iPhoneograher of the Day – Matthew Burlem

Polaroid cameras although very cool, are a bulky mess.  Matthew Burlem an iPhoneographer from England can attest to that after years of lugging around 35mms, SLRs, and Polas.  Matt enjoys capturing moments on his iPhone and transforming them into Fauxlaroids, recreating a feeling of the past and is an avid user of the classic “Polarize” app.  Like many of us Matt loves the spontaneity and the candidness that iPhoneography provides.

Say no more, here is Matt’s iPhoneography story…

(Out On Tuesday Night – Tunnel)

EC: Where are you from? Tell me about yourself?

MB: I live in Greenwich, South London, England, near the Millennium Dome, which is now the o2 Arena.  I’ve always lived in South London, except for a brief stint in Blackpool in the north of England, where I went to university to do my photography degree. 

I work as a freelance Creative Digital Retoucher mostly in the advertising field, but more recently in TV & Radio at the BBC, where I have retouched and created publicity campaigns for many productions such as EastEnders and Doctor Who.
I like doing the usual stuff like going to see bands play live and cinema etc, and even used to like a bit of line-dancing! (We might edit that bit….!)

EC: How did you get into iPhoneography?

MB: I’ve always taken my large Nikon camera with me when I’ve traveled or been out and about in London when I’ve thought there might be a photo opportunity, and have many many images from that which I am very proud of, and I always used my phone camera just to take a snapshot of maybe something in a shop I liked or for reference, not really counting it as ‘Photography’.

When I got my iPhone, that was pretty much the same – 2meg camera, no flash… Just used it occasionally for the odd snap, but the plethora of photographic apps that were becoming available for the iPhone meant that this fairly limited hardware could now be used for much more creative purposes than camera phones I’d had before and it meant that I could create something interested whenever and wherever I wanted.

The turning point came when I found the Polarize app, which basically mimics an instant Polaroid, which sounds terrible but works very well, and I found that it gave such a lovely mood and style to my photographs, I couldn’t stop taking pictures with it after that and I was taking so many pictures I would never have captured with an SLR or even a compact camera, and especially not an actual instant Polaroid camera. 

In a way, the basic functionality of the iPhone’s camera was a bonus in that you get what you get and there aren’t a myriad of options and settings – making it much more like an instant camera.

EC: Can you recall the first iPhoto you took that made you go WOW, I really got something here!?

MB: I had been capturing quite a few iPhone ‘Polaroids’ for a a little while since discovering the Polarize app, and posting them on my Flickr stream to see what people thought, and was very pleased that people seemed to like them.  However, one day, I was on the tube train here in London and noticed a man sitting opposite me who I vaguely recognised from a club I used to go to and I took this candid photograph of him on my iPhone.  It was a bit cheeky of me, as taking pictures of people without their knowledge can be considered an invasion of privacy, but I knew if I’d asked him and he was aware of it, I wouldn’t have got the un-posed image that I did.  I realized who he was a few days later and messaged him on Facebook to tell him that I’d taken the picture and to ask if he minded, and he didn’t object so I felt better about it after that!

I love the picture as it’s just a snapshot of real life on the tube, of an interesting person doing a mundane thing but still being interesting in his own way, and I love the serendipitous marriage of him against that poster (he is actually a DJ amongst other things) which just seemed too good an opportunity to pass up.

I had some very positive comments on this picture on my Flickr stream and it’s an image I couldn’t have captured if I’d hauled out any other type of camera, especially a big clunky Polaroid, so it really is an example of how iPhone photography gives you access to images you would probably not have got otherwise.


EC: What does iPhoneography mean to you?

MB: To me it gives me the freedom to be able to take pictures just about wherever and whenever and of whatever I like.  Yes, I could carry an SLR or a compact camera around with me everywhere, and have done in the past (and usually still do when I’m traveling), but you don’t get the same spontaneity that you do with the iPhone.  I have my iPhone with me everywhere I go, so if I see something, I can take a photograph without having to haul my big camera out, or adjust settings or be too conspicuous, especially in situations where a ‘proper’ camera would draw attention or be inappropriate, or perhaps make me feel vulnerable.

I can take pictures in places like tube trains, public buildings, etc., where I can be much more candid and capture moments that are un-posed and not too deliberated over, giving much more freedom and spontaneity to my photography than I’ve had before.

It’s also, in a way, an ‘antidote’ to the more formal type of photography I’d always done in the past, either with large format cameras like 10×8 or 5×4, where everything is very carefully composed, arranged and lit, or with medium format or 35mm which can be more spontaneous but it still done in a very purposeful way.

With the iPhone, I see it as being like the blink of an eye,  and I think this comes across in my iPhone photography –  these images are much more like a still-frame of what my eye just happens to be seeing at that moment and it’s given me a huge appreciation for the nature of the snapshot and the ‘Decisive Moment’, as Cartier Bresson put it.

Another aspect of why I love my iPhone photography is that I don’t retouch these images.  I have spent many years working as a retoucher for many photographers, advertising/design agencies, TV companies etc and have done retouching to most of my own photography from my 35mm film cameras, digital SLRs, larger format cameras etc, and whilst this gives me the look and result that I want from those images, and in some cases, gives me an image that didn’t entirely exist in front of the camera (for example if I’ve removed a person, or added an object, or changed the reflections etc), working with the iPhone takes all of that away and the picture I take is pretty much the picture I get.

It’s refreshing to just shoot pictures, Polarize them, and upload them and that’s that, maybe with the odd tweak to the brightness or color, but nothing more.  It’s very liberating and I can treat this type of photography much more as a sort of visual ‘blog’ of snapshots and glimpses of things I’ve seen throughout the day, without having to worry about retouching them or anything. 

It’s had the effect that I now notice everything around me much more than I ever did before. I notice cracks in plaster, interesting shapes that cables on a train track might make, shadows, reflections, signs, graffiti, decay, light, texture, and tiny details in things all around me that would previously have gone unnoticed and I find myself really looking at everything more carefully now and taking photographs with my iPhone that I would never have considered before.

(Tube Cable)

EC: Do you have any formal training regarding traditional photography?

MB: Yes, I was doing ‘A’ Levels when I was 16/17 in completely un-artistic subjects but while I was at college doing that, I started an evening class in photography and found that I was quite good at it and really enjoyed it.  This was in the late 80’s so completely analogue – I was hand-processing film and making my own prints in the darkroom, sloshing around in chemicals which are mostly obsolete now.

This lead on to an ‘A’ Level in photography and I knew then that this was what I wanted to pursue, so I went to the London College of Printing to do a Foundation Diploma in Media Studies, which was basically film & photography, and I concentrated more on the photography, although I did make a little Super8 film that I’m still quite proud of!

I did well there and then I took a year out, 2 months of which I spent in USA, visiting relatives in DC and traveling around on my own with a second-hand 7-day Greyhound bus pass that never got date-punched so never expired and this allowed me to go to many towns and cities in the US and take a huge amount of photographs.

When I got back, I busily printed them and made a good folio out of those plus my college work and managed to get accepted onto the Photography Degree course at Blackpool College, here in the north of England, which at the time, was considered the best photography degree in the country.

I flourished there, really finding out what made me tick and what appealed to me photographically, and as the course went on, I found my interest in Mystery and the Metaphysical (and Surrealism) developing and studied this in great depth, bringing many aspects of it to my photography, which at the time was very still-life based, using 5×4 studio cameras.

I was always photographing objects that to me, suggested they could be something else in an alternative reality, like a pair of pliers that looked like it could be a fish, or some other object that looked like it could be ‘living’ in some way.

This shaped my final degree work and I was grateful for the experience of being at college to let me discover what it was I was really interested in and to study and develop that, and really try to understand it.

After college, I assisted many professional photographers, which gave me more of a technical training in cameras and lighting etc and allowed me to see how photography is an industry and how other people approach it, but it also gave me the access to professional cameras and studio equipment to develop my own work, which was still mostly 5×4 still-life, usually using Polaroid neg film which I loved at the time.

Although less still-life now, my photographs still mostly reflect my interest in mystery and the sort of ‘fleeting glance’ feel of something that catches your eye but you don’t get to really see.

(Evening Station)

EC: What about your London is so special that it makes you what to capture it through your iPhone?

MB: London is of course a very large and varied place with a huge amount of different types of buildings,  people, art, design etc. I can go somewhere like East London and find many examples of more ‘gritty’ street images, or look out of my window and take ethereal images of the o2 Dome and the sky.

I am fortunate enough to have traveled to some very interesting places in other countries too, so I always have my iPhone with me and the camera function on so I can take a picture of whatever catches my eye at that moment.

EC: Who or what are your artistic influences?

MB: Well, during my time at college, I discovered Rene Magritte and became somewhat obsessed with his surrealist paintings as they seemed to really fire my imagination and the  almost photographic ‘realism’ of his work heightened the surrealist effect for me. This lead me onto to find out who had inspired him, which helped me to discover metaphysical artist Giorgio de Chirico whose work really appealed to me because of its sense of dark mystery and ambiguity, and it was artists like him and also Carlo Carrà who, in a way, validated how I was beginning to see my photography going, and at times I’d see a painting by one of them and realize it was very similar to a photograph I’d just done, having not seen their work before and that helped me to know I was seeing things in a similar way to how they did.

Photographically, I always liked the work of Bill Brandt, for his surreal body-part ‘landscapes’ and wide angle distortion of bodies to look like something else entirely, and also his darkness in the street scenes he captured.  André Kertesz was another one that appealed to me for his use of shape and mood, and more recently, I’ve liked photographers such as Martin Parr for his stark snapshot photography, much of which he did with a camera phone too.

Cartier Bresson’s notion of the ‘Decisive Moment’ is always in the back of my mind too, and the spontaneity of shooting with an iPhone helps to capture this.

I’m very attracted to texture and always notice things like peeling paint, decay, dilapidation and love marks of things that used to be there but aren’t anymore, like a poster or a picture frame.

(Spain- Magic Hour)

EC: What has been the some of the challenges of using the iPhone as a camera?

MB: Most of my iPhone photography so far was done on my old iPhone 3G, which was only a 2megapixel camera and had no control over focus or exposure at all, so that was a challenge in terms of having little control over my images, but as I’ve said, I quite liked that ‘point-and-shoot’ aspect of it, especially when combined with the Polarize app which also has no options or settings.  It just is what it is.  Now, with my iPhone 4, there is a bit more control over focus and exposure, which does help with some images, but to be honest, I still mostly just point and shoot and don’t try to control it too much, just letting my instincts guide me.  It’s a refreshing change to all the settings and controls on an SLR.  The iPhone 4 has a 5mpx camera , but one of the gripes I have with the Polarize app is that the images it outputs are fairly small.  The developer has improved it but unfortunately Apple won’t support the app anymore, or allow him to submit updates, possibly because they’re worried about copyright issues with Polaroid, so the app has never changed. 

EC: Has your work been published before, if so, where? Did you ever expect your work to be noticed by the iPhoneography community?

MB: I used to enter the UK Association of Photographers assistants’ awards every year for a few years and I always had something accepted, so that meant my work was included in the official book and often the magazine of the AoP too, and a couple of times I won an award too  This helped raise awareness of me as a photographer, which I was trying to be at the time, as my profession, but after a while, I decided I wasn’t really cut out for the life of a pro photographer and decided to concentrate on the retouching side of things instead, only really doing photography for myself or the occasional small commission that came along

Still, I was very proud to have been published in the AoP books and now, with websites such as Flickr and Tumblr, you get to put your work out there much more easily and prolifically for people to see.

I have also made a book of a year’s worth of iPhone ‘Polaroids’, which is a sort of snapshot visual ‘blog’ of things that caught my eye throughout 2009 and that has turned out really well.  It’s a wonderful thing to have a real hard-backed book of your pictures and I’ve given them to a few people as presents which they’ve loved.

It is fairly expensive as there are 160 pages in it and the Blurb site charges more for more pages, so it has only sold a couple of copies but it’s more the fact that it exists and I have it (and some family/friends have it) that is important to me.  I’m going to do one for 2010 too, and will probably make it a yearly thing.

I’ve had a lot of positive response from the iPhoneography community, mainly on Flickr, and it’s nice to be part of a group like that!

(Trolleyed 1)

EC: What has been the most surprising or most predictable reaction from people to your iPhotographs?

MB: I have been very pleasantly surprised by the reaction I’ve had on Flickr since I started posting my iPhone ‘Polaroids’.  I’ve has so many positive comments and so much encouragement from people I don’t know, saying how much they like the images and how they want to see more, which has really spurred me on to keep doing it and keep putting it out there, and I have quite a few followers now!  I have only really just started my blog on Tumblr so that will take time to establish itself, but all I can do is put my images on there and hopefully people will like them and want to see more of them.

It is always interesting to me which images get the most or least response. There are often times when I post a picture to Flickr that I’m really pleased with and expect to get a lot of good comments for and it gets pretty much ignored, and conversely, I sometimes post an image that I’m not that crazy about but quite like and deserves to be there in the context of other images, and people go mad over it!  It’s a really interesting insight into what things ‘work’ and how people are affected by certain types of imagery.

I often get comments from people saying that my photographs show them details in everyday things that they would never have noticed or looked at at all and that it has made them look at things more, which I am pleased about.

I think the most predictable reaction I’ve had from some people is their opinion that my photographs are not valid because it’s a phone camera emulating a Polaroid, and it’s not the ‘real thing’, which I can understand, because my images are not real Polaroids – they are digital interpretations of the Polaroid style and I can see why a lot of people would have a problem with it not being real film, real rollers, real chemicals etc.

However, as I have said, most of the images I’ve taken in this way with my iPhone, I wouldn’t have been able to take with a real Polaroid camera, which is large, clunky, noisy, really obvious, not very spontaneous and very expensive, so I am proud of the images that I have got, which the iPhone has enabled me to capture.  The fact that I use an app which emulates a Polaroid style just works for me and gives the images a feel that I love and that other people seem to like so I’m gonna carry on doing it! 

(Razzle Dazzle)

EC: What’s in your iPhone camera bag? What app(s) do you currently use the most often?

MB: Well, obviously, Polarize is my Number 1 app, and I use that for just about all my iPhone photography.  It’s the best app I’ve found for emulating the Polaroid style, including, ironically, Polaroid’s own app which I didn’t like at all.  I love Polarize because it gives the right amount of the effect that I want, without overdoing it or being gimmicky, and I have used it enough now to know its idiosyncrasies and how it’s going to treat my images, and whilst I hope the developer manages to improve it and increase the output res on it, I hope he wouldn’t change it too much!  Some people have complained that you can’t select the portion of the image that gets Polarized and you can’t control other aspects of it, but I like the fact that you just get what you get and, like a real instant camera, you don’t have that much control – you have to rely on your own instincts and skills for composition etc, in-camera.

Another app I use sometimes is Photogene, which is useful for tweaking the color/contrast/brightness on images, before Polarizing them, if need be.
LoMob is a very nice app and can emulate all sorts of different types of vintage films and emulsions and image-edges etc, and EffectsLab can be handy for applying some preset filters to images, and Hipstamatic is very cool for a different type of retro-effect too.

AutoStitch is a very good app for stitching together images to make panoramics and works very well, whilst another app that I’ve found recently, called Decim8 is pretty much the opposite of those ‘retro’ apps and gives you a garbled, digitally distorted image, as if your file has become corrupted or something – can be quite cool with some practice!

Another recent one is TiltShift which can give nice areas of blur to an image.

(Kandy- Morris)

EC: What other thoughts would you like to share?

MB: My iPhone has opened up a new world of photography for me, allowing me to continually create images whenever and wherever I like in a style that I love, and although there are better phone cameras out there in terms of megapixels or controls, the iPhone gives more of a platform for developers to create wonderful photographic apps which make my iPhone far more used than my DSLR and much more accessible in everyday life too.  It has made me notice my environment more and see the details that would have previously gone unnoticed.

I’ll always still do larger format photography with my DSLR and other cameras, of course, but to have my iPhone with me at all times and in places where a big camera would not be appropriate gives me access to a wealth of images I wouldn’t not normally have and while I still see things that catch my eye, and while I and other people still like what I do, I’ll carry on doing it.

Thank you Matt for participating in this feature here on iPhoneogenic, the  iPhoneogenic Facebook Page, and on Twitter @iPhone0genic. I’m pleased an very honored to have you on my blog.

For more on Matt check out these links:


All images shown here are copyrighted property of the artist, please contact Matthew Burlem for copyright privileges.


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