Profile | Robert Herman: The Phone Book

Woman in a handmade dress, New York, NY

Shot exclusively on an iPhone, these photographs combine the vernacular of modern life with the technique of a master of the medium. Robert Herman then geo-tagged the photographs, and that data appears as the caption to the work. The incredible specificity creates another layer of context, bonding the work of art with the technology that made it possible. Herman speaks with Crave about The Phone Book.

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The Birds, Fort Lauderdale, FL, USA

CraveOnline: I love how The Phone Book is a continuation in your work as a street photographer, as it brilliantly conveys a deeply cinematic aesthetic of daily life. Can you speak about some of your aesthetic influences in photography and film and how they inform your vision as a photographer?

Robert Herman: As far as the cinema goes, it’s embedded in my visual DNA. I grew up in a family that owned movie theaters in Brooklyn and elsewhere and was I exposed to film from a very young age. Seeing Blow-Up by Michelangelo Antonioni when I was around 11 years old, and then his Zabriskie Point later on, made a huge impression on me.

PRT_PhoneBook_DJKTThe early ‘70s is now considered to be the golden age of American auteur filmmaking and I was very lucky to experience these films at such an impressionable age. After high school I attended NYU Film School, and discovered the films by Godard, Bertolucci and Bergman.  For three dollars, I could see a double feature at the Bleeker Street Cinema. I immersed myself in the study of the language of cinema.

And then, when I began to take my still photography seriously while still at NYU, I discovered The Americans by Robert Frank, Harry Callahan’s Color and the photographs of André Kertész. I would say that my style, (which is not a word I particularly like), that emerged in my practice of still photography, that began at NYU as well, comes from my love of stories well told with images, be it in a movie or a photograph.


Taxi, New York, NY USA

Please speak about how the iPhone inspired you to engage with photography anew? What were some of the things it offered that the camera could not do?

I began making photographs with the iPhone in 2010 and started taking it seriously when I discovered the Hipstamatic App. Surprisingly, it was the limitations of the iPhone/Hipstamatic that made it a compelling choice: the square format, the fixed lens and the slow ISO. Unlike a DSLR that has a five-shot burst, it forced me to slow down. With no zoom, no telephoto; at my disposal, I had to move. I felt closer to my previous analogue practice than I had in a long time.

Using the Hipstamatic App gave me a seemingly exponential number of lens/film pairings to choose from. After some experimenting, I found a lens/film combination that pleased me. I wanted to echo my previous street work with Kodachrome and Tri- X. Using a clean “lens” and a “film” combination added warm saturated colors to the image. For black and white, I used the same clean “lens” with a high contrast, grainy “film”.  Most of the photographs in this book were made with these same lens/film combinations.  Working this way, I hoped to create a consistent body of work. Shooting street photography with the iPhone has another advantage. Using an iPhone allows me to remain almost unnoticed while shooting.  No one pays attention to someone looking at his or her smart phone. In this, I am reminded of Walker Evans and Helen Levitt’s use of a camera with a lens that appeared to be pointing in one direction, while in reality they were exposing the film with the real lens pointed in another. This allowed Evans and Levitt to make images with greater authenticity.

Compared to a DSLR or a point and shoot camera in the street, the iPhone is almost invisible. I am drawn to the spontaneous, unforced event. I see myself as a vessel witnessing and recording a moment in time and space. I respond to the visual stimuli before me, making decisions based on instinct and experience.  In the past, there was always a part of me that found it slightly inauthentic and artificial to go out with a camera and look for pictures. The iPhone allows me to put aside this artificiality and shoot whenever and wherever I am. It is a joy to always have a camera with me when the muse strikes.

All images © 2015 Robert Herman from THE PHONE BOOK, released through Schiffer Publishing, Inc.

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.