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Cell Phone Photography: Shawn Rocco

June 24, 2009

Shawn Rocco, 37, is a professional photographer. He shoots a Motorola E815.’

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Not when he’s actually on assignment for The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., where he has worked full time since 2002, but in those situations when he doesn’t mind ceding some control to a medium that is idiosyncratic — to say the least — in exchange for the happy prize of serendipity; the image that doesn’t quite emerge as he planned and is therefore all that more meaningful.

“Serendipity is a very powerful thing,” Mr. Rocco said in a telephone interview this week. “I’m not a voyeur, but I like catching people in their own little world, without interrupting them.”

Having tentatively started taking cellphone photos two years ago, Mr. Rocco now finds himself celebrated as the “cellphone guy,” a distinction he eagerly nurses through his Cellular Obscura blog. Photo District News profiled him in January. And his work was highlighted at the recent Look3 Festival of the Photograph in Charlottesville, Va.

None of his cellphone pictures have been published in the newspaper. His aim is not to win Canon-carrying professionals over to the Motorola E815, already an ancient relic in the constantly churning mobile landscape. Rather, it is to escape — however briefly — what he calls the “megapixelmania” of contemporary photography, in which every aspect can be rigorously and technically controlled.

“It’s a way of preserving my artistic sanity,” Mr. Rocco said.

“I don’t know that I like having too many choices,” he said. “It brings me back to when I first started working in black and white. I still get chills thinking of the paper coming up in the developer.” Mr. Rocco, a Bronx native who grew up in Yonkers and in Orange County, minored in photography at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh. He began freelancing for The News & Observer in 1996.

He discerns parallels between cellphone and Polaroid photography. “Wih Polaroid, it wasn’t a crapshoot,” Mr. Rocco said, “but you left a lot of things in the hands of the chemistry.”

Among other things, he discovered, the Motorola E815 can produce almost velourlike blacks. And he’s also found that the slight delay in the shutter release can further the goal of serendipity by capturing an instant slightly after the one he was going for, like the woman looking down into her shopping bags (Slide 10).

“It’s almost more real,” he said.

Mr. Rocco said he owns a number of the Motorola units, which were issued several years ago to the staff at the newspaper. Each has its own quirks. “In one,” he said, “the whole left side is out of focus, which could be cool — but I haven’t found the right subject for that yet.”

I couldn’t resist asking: does he ever use any of them to make a phone call?

“Not any more,” he answered.’

His Blog Can be seen HERE

For the New York Times

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