Any camera phone owner worth her Instagram followers knows there’s a flood of knowledge to discover about someone through the photos on their smartphone. This month, Milk Gallery gave the world a look through Peter Arnell’s. The former ad man’s first retrospective, running through April 1, spans 30 years of his personal photography—a 134-piece show of rarely seen shots mostly taken on his iPhone.
“It’s a natural point between career shifts,” Arnells recently told DuJour about the showcase, entitled Photographs 1984-2014 by Peter Arnell. The design and branding expert who created Donna Karan’s iconic New York cityscape mural agreed to the retrospective at the urging of his longtime friend, architect Frank Gehry, who curated the exhibit. “I didn’t understand how it’s possible to bring my pictures together until Frank helped me, and we thought it was a good time to do it,” he says. “I’ve shot a lot of fashion and a lot of nudes. Frank pushed very hard for that not to be in the show and try to let my work evolve to another subject.”
Looking back on a lifetime of snapping photos while holding court in the advertising industry, Arnell recalls that “it was out of need more than out of design that I started taking pictures. I needed to be able to capture certain things in a very specific way that was clear in my mind, and so I used the camera as a tool to do that.”
Over the years, that camera has been an Instamatic, a Leica and, more recently, the several smartphones Arnell owns. Ninety percent of what’s on display at Milk Gallery were shot with his iPhone—though impressive, Arnell will tell you that it’s what’s in the picture that’s more important. “I just think the iPhone permits me great access to the immediacy of capturing things that I would normally have to spend a lot of time or energy managing through other larger and more complicated equipment,” he says.
The images hung at the retrospective are shot using a black-and-white setting on his phone, and Arnell uses no fancy photo-editing apps—”just the stuff that comes with the phone.” But like any user of technology, he’s not without his gripes: “I wish that Apple did a better job at not just trying to align photo management storage and Photoshop, but also working with artists and photographers to really expose the potential and value of an iPhone—and, for that matter, a Samsung Galaxy and an HTC,” all of which he owns and photographs with.
What compels him to hit the shutter? The same things that probably interest you: city landmarks, human portraits—Arnell keeps it simple. “I love things that are just ordinary, and I think by virtue of just finding the right composition, they become extraordinary and they get somebody to look at things that they wouldn’t normally look at. Like a line in the street or the shadow of a tree—they’re very clear, simple pictures, not very complex. And I think the iPhone is a device that has been built to do that.”
Just take the last photo Arnell shot with his phone, for instance: “the front desk reception area at Milk Gallery. While everybody was looking at the show, I was looking at the security guards at the front desk.”
See this shot and more of the images displayed at the Milk Gallery retrospective below: