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Bryce Lankard: Looking beyond the ordinary

Creating great images with the phone in his pocket

 by Carolyn Males

You might expect fine art photographer Bryce Lankard to show up with a Hasselblad or a Nikon in hand. After all, this is a man whose work has appeared in publications like Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Newsweek, and Forbes, as well as in coffee table books and gallery shows.

Over the years, the North Carolina-based documentary artist has aimed his camera lens at the South, capturing all its strange beauty and eccentricities: Elvis impersonators, old motel signs, rustic barns, amusement parks, people at play, and any other subject that struck his imagination. Critics have lauded the “muscular boldness” of his work as he’s covered the topsy-turvy world of New Orleans post-Katrina and ventured north to New York City where he shot a rouge gallery of local characters and moody cityscapes.

Photography: The Omnipresent Camera, An iPhone workshop taught by Bryce Lankard.
March 21 at the Art League Academy., 843.842.5738

But today he’s here pulling up a chair across from me on the porch of a Bluffton eatery, looking like a bluesman in his fedora and geometric-patterned shirt. In one hand his fingers curl around a cup of coffee. In the other, they clasp one of his favorite pieces of shooting equipment –– an iPhone. Yes, that same ubiquitous enabler of selfies, funny cat and dog pix, not to mention endless streams of Instagram posts stuffed with meals we’ve eaten.

Finding your voice with the work is even more challenging when everyone has the same camera.”

Lankard, needless to say, is not adding to the chattering sensory cloud overload. Instead he is shooting deliberately with purpose and a critical eye. What’s more he’s challenging all of us to stop and really look at what we’re seeing before we click on that “camera we’re all carrying around in our pockets.”

Now as the two of us lean in and scroll through screens of his mesmerizing images, I make a mental vow to put a leash on my itchy trigger finger and to edit out those so-so shots that clog my camera roll.

Lankard, a veteran instructor at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, has come to the Lowcountry to share a few tips on cell phone photography before he teaches a half-day workshop at the Art League of Hilton Head Academy next month.

But before we get to “the how to,” it’s only fitting, since Lankard is a pictorial storyteller, to start with the tale about how he came to embrace smart phone technology.

He tilts back his hat and begins, “I was brought up with the philosophy of street photography, so I was constantly seeing and shooting.” That meant that no matter where he went, his carried his big cameras and lenses ready to catch any person, place, or thing that grabbed his interest.

But all that changed when he moved to the Big Easy in late 1980s. “I was in New Orleans at a time when the crime rate was through the roof,” he begins. “And who was the favorite street crime target? A tourist.”

In response, he began limiting where he carted his cameras, bringing them to planned photo shoots but leaving them home as he roamed into iffy territory. But his frustration quickly mounted as he came across colorful personalities, offbeat situations, intriguing shadows and patterns – all those missed opportunities.

Then in 2007, the iPhone with its built-in camera came out and voilà! Lankard’s in-the-moment street shoots were back in business.

Secrets of a master: Tips for making extraordinary photos with a smart phone

No matter what your level of photography — casual shooter, artist, experienced photographer, Lankard encourages you to stop and look at the world in a different way.

1. It’s all about seeing. Take your time and really study what you’re shooting.
2. Think about what draws your eye to wander around a scene.
3. Ask what story you want the image to tell. What do you like to shoot? If you like flowers, shoot them. Portraits? Ditto.
4. Look for patterns: shapes, shadows, lines, grids, swirls –– even the way pollen is dispersed on the ground.
5. Don’t be afraid to go wild. Explore and experiment.
6. Look for odd angles.
7. Move your body. “What happens if you crouch down, take two steps to the left or right, stand on a chair?”
8. Do something funky, like pointing your lens at the sun.
9. Try out all the tools in your camera’s tool box. Shoot the same scene with different settings, different filters, exposures, etc.
10. Play around with different camera apps.
Edit. Edit. Edit. Edit out all the uninteresting images, the stuff that doesn’t work.

Now, Lankard turns his screen toward me and shows me a photo he’d taken minutes before we’d met. He had wandered over to a nearby building with an empty storefront where two dilapidated stools sat in front of its weathered red façade. Most of us would not have given the scene a second glance, let alone lifted our phone to immortalize it.

However, he’d crouched down to get a better look and discovered a spider web lit by a ray of sunlight. Click. Now he had a picture that told of lost dreams. He’d seen the faded beauty of the “everyday” and wed it with layers of emotion and memory.

“Having a camera changes how you walk through the world.” As he stands to leave, he offers a final thought, “If you learn to master looking beyond the ordinary, your images will stand out from the crowd.”