Jul 10, 2014

Matthew Burlem - Signal Lost

As part as an ongoing effort to highlight mobile photographers who are exhibiting their work, I am pleased to present this interview with Matthew Burlem. If you're in the London area, be sure to stop by to view his work in person.

© Matthew Burlem
What is your name and where do you live?
MB:  My name is Matthew Burlem, and I live in North Greenwich, in London, UK, right by the Thames.

How did you get started in mobile photography?
MB:  My background is in photography, having done a degree in Photography at Blackpool in the North of England, in 1995.

This was before digital, of course, so I was dealing with several different formats of cameras and film, from 35mm and 6x7 rolls right through to 5x4 and 10x8 sheet film, developing and printing most of it myself.

Doing this degree taught me to develop my eye for a good composition, and my work was mostly still-life on 5x4 at the time, requiring meticulous lighting, props and sets, where each picture could take days, if not weeks to finish, from setting it all up, getting all the lighting right,  doing Polaroids, processing the film, darkroom printing etc., so it was all very involved but a good exercise in patience and detail.

© Matthew Burlem

Having left college, I then assisted several advertising and editorial photographers in London, again, using various formats of film cameras and lighting, in studios and on location, the idea being that I would then become a professional photographer myself, and whilst I did undertake small photography commissions, I found myself getting more into the digital retouching side of things, and gradually, the assisting diminished and the retouching work grew, until one day, I realised I wasn't going to make photography my career and that I would do it for myself so that it would remain fun and enjoyable and not become a 'job'.

Mobile phones with cameras were beginning to come in then, but it wasn't until I got my first iPhone - a 3G, that I realised the potential of what having a pretty decent camera in my pocket all the time meant, and I found myself snapping everything I saw, on a day to day basis, and using an app to instantly convert it into a 'Polaroid', which impressed me a lot and made me want to do more.

© Matthew Burlem

This was quite an antidote to the laboriously set up and controlled still life images I had been doing, and also to the retouching work I was making a living in, as it was pretty much what you see is what you get.

I loved the little glimpses of life and small details of my environment that I could capture any time, any place, where a DSLR or even a compact camera wouldn't have been suitable or subtle enough, such as on public transport or in a shop, so this opened up a world of possibility in what I could photograph and I found myself noticing details and fleeting events that I would previously have never noticed.

As the iPhone camera has improved, the quality of the images is often amazing, and the plethora of apps out there means I can create any look or feel I want to whilst on the move.

© Matthew Burlem

© Matthew Burlem

What device do you use? Do you edit on your phone or a tablet?
MB:  Whoever coined the phrase "The best camera is the one you have with you" really summed up the beauty of mobile photography, because whilst you may own the most expensive and sophisticated DSLR in the world, unless you have it with you and ready to shoot all the time, you're going to miss a lot of potentially great images.

I have my phone with me wherever I am, as well as a back-up battery pack, so I know I don't have to miss anything.

Everything is done on my iPhone 5 - the shooting, the editing, the processing, the lot. Previously I had the iPhone 4 and before that, the 3G, and now the camera is able to give a very impressive quality, as are the apps that are now abundant in the App Store.

© Matthew Burlem

My favourite app used to be Polarize, which converted the image into what looked like an instant Polaroid, which always gave a lovely feel to them, but that was discontinued and stopped working in later versions of iOS, so I moved on to ShakeItPhoto, which also did a pretty good job of emulating a Polaroid.

Nowdays, I don't do the Polaroid thing so much, and tend to do more processing on the images than I used to, so I find Snapseed, Plastic Bullet and FrontView  are my go-to apps for pretty much everything I do now.  

I don't have a tablet, so the small screen of the iPhone can make it a little tricky, but most good apps are designed with that in mind.  I'm quite excited about the larger-screen iPhone 6 that will be coming out later this year, as that'll enrich my mobile photography even more.

One of the things I love about iPhoneography is that it is all contained on the phone, so on my commute to work and back on public transport, or on a long flight, I can go through my pictures and do all the processing of them there and then, rather than having to find time do download files from a camera to a computer and be tied to that to work on them.

© Matthew Burlem

© Matthew Burlem

Who or what inspires you?
MB:  My degree in photography allowed me to study some master photographers, such as Bill Brandt and André Kertesz, which has inspired me a lot in the photographs that I take.  For example, Brandt's surreal 'bodyscape' photographs made me look at everyday objects in a new way, and the melancholy in much of Kertesz's work is a common element in mine too.

I also got very heavily into Surrealism and Metaphysical art whilst studying for my degree, and this has greatly influenced me, so I find myself representing objects in a way that slightly removes them from reality, or gives them an other-worldy quality, perhaps.

© Matthew Burlem

As I said before, I now constantly look around me everywhere I am and notice details I would never have before, so just the everyday world inspires me, whether it be a tiny sticker on a wall, some flaking paint, an obscure sign, or a lost object in the street - it's all there to be noticed and because my phone is always with me, I can always record it. 

I've often shown my pictures to people and they tell me how amazed they are that this thing I've created a photograph of is something they've walked past every day for years and never noticed was there, and how they'll now notice it in future.

Also, life is happening around us all the time and with my phone, I can quickly capture a fleeting moment, an expression, or a scenario you could never have anticipated or planned for, and Cartier Bresson's term 'the Decisive Moment' is very important to me, as it really is capturing a moment that has never and will never happen again, and this is key to a lot of my mobile photography.

© Matthew Burlem

Do you plan your shoots or just capture images along your daily routine?
MB:  I tend to capture images just as and when I notice something, which is the most satisfying part of it for me, as it's spontaneous and unexpected, and it's usually the seemingly most insignificant and often-unnoticed details in our every day life that can make the most interesting images.

Occasionally, I'll spot something that for one reason or another it wouldn't be easy to photograph at that moment so I'll keep it in mind for next time I'm there, or will go back to shoot it, but pretty much everything I do is unplanned and just occurs when I spot something.

© Matthew Burlem

How did Signal Lost, your current exhibition come about?
MB:  I had previously made a book entitled 'Snapshots 1' in 2010, which contained many of my simpler 'Polaroid' style images that I was doing at the time, and was recently thinking about doing another one, to collate some of the more stylised images I'd been doing since then.

I'd also participated in an iPhoneography event at the Apple Store in Regent Street, London, in 2011, where myself with 3 other iPhoneographers, presented a slide show of our iPhone Street Photography, and talked about how the images had come about, as well as the benefits of using a mobile phone to capture them, when a bigger, 'proper' camera might not have been suitable or available, and the audience reaction was very good, so it highlighted what a growing interest there is in this form of photography.

© Matthew Burlem

My partner had bought a café/restaurant in London in 2013 and was thinking about using the space to display work by local artists, and having discussed this with a photographer that I know, it emerged that London didn't have a gallery or space devoted entirely to showcasing mobile photography, whereas cities such as Paris and New York do, so this seemed to be the perfect angle to take on it, as the Instagram revolution continues and, what with the restaurant being called 'Niche', it fitted well with this niche of photography.

We're very proud that we have created a space devoted to showing mobile photography in London, which we hope will support and also be supported by the mobile photography community here and beyond.

© Matthew Burlem

The plan was to collaborate with several other mobile-photographers to create an exhibition there, but as time went on, and having never curated something like that before, we decided that I'd kick things off with a solo show, and that gave me the forum to collate my favourite pictures that I'd taken in London, which became 'Signal Lost', with the next exhibition hopefully being a more collaborative effort.

The title came from those very words I noticed spray-painted on the pavement/sidewalk somewhere in London, and it really resonated with me, as it seemed so mysterious and melancholy, and was obviously intended for a cable engineer or someone like that to denote something technical in the street for the purposes of some work to be carried out, but I loved how esoteric it was and how some signs or messages left around us only mean something to maybe one person or a very select few.

I was always fascinated with the idea of 'Mystery' while I was at college doing my degree and things like barcodes, ambiguous objects and unfathomable signs always caught my attention, where some hidden meaning lurked beneath the surface.

© Matthew Burlem

How many pieces are exhibited? What format was used to display your work?
MB:  There are about forty images exhibited in the venue, and I considered how to display them very carefully, finally deciding that smallish prints with no border, but a solid black frame would suit my images the best, and how I would like them presented.

Nearly all of my pictures are square, and I like to apply a messy black border to them in my phone, so replacing that with the square black frame worked well, and I decided against a white border, to give them more of a self-contained 'instant' feel.

I'm very pleased with how they look on the wall and with the presentation choices I made, which wasn't easy to arrive at.

Following many positive comments from customers at the restaurant, about my pictures, I decided to produce a book of them, also titled 'Signal Lost' (with about twenty extra images included too) to accompany the exhibition, which people can buy from my website.  

© Matthew Burlem

Are they for sale or just for show?
MB:  Prints are for sale, yes, from the website I created for 'Signal Lost', as well as the book I made to accompany the show, which I am very pleased with.

What advice would you have for iPhoneographers who wish to exhibit their own work?
MB:  The hardest part for me, in doing this, was editing down hundreds of images which I'd created, most of which I loved for one reason or another, into just forty for the exhibition (the book gave me an opportunity to include some more), but it did help me to focus on what makes an image work, whether that  would come across to other viewers, and what would work cohesively as a set of images.

So, I would say to think carefully about your images, try to remove yourself from an attachment you might have with the occasion that you shot a picture, or something special that maybe means something to you but someone else might not get, and think about what images would convey something about what you want to say, or work together to tell a story of a place, perhaps.

© Matthew Burlem

In 'Signal Lost', all the images were shot in London, many of which were on the London Underground, and these run through the set as a theme, exploring textures, details, quirks or human moments on the Tube that most people probably don't notice in their every day lives.

Also think carefully about how to display them.  Too small in a place like a café or restaurant, and people will have to lean over tables to be able to see them.  Too big, and you might take away some of the intimacy of the images, as well as expose any technical limitations a mobile phone camera will have.

It's also good to have posted images to sites such as Flickr because that can give you a good idea of which ones resonate the most with other viewers or which don't really come across that well, even if they mean a lot to you, and this will help create a cohesive set that will be engaging and capture the imagination of your viewers.

Try to go to Instagram shows and other mobile-photography exhibitions as much as you can and see what works and what doesn't work, how images have been sequenced and presented and use this to make your own exhibition the best it can be.

© Matthew Burlem

Is there anything else you'd like to add?
MB:  Just to say thank you to Geri for her interest in my iPhoneography and for featuring me in her blog, and that if any readers are in London over the summer, do come in and have a look at 'Signal Lost'!

© Matthew Burlem

Find Matthew:  Flickr / Website / Twitter / Instagram

Other Links: Niche Food and Drink 


  1. I like the work of Matthew. Interesting interview. Thanks Geri.


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