CALIFORNIA AT OCEAN — It seems like every denizen of the Westside is empowered with a smartphone equipped with a camera, and they use them, for good or for ill.
Pictures of the Santa Monica Pier abound, as do surreptitious shots of high-priced meals at fancy restaurants snapped before disapproving waiters can discourage the practice. All aspects of the world are processed through one of a multitude of flattering filters that can take your umpteenth photo of that neighbor kid’s kite and imbue it with the sepia-tinged tragedy of spent youth.
Chris Blough takes a different approach.
Armed only with an iPhone, Blough documents the Westside with an eye for composition that puts some traditional photography to shame. He compiled a second book of his photos entitled “California at Ocean” referencing the intersection near his Santa Monica domicile and inspiration for many of the shots, which lean heavily on landscapes and static objects best captured through the phone lens.
A light treatment with photo-editing app Snapseed for color saturation and clarity, and the images are ready to go.
His work has won widespread recognition within the Instagram photo community — one of the largest photo-editing and sharing apps recently bought by Facebook for a cool $1 billion — and he’s one of only a couple hundred people that the Instagram blog follows with regularity.
“The reason I like mobile is that I’m not always going to carry this,” Blough said, pointing to a considerably more powerful — and consequently bulkier — Cannon 60D. “I don’t want to miss the perfect shot because I don’t have my camera.”
The iPhone 4S and 5, Blough’s mobile instruments of choice, were like the breadcrumbs that led him back to photography after a 10-year detour through the “real world.”
Blough’s day job involves marketing and ad sales for an entertainment website that targets the collegiate crowd (read: boob jokes, marijuana references, flash games), a far cry from the artistic bent of his hobby.
He first learned the craft junior year of high school in the suburb of Chicago called Rockford, Ill. on traditional equipment, developing film in old-school dark rooms that smelled heavily of chemicals and shone with red lights.
By the time he went to college, Blough was well-versed in photography if not necessarily experienced. Rather than continue with the craft, he took up marketing as a major and joined the army of people attempting to monetize the sprawling playground that is the Internet.
“I was scared at the idea of making photography a real job,” Blough said.
Work with the Walt Disney Company and Myspace intervened. It wasn’t until Blough ditched his old phone and took up a fourth-generation iPhone that he rediscovered the simple joy of photography.
According to the Pew Research Center, some 45 percent of American adults have smartphones and the little cameras that go with them. That number expands as one looks worldwide, and certainly other photographers than Blough have taken notice.
Entire organizations have arisen out of the democratization of photography including the international Mobile Photo Group, established in 2011, which caters exclusively to photography produced using a mobile or handheld device.
While these ubiquitous products tend to be accessible and user-friendly, there is no app to transform the user into the next Ansel Adams, and Blough knew it. He got encouragement from family, friends, his girlfriend Chante Pradella and an unlikely source — the Internet itself.
Instagram, the aforementioned photo-editing app, holds weekly contests on its site called “Weekend Hashtag Project.” Each assignment comes with a general subject suggestion and a hashtag — the best photo submission gets displayed on the website.
Blough threw in a photo of a wall with the words “ice cream” half-displayed in scrawling cursive type, a stark snapshot that one might see framed in a kitchen positioned near a print of an espresso cup.
It swept the competition and earned him a spot on the Instagram site. He now has several thousand followers, and constantly updates with new images of Los Angeles and the Westside that connects him to other weekend warrior photographers.
Blough feels he has a skill set that sets him apart, however. While others concentrated on their photography skills or their careers, he was learning how to sell people on ideas and concepts. He hopes that will translate to selling himself as he tries to launch into the world of professional photography and take on people-focused projects with his more versatile Cannon.
“It was 10 years, and I enjoyed the lull. It was necessary in the big picture,” Blough said.
Blough will have an opportunity to display both his phone work and action photography at the Hangar Gallery at Santa Monica Airport through March 23, and will also have a spot in the annual Airport Artwalk on March 16.