“Becoming a MoPho”: An Interview with Daniel Berman of the Mobile Photo Awards
By Anton Kawasaki
Daniel Berman — better known as “Reservoir_Dan” in the mobile photography world — has been many things: fine art photographer, TV producer, digital artist and filmmaker. And with the introduction of the iPhone, he’s added “mobile photographer” to his growing list of talents. In fact, shooting with a mobile device became such a passion for Berman, that he created one of the most ambitious mobile photo contests/traveling exhibitions the world has seen so far: The Mobile Photo Awards!
Gathering many well known mobile shooters to be the judges, and enlisting several popular photo app companies to play along, Berman pulled off a truly momentous feat — especially for someone who lives up in the quiet, scenic hills surrounding Milton, Ontario.
Known for his specialty in landscapes, abstractions and people, Reservoir Dan is also now known as a major player in pushing the growing field of mobile photography towards mainstream acceptance — beyond the Instagram “social” hoopla that has dominated the news — as a recognizable art form.
When Dan asked Sion Fullana and I to be judges of the “street photography” category of a photo contest he was thinking of doing, we immediately said yes. Of course, we figured it would be just another small contest…no big deal. We had no idea of the magnitude of what we were getting into, or how big the awards and ultimate exhibition would be. It was definitely an interesting and fun (and sometimes frustrating) ride for everyone involved — but the amount of talented submissions that came out of it made it all worth it.
Now, months later, and after the winners were all announced, the first exhibitions have arrived! The opening of the Art Haus Gallery show in San Francisco this past Thursday was a smashing success. And now, on the eve of the show at the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art, I present to you the first part of an interview with Berman — where he discusses his own work and answers the first (of several) questions about the MPAs. Dive in….
ANTON: Dan, let’s talk a little about your own photography first. You’re known mostly for your luscious landscapes, which are the result of living in such a gorgeous area. Some people claim that while mobile photography is superb for street photography or digital art, it doesn’t make as much sense for landscape/nature stuff. What would you say to those people?
DANIEL: I feel that most people take pictures of what they see everyday. That’s simply a result of who we are and where we live. For me, in my eyes, the most interesting images in my area are of the natural world. If I lived in a city I’m sure I would shoot more architecture and people. Mobile photography is very much about spontaneity, see a moment, have a camera in your pocket, shoot shoot shoot whether your subject is a person or sunset. Also, the stealth factor of the phone is such that trees don’t even notice when you’re taking a picture.
More Big Awesome
DANIEL: The branches think I’m playing Angry Birds and just continue blowing in the breeze without shedding a leaf.
ANTON: Very sneaky! I’m sure they have no idea you’re there. Or at least pretend to. So…once in a while you’ll travel to someplace like NYC, and we get a glimpse of ReservoirDan: Street Photographer. For someone who doesn’t take “street” shots that often, your work in that area is really amazing. Do you feel that more skilled photographers in general are able to cross over to other genres easily because they have a trained eye? Or is there always a learning curve when trying something different? And do you ever wish you can take other styles of photos more often?
DANIEL: I believe every photographer needs a personal vision — at heart we are storytellers. Without a story an image is nothing. To be sure, some of us have our strengths in certain genres, but if we are truly meant to convey something of interest in our images we will find those stories and tell them. I absolutely love street photography — I enjoy looking at it, I enjoy doing it. I happen to live in a small town and I truly believe the images most worth making there are of the natural world. If I lived in NYC or Toronto I’d most likely find the people to be the most exciting subjects. Either way, if I’m meant to tell a story I’ll find a way to tell it.
The Guy In the Suit
ANTON: I’ll admit I’m mostly been drawn to street or portraiture work in photography — but then I’ll see a drop-dead gorgeous landscape from someone like you or Robert-Paul Jansen and I’ll just be WOWED…transported to a place of tranquility and beauty. So what’s your secret behind a truly effective nature shot? How can people elevate their pictures to the next level?
DANIEL: There are techniques in every genre — all joking aside, stealth and speed are not required in landscape work. It’s about light, time, place and your eye. I believe that learning a technique is always a secondary result of an activity. You play guitar, you love it, you want to get better and dig deeper, you therefore find a way to acquire the knowledge necessary to become a better musician. Likewise, if you love shooting landscapes, you start paying more attention to how the light sprays across a carpet of grass and you learn to find the best ways to capture that image. Skill and technique in every artistic discipline have a direct relationship to necessity and desire. Most landscape photography is dull and repetitive as is most street photography. But a great image is a great image whether it’s of a tree or a person on the street.
The Dude in the Chair
ANTON: Totally agreed! Ok… on to the Mobile Photography Awards! There have been several photo contests since the explosion of mobile photography — which many say started with the introduction of the iPhone and the apps ecosystem, and has gotten more and more popular with each passing year. What made you want to take on yet another contest, and how did you plan on differentiating the MPA’s from all the rest?
DANIEL: My goal is to bring the community of artists and developers together, exhibit the work in galleries, bring the best images into the realm of fine art and create a legitimate way to focus real world attention to mobile artists. The MPA isn’t about having your “winning” image on a website with a stamp on it. The MPA is a combination of an open gallery call and a competition. The amount of press and interest we have generated is a result of presenting a coherent set of exhibits that go beyond one person’s taste. There is nothing else like it in the mobile space.
ANTON: Where does someone even begin with planning something so huge? I know at one point you were worried it would be a huge flop and cost you thousands from your own pocket. Thankfully it turned out to be reasonably successful, and now we’re starting to see the exhibitions finally debut. But were there moments where you thought to yourself “What have I gotten myself into?” There must have been an insane amount of pressure on you for this to succeed…
DANIEL: “Insane” and “pressure” are definitely words I would also use to describe this endeavor. At the same time it has been tremendously rewarding. The biggest thrill was seeing the work framed and hanging on the walls at ArtHaus and OCCCA. Visible and tangible proof that the hard work was worth every minute. But yes, it took many impromptu feats of balance to maintain positive vibes with the entrants, the judges, the technical aspects of the web interface, the framing, the printing and on and on and on. It was overwhelming at times to keep it together. And then I looked up one day and said “Hey! We did it!”
The Old Mint
ANTON: When the Awards were first announced, many were taken back by the fact that it was a PAID contest. It was explained that fees would go towards prints, promotion, exhibition costs, and all the other things that are necessary for such a huge undertaking. Also, there was the fact that paid photo contests that result in an exhibition are not uncommon in the traditional photography world. Plus, it ensures more serious, quality work gets submitted. That didn’t stop people from complaining anyway. Any final words you want to say on the matter?
DANIEL: If we are going to bring these images into the fine art world we need to accept certain things. For instance, every open gallery call has a submission fee. That’s not really a point worth debating. Many mobile photographers have no experience with the art world and therefore have unrealistic expectations about submission fees. Galleries are not museums. They don’t have public admission fees or endowments. They are small businesses. They don’t pay for frames or prints any more than they pay for canvasses or paint. If a gallery call or contest is “free” to submit than it’s sponsored by a brand in which case your “free” submission is really a way for a corporation to build an email list and spend their advertising and marketing budget in the hopes that the contestants will tweet and Facebook the heck out it and get even more bang for their buck by having something go viral. There is no free lunch for the entrants either way. Either pay with your PayPal account or pay by helping someone advertise. Also, and it’s a point worth making, if there were no submission fees we would probably get 30,000 images. We’d have to have a corporate sponsor to pay for everything. It would be close to impossible to get that work juried properly and with care. Our judges took their jobs very seriously and professionally — sticking them with 7,000 shots of feet or lunch is not going to help the process.
Now, in the case of the MPA we printed and framed all the work. No further cost to the selected entrants. We also gave cash prizes and swag to all the winners. We put on first class exhibits at major galleries. I can assure you that a regular open gallery call will expect the selected entrants to provided a ready-framed printed image, expect you to pay for shipping, and you won’t get an iTunes gift card, free apps and a chance at $500. We are the best of both worlds. I am convinced that anyone who complained was either unaware of the facts or just someone who likes throwing mud around anyway. There are always going to be people who would rather complain than educate themselves — complain about what is built instead of building something themselves. I’m cool with that because that’s just life, as a creative person with an entrepreneurial spirit I’ve seen it before and I’ll see it again.
ANTON: Hear hear! And now, a word from our sponsors…
Just kidding! But tune in for Part Two of this interview, where I ask Dan all the important questions about the MPAs you’ve always been wondering about…coming soon!
In the meantime, check out more of Dan’s work here:
And for more on the Mobile Photo Awards, check out the excellent and informative MPA blog here: