Allan Hoffman ’84 uses the latest iPhone photo technology to create “messy darkroom effects” reminiscent of mid-20th-century photography.
By Tom Nugent
Allan Hoffman ’84 can show you how.
He’s been doing precisely that for the past couple of years, while also writing a book on the subject (Create Great iPhone Photos: Apps, Tips, Tricks, and Effects, No Starch Press, 2011) as well as a weekly column for theNewark Star-Ledger on the latest techno-wrinkles in cyberspace.
For the 49-year-old Hoffman, who wrote one of the first consumer-oriented books on how to explore the Internet for fun and profit (way back in 1995), making iPhone art is “a wonderfully exciting way to expand your vision of the world around you. It’s like having a darkroom right on your phone, with the ability to edit your images, and share them, from anywhere.”
To illustrate his point, Hoffman describes a recent ride on a New Jersey Transit commuter train from suburban Maplewood (his home for the past ten years) to New York City’s Penn Station.
“We were riding through the Meadowlands, which is an area I love because it’s full of swampy marshland and gloomy fogs,” he recalls. “It’s a world of reeds and bogs and birds circling overhead…but you also have all these industrial structures in the background—oil refineries and chemical tanks and abandoned garbage dumps.”
As he contemplated this industrial landscape, Hoffman slipped out his iPhone—his camera of choice—and snapped a photo. Seconds later, he was firing up an iPhone app, TiltShift Generator, that allowed him to add lovely blurs and adjust the image’s contrast and saturation simply by sliding his finger across the iPhone screen. After turning the photo into an evocative landscape, he posted it to his photoblog, What I See Now (whatiseenow.com), right from the train.
“It was drizzling a little that morning,” he remembers, “and the air was misty, full of vapor. I took one look out the window and I said: ‘Wow! This is something I gotta go for!’
“It took me about ten minutes to complete the Meadowlands project,” he says, “and it still amazes me to think that I could shoot, edit, frame and then publish that image so quickly, and all while riding on a train.”
Thousands of photography apps are now available for the iPhone, says Hoffman—and some of them, such as Hipstamatic and Instagram, have been downloaded by millions. “There’s really this astonishing democratization of art photography happening,” he notes. “If you think about it, you realize that you’re actually carrying a kind of ‘portable art gallery’ around in your pocket. And that’s very interesting in another way, as well—because knowing that you have an artistic tool like the iPhone with you changes the way you see things. Suddenly, you’re looking at the world as a place of endless possibilities, and you’re starting to notice all sorts of fascinating details that you might otherwise have missed.”
Describing those possibilities, Hoffman explained further: “When I have my camera with me, I’m constantly thinking about images and textures. A faded old sticker on the side of an outdoor wall . . . all at once, I’m drawn to the crumbling, bumpy texture of that sticker. And now I’m asking myself: If I take a photo of that and then change the image with one of my on-board apps, what will it look like? With an iPhone in my pocket, I can become a sort of abstract painter, if I decide that’s what I want to do.”
In recent months, he said, his growing interest in surfaces and textures has led to phone-photos that amazed him with their strikingly mysterious beauty. In one such composition, the Empire State Building glows like polished platinum … while clouds bump their snow-white noses against the monolith’s spire.
Another time, Hoffman stopped to look—“closely!”—at an ordinary mug of fizzing beer. With his camera, the bubbles in the brew were transformed to golden pebbles riding a wave of silver.
Most astonishing of all, he said, is the way he can use the iPhone’s inbuilt software apps to create photos that look like they came out of a darkroom of the mid-20th-century—when photography required dipping images into trays of chemicals, with results that were often unpredictable.
“Right now, that’s my favorite part of this whole phenomenon,” said Hoffman, over a lunchtime sandwich at his neighborhood deli in Maplewood. “I mean, think about it. With the iPhone, I can use the very latest technology to recreate [photographic] techniques out of the past.
“In the old days—including back when I was at Wesleyan in the early ’80s—you might very well find yourself using an older camera that had a slight leak, so that bits of light would creep into the image and produce some unusual effects.
“And what about the whole development process . . . the chemical trays and the dripping photos hanging from clothespins as they dried? If you weren’t careful, you could easily make a mistake—and the result would be a ‘messed-up’ photo that had some weird defect running through it.
“What blows my mind about all of this is that many photographers are now using iPhones to recreate these effects from the past. I mean, that is bizarre. But it’s also a heck of a lot of fun—turning back to the past, photographically, by using the technology of the future!”
Raised in suburban Iselin, N.J., where his father worked for many years as an optometrist, Hoffman landed on the Wesleyan campus in the fall of 1980—and soon developed a passionate interest in fiction-writing.
“I remember a writing course with Kit Reed,” he recalls, “and it was incredibly focused and intimate. One semester, there were exactly six of us in her fiction course, and so we simply met at her house for class. I’m sure the stuff I wrote was terrible, but she did a great job of making us observe things closely—and then think about every single word we put on the page.”
Another key Wesleyan influence—this time photographic—was J. Seeley, who taught photography and ran the on-campus darkroom. “He really challenged us,” says Hoffman. “J. always wanted us to go deeper. Every once in a while, he’d choose one of your best images and hang it up in this gallery he’d created.
“He chose one of me that was the weirdest photo I’ve ever taken—of me sitting in my underwear in my dad’s optometry office, right in front of this big machine that looks into your eyeball.”
After graduating from Wesleyan in 1984, Hoffman went on to teach writing at a New Jersey community college for three years, and then turned to freelance writing. By 1995, he’d published a groundbreaking book about the newly emerging World Wide Web (50 Fun Ways to Internet, Career Press, 1995) and landed a weekly column dedicated to Internet technology (at the 316,000-circulation Newark Star-Ledger).
In recent years, he’s also written about digital technology, social media, and Web culture for publications ranging from The New York Times to Newsday, Wired News, Yahoo Internet Life, and Rutgers Magazine.
A passionate photographer and writer, Hoffman admits to having become “increasingly obsessed” during the past year or so with the “amazingly flexible” iPhone camera, which he considers to be the world’s most customizable, versatile camera.
“Just last year, the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Damon Winter [of The New York Times] got a lot of attention for front-page photos from a war zone in Afghanistan that were shot with his iPhone and the Hipstamatic app,” says the Apple phone-guru. “Winter was named Photographer of the Year from Pictures of the Year International, in part for those photos.
“I think that really demonstrates what I was trying to say in my new book—that the iPhone is a remarkably flexible tool, and that you can use it to accomplish many different kinds of journalistic and artistic goals. I also think it’s going to be fascinating to see how this kind of technology will impact the world of photography in the days ahead. Will the other camera-makers out there also start adding these kinds of portable features to their equipment, along with the apps required to support them?
“If you’re a photographer like me—or just somebody who loves to look at photos—there are going to be some interesting days up ahead, for sure!”
Tom Nugent is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times,People magazine, andStanford magazine, as well as many other publications.