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User Profile: Daniel Berman

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Daniel Berman, aka Reservoir Dan, is a prolific iphoneographer who is perhaps best known for his images of the landscapes around his home near Toronto. With a background in video and television and a longstanding interest in still photography, Berman has built a successful career out of his creative visual work. Uninspired by the monotonous environment during a recent long winter, Berman began to experiment with non-representational work for the first time. Read on to learn how this work—which he calls appstractions—came to be, and how Percolator figured into its creation.

Percolator App: We are always excited to talk to people who are doing interesting and uncommon things with the Percolator iPhone app. The appstractions series certainly fits this bill. Before getting into the details, we’re curious about your overall approach to photography. Your background seems to be in video and film—have you always been a still photographer as well?

Daniel Berman: Cameras have been part of my life for a long time.  I’m not one of these guys who saw Star Wars at eight years old and knew that I was going to make films—I always just really dabbled with images. I’m a storyteller ultimately so after I left university I started to get into video and film via TV because I guess I just had some things that I wanted to say and it seemed like that was a natural palette for me. It turned out that I was pretty good at making films and TV shows—not commercial fare but the kind of things that I wanted to do—and I managed to get paid for it so I just kept doing it. All the while I was always taking photographs. I find the two are very connected.

One of Berman's Appstractions

Tune in Turn on and Turn Upside Down

Percolator: When you got going with the iPhone did you find that it changed the way you approached photography?

Berman: I have to say when I got my first iPhone three years ago I really started taking a lot of pictures because for the first time I literally always had a camera in my pocket. You know when I used to take pictues with my old Pentax K1000…you’d put a roll of film in and you’d have to be very focused. You wouldn’t take a hundred shots, you’d take 36 and you’d take them very carefully and it would be a week and a half or two weeks before you saw them. It was a completely different world. When I got my iPhone I started to take crazy amounts of pictures, like thousands in a week instead of fifty.

Percolator: Do you feel like that shift changed how you were moving around in the world and looking at things on a basic level?

Berman: There’s no question for me that the iPhone—I don’t want to be hyperbolic, but it really has changed my life in a lot of ways. I still obviously make my living making documentaries and I still work in TV, but I have taken something like 50,000 pictures in the last three years and I probably took half that many in my whole life [up to that point]. It sort of lead me as a gateway drug to want to get a better DSLR and now I have a top of the line DSLR and all these lights in my office and I’m enticing people to come get their portraits done.

Percolator: Has that level of commitment to still photography changed your relationship to your TV and film work?

Berman: I read a lot of about video editing and a lot of the technical stuff behind what the new video cameras can do but I’m way more interested in photography. To the detriment of my bank account, really, because I don’t like weddings so I’m not going to go do any of that and I have three little kids so I can’t be the traveling photographer guy. It’s a very serious hobby. I love it—I just love images, I love creating images whether they move or whether they’re still.

Percolator: So the appstractions series is pretty fascinating work. Had you worked at all with more abstract or non-representational imagery at the time you started on that series?

Berman: That’s an amazing thing. I never created anything like that in my life until I got my iPhone and it was actually probably two-and-half years into having an iPhone [when I started the project]. I’ve always loved the abstract expressionists—Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning and even Jackson Pollack—that 1950s New York thing. Those types of images have always intrigued me as a viewer. What happened is that I live outside of Toronto and winter here—like Chicago or Cleveland or Detroit—it lasts a long time. For a good solid five months things are kind of brown and grey and white. That’s cool for a little while, but I love shooting landscapes, that’s kind of my thing. I don’t live in a big city anymore, I’m not into the street photography thing. So I was in this situation where I wasn’t able to shoot—there was nothing that I could see that was interesting. Percolator was one of the first apps I got. I started messing around with it and what came right out to me was that I could manipulate the resulting image. It was just colors and shapes and I felt like it got to the heart of what I was trying to do but without being filtered by the metaphor of reality.

Percolator: One of the things we think is most unique about Percolator is that it takes a lot of the “photograph” out of the photograph.

Berman: Exactly. The very first appstract that I made is probably still the one that is most popular in terms of when I post it people really like it. It started with Percolator and then I started putting it through some other apps. You can still see the percolator elements to it. It’s called “He Just Got Lonely” and you can clearly see strong elements of Percolator left in it, even though it went through, like, nine apps afterwards. In fact, the first five or six appstractions I made all started with Percolator.

Berman's "He Just Got Lonely"

He Just Got Lonely

Percolator: It’s a beautiful image and you definitely can see the Percolator in it, though you’ve really taken it in an interesting direction. Does all of your processing occur on the phone itself?

Berman: Yes. Absolutely. Everything that you see in that whole project—I made 80 images and I published a book—everything starts with an iPhone photograph and finishes on the phone and when I upload it it’s done. A lot of them started with the same photograph. I probably used the same picures a half a dozen times but you’d never know that because the end result is so different. It got to the point where the process of making these things was the journey in itself so it almost in a way didn’t even matter what I started with. I could start with anything.

Percolator: Aside from Percolator, what were the other apps you found yourself using regularly for the appstractions project?

Berman: For the abstract stuff what I would use percolator a lot as a starting point, or if I went too far with sometning and didn’t like it, sometimes I’d put it back through Percolator to shake it all up. I used Filterstorm which is a really great app for being able to do multiple exposures and to blend different parts of different pictures. So I might make, say, half a dozen versions of something and find I like the top right corner of this one, and the bottom left corner of that one, and the middle of another one, and I would use Filterstrom to combine the elements I liked into another image. I used PictureShow to quickly give me a bunch of different looks and then I’d start to mess around with those. I used Camera Bag a lot and I used Iris Photo Suite. Tiffen Photo FX is always useful for doing things. It’s really just going back and forth. A lot of it is making multiple versions of the same thing and then combining the things I liked about each one.

Percolator: It sounds like quite a process.

Berman: Each one would take me about 5 or 6 hours. Sometimes over the course of a few days. Sometimes I’d get lucky and come up with something I liked in half an hour. Of the 80 I made I’d say it was an average of 5 hours for each one.

Percolator: We’re interested in giving our users different ideas about how to use Percolator or other photo apps. After doing so much work with these apps do you have any words of wisdom to share with people who are using multiple apps to process their photography?

Berman: The real thing for me is I would love for the rest of the art community to understand that iPhone photography is not about creating a push button Monet. Not everyone who has a canvas and a set of paint makes a nice picture.  Some people do more interesting work than others. I’m not putting myself in that category, but I’m saying that a lot of people just take a picture, apply a filter, and say “Wow my boring picture’s really nice now.” But the truth is, it’s not really nice now. It’s the same boring picture, it just looks like it was taken in 1971 instead of 2011. In my estimation there are probably two or three hundred artists out there who are really using the iPhone and all the apps as tools and who spend hours and days working—like any artist would—and they have a unique vision. When you see their pictures you say, “Oh that’s a so-and-so.” They have a unique voice. So, you have to be willing to play, and to not settle for just, you know, applying a filter and going home. Push yourself. Take the same photograph and try to app it twenty different ways and you’ll find after a little while that maybe the 10th one is more interesting than the 1st one because you started to really see something and learn something. It’s really just doing it. It’s like any art form. The more you play piano the better you get…. My best piece of advice is to dig in there and don’t be afraid to make tons of stuff even with the same picture to see what it does.

Percolator: You designed an album cover for Lee Konitz using Percolator. How did that come about?

Album Cover for Lee Konitz, SOLOS: The Jazz Sessions

Album Cover for SOLOS: The Jazz Sessions

Berman: I produced a 39-part series on great jazz artists performing solo in a church in Toronto. We’ve put out about twenty DVDs and they sell OK, but digital audio sells a lot better.  So I’ve  got six of them on iTunes and Amazon and I decided to design all the covers for the series on my iPhone. So the first one I did was the Lee Konitz one and I used Percolator for really the whole back of it. And then I used Phoster to put a grid on there and put the title on. And so that was basically percolator with a grid and a title on it.

Percolator: Very cool. What are you working on these days?

Berman: I founded the Mobile Photo Awards this year, which is a competition open to images shot with any mobile phone, and will showcase 25 winners in a gallery tour exhibit and award some other cool prizes.  I’m also working on a documentary film on a Cuban jazz musician. Basically always trying to push the boundaries and learn new things.

Percolator: Any last thoughts you’d like to share about Percolator?

Berman: You know, no other app does what Percolator does. It’s unique.

Percolator: Thanks so much for speaking with us Dan. It’s been a pleasure!

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