Wapasu Nights: On Being A Coyote in Canada’s “Man-Camps”

Wapasu Bus Lot, A Sloppy Day in Late Winter

Sometimes I find myself in a place where I’m sure there ’is nothing to photograph.  I am almost always wrong.

No matter how sterile or seemingly dull the environment, you can always find a story to tell and something to shoot!

The Bagup Room – a delicious piece of Newfoundland terminology, translated to the middle of the subarctic boreal forest and an oil boom that powers Canada’s economy.  Past overall-clad figures in studded safety boots, I toss sandwiches, fruit and salad into a paper bag, then sidle past the exquisitely bored Somali guard in the dining room.  Grabbing a tray from the pile, I shovel orange and grapefruit slices into my bowl, and line up for a neatly institutional square of omelet, followed by a dipper of oatmeal in a white china bowl.

Dawn at Wapasu Lodge

Exactly eleven minutes to eat breakfast, then through the Wapasu Lodge doors into a blast of cold in the predawn Arctic darkness.  I shuffle out with a hundred more thickly bundled

Waiting for Brass Alley

figures to wait under the baleful red lights of Brass Alley.  Lights flash red to green, and we

Brass Alley

shuffle forward through turnstiles.  Out the Alley’s back door, we hurry in the glare of halogen lamps studding tall pylons into rows of buses whose diesels growl into the blackness.

Such is morning at Wapasu Camp in Canada’s northern Alberta oil sands.  Researcher, doctor, photographer, driver of big trucks – I am now a Health, Safety and Environmental Trainer/Industrial Hygiene Specialist, working for Chicago Bridge and Iron, helping build Imperial Oil’s Kearl Lake Oil Sands facility in Alberta’s subarctic North Country.

My “work week” starts around 10 am when Janie drops me off at Maple Bay, a secluded cove about ten minutes from our Vancouver Island home.  I stand with my bag and computer pack at the end of the wharf amid houseboats and pleasure craft.  Soon a small float plane buzzes into view and skims in for a landing.  My bags are tossed on board, and

My “Other Car” – the de Havilland Beaver at Maple Bay

I climb in beside the pilot, trying to keep my knees from banging the stick and my feet off

Riding Shotgun on the Beaver

the pedals.  We roar up the bay, climbing into the air over boats, forested islands, and summer homes, glide into Salt Spring Island’s picturesque little harbour to pickup a couple more oilfield workers, and 30 minutes later glide over Richmond’s crowded suburbs to touch down on the Fraser River.  I walk three block to the commercial South terminal at the airport, and two hours later join a crowd of about 200 rugged-looking men and women heading north on Canadian North’s chartered

Boarding Canadian North at Albian Sands

jet.  Two hours later, we are landing at Albian Sands airport, a strip of tarmac without even a control tower in the middle of the snowy Northern Alberta wilderness. We crowd into a row of snowy (or muddy, depending on the season) Diversified Transport buses for an hour’s ride to our respective camps, where we line up for our room assignments, haul our stored bags our of the luggage room, and settle down for a night’s sleep before an early morning and another bus ride to camp.

I rise at 4:45 every morning for 20 days, then pack my belongings off to storage for eight days at home.  This is known as “Working a 20 and 8 cycle.”  I later move to a “14 and 7” cycle – two weeks on and one week off – which is much more civilized. My days are spent in my classroom trailer, teaching orientation courses and introductory safety topics to electricians from Ireland, pipe insulators from California, and boilermakers from West Virginia.

Stereotypes paint construction workers as burly men with tattoos, beer bellies, and not much between the ears.  The reality could not be more different.  Many will surprise you with their depth of knowledge and thoughtful intelligence.  Louis L’Amour, the famous writer of western and adventure stories, talked about the many self-educated men he met in the west (see Education of a Wandering Man, Random House, 2008).20130922_063748

The workers at Kearl are likewise a diverse and fascinating group.  One shared that he is a fossil collector from the Maritimes.  A self-taught, graduate-level amateur paleontologist specializing in the invertebrate fossils of New Brunswick, he corresponds professionally

The Guys I Teach

with museum directors across Canada and has original theories on the dating of the first land creatures.  His talk of ancient eras and documentation of Eastern Canada land mass movements left me in the dust.

Kearl Lake from the Air (Anonymous Photographer, early 2012)

One big Irishman plans working hard and saving for five years, then retiring to care for his partner, who has multiple sclerosis.  Another is an avid photographer who just got back from a job in Spain where he had time to photograph the Alps.  A third, a quiet man from San Salvador, spent three years in the jungle as a guerrilla after union membership brought death threats.  Scottish cement contractors mix with safety experts from coal mines in Nova Scotia, and rub elbows with insulators from Cape Breton.  A wonderful cross-section of the world, their stories stretch from Canada’s blustery Maritimes to the forests of the West, opening little windows on Somalia, Ireland, South America, and China.

The classroom banter is the best part, and the camaraderie with my fellow teachers – language gets rough but I love working with these guys:

Morning chatter in the trailer (tasting my coffee carefully, making sure they didn’t sneak in an extra bag and supercharge it):

Me:  Good morning, guys.  Is anybody awake???
Big Mike, my fellow teacher, wanders through the class with his first cup of coffee.
Me:  “Guys, this is Mike Knoll.  He’s a very good teacher, but he is always insulting people.”
Mike:  “Come on!  I’ve been here a whole half hour, and I haven’t told anyone to fuck off yet!”

Ty (sticking up his hand):  Can you tell me when we’re supposed to go home?
Me:  I can’t tell you when to go home.  Only your company can do that.  What’s the matter?  It hasn’t even started to get boring yet.”
Ian (Older guy with one arm, sitting next to Ty):  Don’t be so anxious to leave.  You’ll give the guy a complex.”

We all go around the room, introducing ourselves.

Big guy with black hair:  I’m a trucker.  I drive truck on the site.  I’m 52, I live in Ontario, and I got ten kids and one foster kid.
Me:  You’re going to be up here a long time.  Those little beggars are expensive.  By the time I discovered that, it was too late.  You must have a big house!”
Big Guy: Seven rooms.  It’s not too bad, except when the girls all get on the rag at the same time.  Then it gets interesting!  (Grins)  When they get on each other, I just tell them to shut the fuck up so I can watch television.”

Paul (tallest, skinniest guy I’ve ever seen, wound up like the Energizer Bunny):  “My name’s Paul.  Everybody calls me Paul F.  That’s for “Paul F…. Welder.’  I got my five rules to live by.  They’re tattooed on my arm (and they are).
Me:  “Meet me later.  I want to photograph your arm.”  And I do.
Paul’s T-shirt is pink.  The front of it says “All my black shirts are dirty.”

I introduce myself part way through the introductions, show pictures I’ve taken, talk about my cameras, our time in the mountains of Kentucky, and the walks and images I take here in the marshes.

Paul (privately, afterward):  “Hey, I know all the trails around here.  I’m a  bootlegger.”

One guy is a guitar collector.  One spends his money to travel the world.  Ian is an underwater photographer.

Next lecture – My other fellow teacher, Libertad, is from Peru but lives in Colombia, where she has to worry about workers who keep machetes in their tool bags when labor relations get touchy.  She spent many years in mines high in the Andes.  She’s great on getting the guys moving and doing role playing.  Have you ever seen a dozen big, whiskery construction workers up on their feet like a bunch of kindergarten kids, acting out the two-arm hand signals for moving a crane the size of a house???

And so it goes….

Life is never dull up here…

Wing 39, Wapasu East

The people are fascinating, but the place?  Wapasu in the winter can only be described as bleak and institutional.  Rows upon rows of barracks-like, three-story, prefab buildings, austere in the Arctic night, bring to mind prison camps of the Soviet Gulag.  Corridors, gray and blue and lined with aluminum siding, stretch into the distance, pockmarked with endless rows of doors, differing only in their numbers.  Workers are camera-shy, and photographing people seems like an intrusion.  In contrast, the Kearl construction site is fascinating, with enormous yellow cranes rearing starkly upward in the morning sun, and flames burning balefully in the darkness to heat huge vessels about to be welded – but photography is forbidden.  I am reduced to scattered pictures taken unobtrusively at camp with my Droid X smartphone or an old Canon point-and-shoot.

Evening At Wapasu Camp

Yet as I walk evening after evening around Wapasu, its wings rearing like huge fingers out of the snow, illuminated by the halogen glare, I see that night and the light lend it a stark, monolithic beauty.  Inside, the corridors, if institutional, are striking in their symmetry.  I begin to experiment with my Droid and camera.  As I become one with the human river flowing through the turnstiles and into the buses in the Arctic darkness, my Droid sneaks almost by itself out of my pocket.  I begin to snatch profiles of huddled figures silhouetted against Brass Alley’s red glow, and try frame after frame to catch movement as workers hurry for buses.

After a Long Day – Back to Camp

As Wapasu becomes my home for three weeks per month, I bring my favourite framed photographs.  Pastel rugs decorate the floors, and vintage cameras crown my armoire, together with loving cards from my wife.  I come to realize that the camp is warm and cozy on the inside, with a Tim Horton’s and a little general store.  Meals in the dining room include prime rib, Cornish game hen, an immense spectrum of desserts, and many varieties of salad.  Pool and table tennis are available.  Decor is austere and prefab, hauled-in-by-a-truck-and-bolted-together institutional, but housekeeping is excellent, the staff are friendly, and we can decorate our rooms to our taste.20131110_103249 - Copy

Much to learn, and I have joined a culture unknown to most of the world.  Meet the rodbuster”” – he cuts and bends rebar for concrete foundations.  The “rigger” connects the cable for cranes that lift tons of steel.  Zoomer stops by my trailer – he drives a “Zoom-Boom”, a contraption like a forklift on a huge extendable arm, mounted on four enormous

Teaching fall Protection – My friend and fellow instructor Libertad

tires, and capable of lifting loads forty feet in the air onto scaffolds and elevated work sites.  I learn about – and then teach – scaffold safety and the physics of falling wrenches.  Life is not dull.  A pile driver piston fractures on Thursday; the top fragment blows out of the cylinder and 300 feet into the air, landing at the base of the driver:  16 inches diameter, 30 inches long, and 2500 pounds of solid steel that misses everyone because of well-designed safety barriers.

I learn more about my new construction culture.  Brass Alley? A long trailer, studded with red lights and and multiple doors with turnstiles, no brass within miles, and it is called Brass Alley?  Intrigued, I investigate, and find threads linking me to builders and miners of the last century.  “Brass”, dollar-sized brass discs, were issued to miners and builders as a method of timekeeping on mines and large projects before the computer age.  Each miner would “brass in” – collect his token – as he passed through the gate of brass shack at the beginning of the shift.  A missing token at the end of the day meant a miner unaccounted for (see The Brass System).

The origins of my new safety profession are written in the blood of miners and workers.  Hillcrest, Alberta, 1914 – 189 dead, 400 children fatherless. Westray, Nova Scotia, 1992 – a small Cape Breton community changed forever from “incompetence, mismanagement, bureaucratic bungling, deceit, ruthlessness, coverups, apathy, expediency and cynical indifference.”  It is no wonder that my bible, the summary of Alberta’s safety legislation, is called “The Red Book.”  Each dry law and code traces back to a miner buried, a hand lost, or a life changed.

Westray Mine: After The Explosion.
“… An investigator examines an ambulance tractor inside the Westray mine in this RCMP handout photo. The picture is one of the many entered as evidence at the trial of two former mine managers from the ill-fated colliery. It was May 9, 1992. At 5:18 a.m., far beneath the small town of Plymouth, N.S., a sudden gush of methane gas escaped from the Foord coal seam and erupted into flames. Within seconds, a huge fireball raced through the mine, stirring up coal dust that exploded in a thundering blast…”  Methane detectors had been taped over.   Courtesy Andrew Vaughan, The Canadian Press.

Evenings are for dinner, work on my web site, and walks.  In winter, the latter are adventures.  Wolves are about, the largest about 150 pounds, requiring a canister of bear mace that bounces on my hip.  Breath congealing at -17 Fahrenheit, my snowshoes sink into the powdery snow as I break trail up a seismic cut.  I must be adventurous; 7,000 people in this camp and I am the only one out in the woods tonight.  I have one mysterious friend  who has gone before me, their narrow cross-country skis leaving tracks into the Arctic darkness.  The tracks turn right into the forest, and I follow, my light catching snowy jewels off the stunted arctic spruce as the trail snakes through a miniature frozen lake, mounds of snow gleaming in the brilliant beam.  In my hidden lake, I take refuge from the industrial glare in pools of frosty darkness between the spruce and tamarack.Despite the industrial-grade camp lights and institutional setting, walking the forest roads near Wapasu can be a surreal and beautiful experience.  Over the snow-crowned tips of the spruce, the horizon is studded with pools of pearly white light, gleaming off the low-hanging clouds.  Visible from space, these opalescent pools of light mark other camps and claims surrounding Wapasu – Firebag to the west, CNRL (Canadian Natural Resources Limited) to the north.

Oil sands from Space

Despite being huge mines and industrial complexes, their glows dot the horizon like pearls on a necklace.

As my surroundings soak into my consciousness, surreal and beautiful images begin to coalesce out of the harsh industrial lighting.  Like the upturned brushes of some giant boreal artist, a grove of leafless white poplars gleams in the light cascading from the

Poplars, Jupiter, and Aldebaran, Wapasu Camp

camp.  A tripod improvised from a cardboard box and a pile of snow captures their glowing crowns, with Jupiter and Aldebaran suspended above. Next rotation, I return with a huge old Mamiya tripod. A monstrosity at home, in Wapasu, it is perfect, with long legs that Wapasu, Winter NightWapasu Camp from Forest Snowshoe Trail
disappear three feet into snow and still leave me plenty of tripod for my little camera.  Lugging its bulk one-handed with my poles in my other hand, I set out nightly.  Prowling the margins of ugly snow piles, an abstract of shadows paints the fresh snowy surface, their

Snow Shadows 01

darkness piled layer on layer.  As I walk, I have not one shadow but four, with long stilted legs and a head lost in forest.  Farther on, roadside snow mounds are an abstract in

Long-Legged shadows

crystalline lines and deep shadow.   The play of halogen light and shadow creates many abstract shapes, creating images of stark simplicity.   A single twig in a snow bank stands out, silhouetted against a band of black shadow.  At each stop, my little Canon is dwarfed on its huge mount, but its shutter clicks faithfully – until the batteries and my naked fingers succumb to the cold.

Twig and Shadow

An anomaly among camp dwellers, my sanity is questioned: “Man, you’re crazy…There’s animals out there!” Likewise, there is much negativity about camp life.  Google Earth’s citation on Wapasu is filled with comments like “This place sucks” and remarks on the terrible food.

My Room at Wapasu

Like much of life, Wapasu is what you make of it.  Consider the coyote.  One of the most successful animals on the planet, the coyote thrives from the blistering Mexican desert to the frozen tundra of Alaska.  He can be found in and around most large North American cities, where he will cheerfully make off with your garbage or Fluffy the cat to feed his mate and pups.  His secret?  He is amazingly, wonderfully, adaptable.  In my own way, I am a coyote in this austere place, making a den for myself and finding a way to grow, flourish, and pursue my art within the Gulag.   On the bare walls of my little room, I improvise clips over moldings to hang my artwork, scrounge colourful old mats from my basement, and cut bulrushes from a ditch to make a corner flower arrangement.  Vintage cameras adorn the dresser, together with cards from my wife. Audio books play on my computer, and my austere room suddenly feels like home.

Be aware, however, that this adventure requires preparation, and does not work for everyone as well as it has for me (see Geoff Dembicki’s “Oil Sands Workers Don’t Cry“). Being up at four or five am daily and working a 10 or 11 hour day is tough, especially if you are hanging tank insulation at -30 degrees.  Heart attacks are not uncommon, though numbers are hard to come by.  One worker dropped dead at the table in the east wing while I was enjoying my trout in the west dining room.  Isolation is hard, and you need to plan for ways to feed your spirit. The process is especially tough with young families, and fathers or mothers who cannot be home.  Just getting sleep can be a struggle, and fatigue feeds depression. One worker’s significant other called him in the middle of a class to demand a divorce.  A nurse told me that many strong, superficially tough men have closed her office door and burst into tears.  One needs to go into this experience with an eye on one’s health:  take favourite hobbies, music and books, get exercise, choose healthy options in the food line, socialize, talk with your family about managing separation and child care.  It can be a great experience – or a miserable, lonely time.20130925_111038

But if you can adapt, it can be a good life.  One red-haired young ex-schoolteacher said, “This is fun!”  Apprentice pipefitters praise the experience: “Man, I’d never get to do this stuff in Toronto!”  Another schoolteacher, driving a house-sized heavy haul truck, said “I made my year’s salary in three months.”  Humour helps: “Kearl Correctional” hoodies are common.  A crane operator’s T-shirt blares, “Heavy Lifting Starts at a Million Pounds.”  One hefty fellow’s back says “Fat people are harder to abduct.”

So each night, I strap on my snowshoes to visit the jewel-encrusted tamaracks and firs.  And once again, almost without my willing it, images climb through the lens of my camera and onto my film.   No matter where I go, or how unpromising the place, they find me, and I must take them home and look after them.

There is always something to shoot.

Rand at Kearl

Postscript:  My kids saw my Wapasu images and asked, “What did Dad do to get sent there???

Note:  These images are all digital, taken with a Motorola Droid, a Samsung Galaxy 4, or a small Canon A610 point-and-shoot on Aperture Priority.

Echoes of Eastman’s Little Box: The SmartPhone and the New Photography

Rattling out of the supermarket doors with my cart full of oranges, milk, and cereal, I reach my car to find two frustrated young men attempting unsuccessfully to maneuver a coat hanger wire into the window of the little red truck in the next stall.  Their keys hang listlessly in the ignition, safe from intruders – and the passengers. Sensing a photographic moment, I grab for my camera, remembering at the last minute that I left it at home.  But my smartphone hangs at my belt, and in a gesture that is now repeated hundred of times a minute around the world, I grab it and snap a photo.  Not my usual vintage camera picture, not quite the quality of my SLR, but I get the image and capture the moment.

Returning half an hour later, I find them sitting disconsolately in the bed of their truck, waiting for help.  I offer sympathy, mention my own rampant absent-mindedness, and suggest spare keys.

Driving home, I muse about the role my smart phone has taken in my life and, especially, how it has changed my photography.  Visions of box Kodaks brandished by women in long dresses and men driving Model Ts come to mind, and I feel echoes of George Eastman rolling down the years.  Eastman revolutionized photography when it was embryonic, and now with the cell phone, the world of image-making has again turned over.

1904 Kodak Catalog Cover (Courtesy the Kodak Girl collection)

Writing on antique and nearly-antique photographic devices, I am not immune to the ironic tension between my topic (the dawn of photographic technique) and my methods (the blog, the computer, digital scanning, the search engine, etc., etc.).  I rarely print an image. My gallery is the internet, and I have an audience far larger than Weegee or Brassai could ever hope for.  I have no wet darkroom in my home; there are no sinks stained with Dektol, and my enlarger has long ago gone to the Salvation Army, after I discovered that trying to find a loving home for darkroom equipment today is like trying to buy ballet slippers for a brontosaurus. I wrinkle my brain learning Search Engine Optimization, crunch HTML to size the image of a 1910 Premo’s golden brass and gleaming wood, and bounce tips on preserving ancient leather off the antennae of orbiting satellites.

Yet with all this modern technology, I was dragged kicking and screaming a few years ago into buying an all-inclusive, do-everything smartphone.  I LIKED my Palm Pilot.  It talked happily to Microsoft Outlook via cable and kept my life organized.  Cell phones had crummy little cameras suited only for snaps at teenage birthday parties.  I had one and considered it junk – which, as a serious camera, it was.

I finally felt Destiny’s wheels rumbling over me one day when a teenager on a Montreal street rushed up to me and said, “Man, is that a real Palm Pilot???  Can I see it?”  Then my trusty little companion died, and its replacement from old stock on eBay lasted only three months.  So this Luddite* finally dragged himself resentfully into the Verizon store and threw himself on the mercy of the clerk.  I walked out with a shiny new Droid X, and my wife avoided me for the next three weeks while I swore at the thing, learned the Android system, and slowly persuaded the phone and my computer to communicate, if not happily, at least with well-suppressed hostility.  This sounds absurd today, but in those days, much cell phone software was unsophisticated, and many apps were buggy and balky.  Finally, I did what everyone of my generation does when faced with ultimate technological desperation: I asked my children for a tutorial.  Three months down the road, the Droid was a part of my body, and I’d rather leave my underwear at home.

Finally tamed, the phone hung on my belt, but I refused to use the camera, considering it not to be a serious piece of photographic equipment.  However, it was always there, photo opportunities came by when I was camera-less, and I will take a picture on wet Kleenex rather than miss a good image.  Soon the memory had hundreds of images, none of fantastic quality, but many documenting important moments, and some even artistic.  I began to rethink my prejudice.  Then I spent months in Northern Alberta, often with my phone as the only camera.  The Droid had its limitations, but it was there.  The next step was a Samsung Galaxy with a good 8-megapixel camera, and I truly saw the potential of this new medium.

I have now come to feel that all of us who carry these little multipotential boxes with their steadily-improving cameras, ride a wave that is changing photography as profoundly as did George Eastman’s little brown box with the string hanging out and a few yards of celluloid inside.  George took photographic art out of the cart of the itinerant photographer, with his wet plates and massive camera, and placed it in the pockets of every one with a few dollars to spend.

But with today’s revolution, we have vastly more.  Kodak gave us a the ability to record a few images conveniently and reasonably quickly, and no-one worried about the developing time – we all waited expectantly to pick up the vacation pictures at the drug store.  Now Nokia and Samsung have given us the ability to capture hundred of images and view them virtually instantly.  And, for the first time, the average citizen can have a camera at hand literally from the time he or she gets out of bed to the moment the lights are turned out. Moreover, within a minute or two, these images can be on their way to Facebook, Aunt Sally in Winnemucca, the Chicago Police, or today’s Al Jazeera.  The chance for the professional or the man on the street to make and send hundreds of high-quality images at will (and almost instantly) has profound implications for both society and art.

We have all become accustomed to cell phone videos and images on CBS, NBC, and CBC. When dictatorial regimes tried to quash democratic movements a few years ago in the Middle East, silencing news media and the Internet, it was jerky cell phone clips that told the story of the resistance movement.  The importance of this new social groundswell is attested to by Stanford University’s new course, ARTSTUDIES 173E, “Cell Phone Photography”.  The Stanford catalog states:

“The ubiquity of cell phone photography has had a widespread impact on the tradition, practice, and purposes of photography, as well as concepts of art and what art should be for. …we discuss the documentarian bent of much cell phone photography, its potential as a component of citizen journalism….and effects that cell phone photography may be having on us as subjects….. students will create works of art utilizing the experimental, documentary, and social potentials of cell phone photography.”

In reviewing the impact of the cell phone on the world of photography, The Guardian’s Richard Gray comments:

“Traditional photojournalists have most to fear from mobile photographers. If something dramatic happens on the street … sorry, someone’s already there taking a photo of it…”

Yet there is another emerging aspect to the cell phone camera: with the advent of quality cameras such as those found on the iPhone and recent Android devices, this mode of photography is now entering the fine art world.  Consider Dan Burkholder’s images taken and processed on the iPhone.   Photographer Daria Polichetti, one of the hosts of the L.A. Mobile Arts Festival, was recently quoted in CNN’s article on the emerging field of cell phone fine art photography:

“These artists are innovating art at the front of the field and doing things… app creators didn’t even know was possible. They’re inventing new processes,” she said. “It’s a real collaboration.”

I predict that, within five years, images taken with cell phone cameras will find their way into exhibits at major galleries.

I cut my teeth on a Motorola Droid X, then moved onto the Samsung Galaxy, both within the Android system.  Picture quality and the degree of operator control have consistently improved, and the multiplicity of sophisticated models now on the market puts good quality photography in one’s pocket at all times.  There are still some caveats; many cell phone cameras are designed for the unsophisticated photographer, and resist creative effects.  My Droid detested blurry images.  Consequently, the shutter waited to fire until the subject was stationary, necessitating fighting with the internal software to produce any kind of artistic blur.  I was able with some effort to shoot impressionistic images of a fir forest while panning vertically, though the camera wanted to wait until I stopped moving to fire the shutter:

However, it balked at recording blurs in a patch of wind-tossed poppies, firing the shutter (despite muttered swear words and repeated jabs at the shutter button) only when it could capture a nice stationary picture that would make Aunt Matilda happy:

Tossing poppies, “Droid Style”

This is a nice image, but nowhere as impressive as if I had been able to record the blurs of the tossing flowers; the image has no suggestion that a wind was present.  Being creative often means having to fight with the device’s internal programming.  I object to a camera that has a mind of its own and won’t let me take a “bad” photograph.

As one whose favorite shooting conditions are evening and and moonlight, the cell phone has one serious drawback: it is severely limited under low light conditions. Although it performs well without flash in a well lighted room or for sunset shots, after the sun goes down, the noise level skyrockets and picture quality plummets.  This problem has improved with enhanced sensor quality, but the cell phone camera is still not the choice in low light, and so far, unlike my digital SLR or my vintage film-based Kodaks and Crown Graphic, night photography is not an option.  Lack of a tripod socket is also a problem, though cell phone brackets that fit a tripod can now be bought commercially or readily improvised.

These objections aside, I have been able to capture some fine images that would been lost in a no-camera moment, and, like the little .38 on a detective’s ankle, I have come to depend on my phone as my backup camera, and an artistic device in its own right.  In addition to innumerable images of family and grandchildren, I have some fair artistic images. A walk in the Denver Botanical Garden produced a good image of white peonies:

White Peonies

In a couple of areas, cell phone cameras actually present advantages over film cameras or even high quality digital cameras.  Depth of field increases as sensor size decreases, so the small sensors on quality cell phones can create some stunning macro images, with depth of field not attainable on expensive, full-frame sensor digital cameras:

Bee on Thistle: Depth of field with cell phone image

The Hungry Bee

Secondly, cell phone cameras enable creation of easy and often dramatic panoramas in seconds, as evidenced by this panoramic image of Palouse Canyon in eastern Washington:

Palouse Canyon – iPhone panorama

Recently, I have started exploring one other option of the cell phone camera: candid panorama photography.  I have discovered that, while it is considered rude to point a camera or phone at a group of strangers and pop a picture, no-one notices if one holds one’s phone and quietly rotates.  This facility for the photographer to become part of the background while taking unnoticed, unique images of public places has possibilities not available with cameras that look like cameras:

At Tim Horton’s

Cell phone fine art photography has blossomed to the greatest degree with the iPhone, with its excellent camera and high-resolution screen.  As with the Apple computer prominence in the graphic arts, Apple’s phone has combined a superb camera with a wide variety of processing software.  The Android phones are catching up and have cameras of comparable quality, but still do not boast the same degree of post-capture creativity for the photographic artist.  Hopefully, this will change in the near future as quality Android cameras are used by artists and Android-based software evolves.

Unlike Eastman’s box camera, however, the greatest quality of the cell phone camera is that it is so much more than a camera.  What other device in my life goes with me everywhere, organizes my life, navigates me to the opera, predicts the tides, and stores my favorite menus? After a day’s hiking, I curl up in my tent, read a book. listen to the BBC, turn on a flashlight, get the weather report, go to sleep with music – all with my phone.  If I can’t sleep, I go outside and and admire the stars and the Milky Way, guided by the Google Sky application: just point the phone at an area of sky, and the GPS sensor and internal celestial map interact to display constellations, planets, and major celestial objects on the screen.  The alarm app wakes me up for the morning light.  AND it’s a pretty good camera.

Where the cell phone camera truly shines is the quick, unobtrusive shot – see, click, and scram.  Passing through Baltimore’s airport recently, I was struck by this line of weary travelers plugged into mini-carrels and propped against the wall, each totally engrossed and oblivious to the bustle around them:

Waiting and Working

I lifted my phone from my belt, stole a quick image, and walked off, trying to look as if nothing had happened.  My actions were lost in the kaleidoscope of movement around me.

Original Box Kodak, June 1888 (Courtesy George Eastman House)

Like the original box Kodak of 1888, with its cumbersome, string-cocked cylindrical shutter and circular image, the smart phone camera is here to stay, and the world will never be the same. That clunky little box launched a social and artistic revolution. The cell phone camera, nestled quietly in our pockets, may do no less.

*Note:

Luddite: The name applied in modern times to those opposed to new technology, especially automation and computerization.  The term derives from the nineteenth century social protest movement of British handloom weavers who, facing the loss of their livelihood as the Industrial Revolution introduced automated looms, burned mills and factory machinery starting in 1811.  The movement derived its name from the English weaver Ned Ludd who, in 1779, is reputed to have smashed two knitting frames in a “fit of passion.”  An exhaustive collection of links to the Luddites and modern neo-Luddism can be found at Martin Ryder’s University of  Colorado site.

References:

Burkholder, Dan.  “iPhone Artistry.”  http://www.danburkholder.com/Pages/misc_pages/Portfolios/iPhone_Artistry.html

Cambridge in Color.  “Digital Camera Sensor Sizes.”  http://www.cambridgeincolour.com/tutorials/digital-camera-sensor-size.htm

Gray, Richard.  The Guardian Observer, London, 2012.  “The Rise of Cell Phone Photography.” http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2012/nov/16/mobile-photography-richard-gray

“Luddite.” Wikipedia article. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luddite

“Ned Ludd.”  Wikipedia article.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ned_Ludd

Russell, Lauren.  “Mobile phones give artists new tools to create. ” CNN Living, September 19, 2012. http://www.cnn.com/2012/09/19/living/iphone-art/

Sweet, Tony.  “A Day in the Life in iPhone-Land.”  http://tonysweet.com/2013/07/16/a-day-in-the-life-in-iphone-land/