the end of the day, I struggle with justifying a new camera buy, especially, when I know it won’t be long before I go back to the iPhone. As I state on my site, “I firmly believe that 90% of photography is what the artist sees in a shot. The camera makes up for the other 10%.” That’s a statement I hold true to.
I’m well aware that from a technical and mechanical perspective, my shots with the Fuji would be superior shots. But from a creative perspective — the iPhone holds it’s own. I’m proud to tell people I do it all with an iPhone. Plus, hey, it saves me some money. No need to buy a bag of lenses for a DSLR.
ANTON: Too true!
So Greg…it’s kind of funny how so many people think you live in New York City because you have so many shots from here. You only make it up here every few months, and sometimes for only a few days at a time — but when you’re here you go on massive shooting sprees where you take literally thousands of shots a day. What is it about the Big Apple that inspires you so much?
GREG: I’ve had the chance to see some other places in the world — lived in Belgium for a while prior to college — and drifted around Europe for a bit. There are some beautiful scenes to see across the ocean. But ironically, I wasn’t into photography at that time. So I always think that makes a great excuse to get back over there to shoot the street.
Enter New York City, 2002. My wife and I made our first ‘official’ trip to NYC shortly after 9/11 — April 2002 to be exact. And as you could imagine, we instantly fell in love with everything about the city. But even then, I would say, I didn’t really have much of a clue about ‘street photography.’ I remember always bringing a camera with me in the early days, but it was more for snapping pictures of tourist spots and those hopeful celebrity sightings. On a trip in 2008, armed with only my 1st-generation iPhone, I decided to leave my ‘camera’ at home. And that ONE trip was all it took.
But to get back to your actual question, yes…I’ve received quite a few e-mails from NYC-based shooters who have asked to ‘meet up for coffee’ or asked where I live in the Big Apple. I always get a nice feeling out of that question. It makes me feel like the city has adopted me as a stepchild, so to say. We make it to the NYC as often as we can now — maybe sometimes more than you know.
ANTON: Oh trust me, mister! We KNOW there have been times you made it here and neglected to tell us or other friends about it [Laughs]. But I also know it’s for super-quick jaunts of non-stop shooting only, so you’re forgiven.
Have you ever considered just moving here?
GREG: Absolutely. That’s something that both my wife and I would love to do. But at this point in time, we’ve got some obligations here [in Maryland]. And to be honest, having Washington DC in our backyard really isn’t a bad deal, at all. Not to mention Baltimore is only 20 minutes north and Philadelphia is a mere 2 hours away as well. There’s a pretty large creative scene down our way, from photography to music to film to just about any type of performing arts — we’ve got it all. So while I’m always sad to leave NYC, there’s always a nice feeling of coming home as well. We like it here. We grew up here. This is home. Suzy (my wife) always mentions retiring in NYC. I guess I better start selling some prints!
ANTON: Yes, get started on that, will ya??
Now…let’s talk about this little group of ours, shall we? What was the inspiration for forming the Mobile Photo Group, and what were you hoping would be the group’s ultimate goals? And more importantly, what are some of the benefits of having a group like this (for those who may be wondering why it needs to exist)?
GREG: This thing of ours? You make it sound like La Cosa Nostra — without getting whacked, of course.
ANTON: [Laughs]. You mean we’re NOT like the mafia???
GREG: Mobile Photo Group was something that I think a few of us had thought about for a year or so, individually. I recall e-mail discussions with some of the members, kicking around the idea for some type of group. But it never seemed to get out of the ‘idea’ stage. So I sat down one night, and created a list of photographers, and put the question to a group of mobile photographers and artists — “would you be interested in forming a creative, collective group where we could support, push and enhance what we are doing with our mobile devices,” or something of that nature.
ANTON: Well thank goodness you took the initiative, as I don’t think we would have ever gotten around to it. So many of us talked about it, but then we just never let it get anywhere…
GREG: I am also an immense fan of Henri Cartier-Bresson, and I have had a great interest in what he created when he built Magnum Photos with his colleagues. By reading and learning about what they do, seeing how they work as a group (yet also as individuals) and understanding why they formed, I thought that we could form our own more simple, mobile version following their model as a guide.
The initial concept and model of the group, as you can read on our website, was to gather a group of talented photographers as an international collective dedicated to promoting their work and presenting mobile photography as an important and evolving form of photography.
In Her Eyes, I Saw Myself
I think one of the main benefits of forming this group has been the support that we now see for one another from within a group setting. I think we’ve all realized that when you go at it alone, it’s often tough to push yourself harder. I consider the members of MPG some of the best that mobile photography has to offer. These guys (and gals) are passionate about their craft, they’re driven in their work and they’ve helped mobilize (if I may) the entire movement of mobile photography.
I’m sure there are folks who ask the ‘why’ question, and that was something we talked about in depth before launching the group. But at then end of the day, we all felt as artists, that it was something we wanted and needed to do. And it seems to have taken of. Since we launched MPG, we’ve seen other groups forming: AMPT and Juxt to name a couple, both of which are jam-packed with amazingly creative forces!
ANTON: A lot of people are curious about how you selected the original founding members. Can you give our readers any insight into the process that went behind picking the core group?
GREG: As I mentioned, I sat down one evening and reached out to a select group of mobile photographers from around the globe. My process of selection was simple…these were the artists that I was and am greatly inspired by. Jordi, Dom, Sion, Jim, Star, Morgan, Benedicte, Chun, Olly, Misho, yourself Anton, and the latest addition, Aik Beng Chia — these are my mentors. So, in order to ‘form’ a group, I had to reach out, whether it was to one person or to twelve people, or more. I did know that when I compiled the original list, I had to keep it short and containable so that we could get the group established, layout some guidelines and launch. Twelve seemed like a solid number to start, and we could grow that number in time. All members of Mobile Photo Group share equal positions, there is no one person in charge of the group. We approach everything as a group behind the scenes. Who knows — perhaps we’ll have to adjust our structure as we grow, but for now, it seems to work out fine. I just happened to be the guy who sent the initial e-mail.
The Young Girl in Chinatown
ANTON: There was just an MPG membership drive going on, that closed submissions the other week! We’ll be picking a new member soon, with the idea to grow the group slowly and steadily — which may mean only 1 or 2 new members a year. Wanna explain the reasons behind that, and what the group members are looking for in a new member?
GREG: The reasoning behind a slow-growth model is straightforward. We (as a group) agreed that a slower growth would be best so that we could focus more on the quality of our work as opposed to a volume-based group. And again, we look to Magnum’s model. Since forming with only 6 members in 1947, Magnum now enlists only 80 members or so. If you do the math on that timeline increase, I’d say we’re right on track with their growth, slow and steady. MPG was not built to become a simple virtual community for sharing photos made with an iPhone, yet rather, a home to house and support mobile artists who are constantly pushing the proverbial envelope of mobile photography, inspiring others, while learning and being inspired by others. Mobile Photo Group is not only online, but offline as well in group exhibits, solo exhibits, commercial and not-for-profit speaking engagements and more.
I think we’re all looking for the same thing in our current call for submissions. We’re seeking out other mobile photographers who are passionate about what they do with their cameras. We’re seeking other mobile photographers who understand that this new movement is evolving daily and is an integral part of photography in this day and age. As for a style of shooting? Most of us in the group would be categorized as street photographers, by genre. But that’s not a requirement for inclusion in MPG.
Just as the movement is changing, so is MPG, and we’re excited to see how many submissions we’ve received in one month alone. We’re amazed by the diversity of genres people have submitted. The voting and selection process for new members is sure to be a tough one.
ANTON: So what’s coming up next for this group? Some have wondered if perhaps the MPG has been a bit too quiet since its splashy debut. Can you reveal any of the plans the group has coming up in the months to come?
GREG: As stated, MPG has deliberately started off slow, steady and yes — somewhat quiet. But believe me, if you thought it was quiet on the outside, it clearly hasn’t been quiet on the inside. But I say that in a positive manner, or course. As you would imagine, forming a group of a dozen or so artists can be a touchy path to go down. Not only are we artists, but we’re also individuals with different personalities, different views and different opinions. Yet, we all hold a great respect for one another. We’re a tight family, we would say.
MPG formed in June of 2011, so we’re actually still within our first year. A good amount of planning goes into setting up a group like this from creating guidelines for the members, to building and maintaining an online presence, to deciding on a growth strategy — it all takes work. Especially if it’s a project that we all want to see in place 10 years from now and beyond.
We DO have some projects in the works for Mobile Photo Group as we speak, but I’d rather keep those under wraps for now. But I will say, we’re all excited about what we’ve got coming up!
ANTON: Recently your lovely wife Suzy has gotten the iPhone shooting bug. Could the next “mobile photography power couple” be in the making? What do you think of her new hobby?
GREG: Mobile photography power couple? No. You and Sion have that covered. Suzy has been a huge inspiration for me, she’s supported me an more ways that I can even speak. And not only is she my wife, she’s my best friend, so we work well as a team. It’s funny how many photographs I take that accidentally include Suzy somewhere in the shot. We explore the city together, side by side, and she often ends up in a corner of a frame. Every now and then, someone will comment on a photo or message me, asking if that’s her in the background of a shot. What can I say? I’m a lucky guy.
You know, she literally JUST got the shooting bug. I mean, she has always snapped photos with her iPhone, but just recently discovered a love for seeing street activity and capturing interesting moments. I like what she’s doing with her camera. It’s fresh and it’s inviting. It might be time for “Just What Suzy Sees,” but I’ll let her make that call.
ANTON: Well it’s been lovely seeing her stuff on Instagram! Speaking of IG, I have a bone to pick with you! I’ve noticed you’re back on it again for perhaps the fourth time. Or is it the fifth?? I lost count. What’s the deal, Schmigel!?!? Are you going to STAY for real this time, or are you going to abandon it again, deleting all of your pics while leaving the rest of us sad and heartbroken with our Schmigel-less feeds?? [Laughs]
But seriously…what’s your take on IG, and your love/hate relationship with it? ;-)
GREG: When Suzy started shooting, I wanted to set her up with an easy, photo-sharing system on the phone where she could test the waters. Well, needless to say, in a rather quick time, she’s taken very naturally to Instagram. She’s established her own group of followers and posting some really nice shots. So, naturally, that made me re-re-re-re-open my IG account.
To be honest, I am more of a Flickr fan, myself. Instagram to me is not personal or intimate. It’s like Twitter…on crack. It’s a way to push your message or photos out there with little or no interaction. (If that’s your way of going.) I’m sure IG works well for others, this is only my own perception. But with Flickr, I find much more interaction among other artists. Flickr is how I met you, and everyone else in the group. I like the community and group aspects of Flickr. I like the “sets” aspect of Flickr. There are lots of reasons I like Flickr. I’m not saying I ‘hate’ IG, nor do I ‘love’ IG, so I wouldn’t necessarily call it a ‘love/hate’ relationship. It’s more of a simple personal preference. IG is growing at an enormously fast pace, daily.
ANTON: Yeah, around 27 million accounts, they just announced at South By Southwest — with over 60% using them just the other day. INSANE!
GREG: Sometimes, I think too fast. Whether we’ll see a crash and burn, I don’t know. But I seriously doubt it. Honestly, I think we should focus more on simply making photographs. That’s it. Sharing our works comes second. And how we do it, well there’s really no right or wrong way.
ANTON: Any sage advice for the up-and-coming mobile street photographers out there?
GREG: When I figure this whole street photography thing out, well, then maybe I’ll have some advice. But at this point, I’m still learning myself…
For more awesome work from Greg Schmigel, check out:
His official website: http://www.justwhatisee.com
His Flickr stream: http://www.flickr.com/photos/50721844@N03/
His Twitter: http://twitter.com/justwhatisee
Mobile Photo Group Page: http://mobilephotogroup.com/profile_schmigel.html
And his handle on Instagram is @justwhatisee, but don’t expect him to be on there for too long… (I kid, Schmigel, I kid!!!) ;-)
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