The Arts Center’s mobile photography exhibit proves smartphone cameras are for more than selfies

Anymore, it’s common to see people walking the streets, heads down, eyes glued to the small, bright screens shining up from the palms of their hands.

Prevalent, too, are cries from those concerned that smartphones are hollowing out our minds, sucking the meaningful connections from our lives, transforming us all into zombies.

But what if — instead of playing “Flappy Bird” — the people you see hunched over their phones are really making beautiful works of art?

The pictures hanging in Corvallis’ Arts Center this month are photos snapped and edited using only smartphones and tablet computers. The new exhibition, titled “Expanding Vision,” reveals an emerging art form, said Arts Center curator Hester Coucke.

“Smartphones have opened possibilities for people to be enormously creative on small screens,” she said.

A Pew study from 2013 found that more than 60 percent of Americans own a smartphone; that means most people carry a camera with them wherever they go. After downloading free apps such as Snapseed and Glaze, a smartphone user has a mobile art studio in his or her back pocket.

“The old question, ‘Is photography art?’ is thrown completely overboard,” Coucke added.

Using their website, as well as social media platforms, the Arts Center launched a call to artists in January. Over 50 people responded, sending in over 200 submissions by email.

Local photographers Kat Sloma, Bill Laing and Rich Bergeman curated the exhibition. The 44 works they selected span the divide between the strictly representational and the wildly abstract.

“It was important to us to show quality works in which it is apparent that a lot of editing had been done because we wanted to show the breadth and depth of what can be done using a smartphone camera,” Laing said. “We wanted to show the full range of possibilities.”

Until this year, Laing had never curated an art exhibition. When submissions began to arrive, he was surprised to see how far word had spread; entries came from as far as London, England.

Many of the works on display were submitted by individuals who don’t normally consider themselves artists, he said.

“I hope that people see the exhibit and think about the possibilities for creative expression for themselves, personally. I hope people will see this and think: I can do this, too,” Laing added.

Kat Sloma teaches workshops on smartphone photography. She retired her digital camera in 2013 to work entirely from her iPhone.

“It’s an extension of photography,” Sloma said. “Smartphone photography expands the definition of photography.”

Laing and Sloma recall a time not long ago — maybe 10 to 15 years — when digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) cameras first stirred controversy.

“I remember people saying: ‘A serious photographer would never use a digital camera,’” Laing said.

A similar debate surrounds mobile photography today, but Laing thinks it’s only a matter of time before it dies down. “Nobody reads Hemingway and asks what kind of typewriter he used.”

Furthermore, Sloma added, smartphone photographers like herself don’t want to see traditional mediums go extinct.

“We’re not trying to replace cameras,” Sloma said. “We’re trying to do something different. I tell people, ‘You already have this tool in your pocket. Why not see what it can do?’”

Coucke — who still relies on a beat-up, old flip phone — said “Expanding Vision” has changed how she thinks about smartphones. Now, when the person ahead of her in line at the grocery store is completely engrossed in their phone, she wonders what they might be creating.

“It’s exciting,” she said, “to be at the beginning of an entirely new art form.”

“Expanding Vision” runs until Sept. 28.

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