Om Malik: I’ve been fascinated by your work, and I don’t mean the Litely app or the presets. I often go to your website and look at your work. Goddamn, those pictures. Every single time I see them online and on Instagram, I’m like, “What is with this guy? How can one be so amazing?” Anyway, enough of the gushing. Let’s talk about photography.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the iPhone as a camera thing and wondering what it all means. Looking at it from my perspective, four years ago, I did not know how to take pictures. I thought I was just not a visual person. Instagram came and something clicked in me, and I figured out that I can express myself through photos. More recently I have been wondering if we are in the second phase of the phone and camera marriage.
Cole Rise: It’s a renaissance. In 2003, camera phones were just coming out. I forget which exact phone had it, but it was fascinating to see normal people suddenly have a camera with them all the time. Suddenly I was that person. I always had a camera, like a big DSLR. A $1,000 Sony DSC‑F707 five megapixels. Best camera you could have. It was in my hand, basically — it was always with me.
But I also had this little Sony phone for a while in college. I was photographing all the time with this little two megapixel — not even, like, a megapixel. I think it was 320 x 480: tiny, tiny photos. They were so pixelated. But they were gorgeous. They almost looked like a painting, because they were crappy.
Now when I’m at home at Christmas time, it’s like, Mom’s got her iPad out. She was always resistant to it. She’s the one who stuck to those 35 millimeter disposable cameras on trips, because that’s all she knew. Now she has her iPad, and she’s shooting only with that. Our family camera is a tablet. It doesn’t make sense. It’s fascinating to see that.
Going through the Instagram thing and making those filters was a learning experience, because — there’s a couple things there. First, it was giving away what was my signature — how I edited photos — to an app that I selfishly wanted to use to just post my photos on really easily. But then suddenly it became 200 million users using that same style. It’s no longer unique.
At the time phone cameras were crappy. They were five megapixels or three megapixels starting out and weren’t very high fidelity. You had to cover it to make it look good. Hipstamatic was the thing. They wanted to create this vintage feel. You just smattered it and made it look like something else, because the actual photo itself was nothing to marvel at.
It’s different now. The iPads shoot amazing photos. My phone shoots better than what my $1,000 camera did in 2003.
OM: I think 2010 is when I started taking pictures differently. Before that I had BlackBerry and Nokia smartphones and I would take a lot of pictures, but there was no depth to them. The photos were flat. You couldn’t be creative. It was just pictures.
Thanks to the iPhone, post-Instagram, people have started to think in terms of composition, color, and exposure. I think for a lot of people like me — who are not natural-born photographers — all of that was ambient learning. You didn’t know much about how to edit a picture, but you learned by playing with the apps. You saw what other people were doing and you tried to figure it out yourself. It was less about filters and more about changing one’s expectations of photography.
CR: That’s a good point. This renaissance is really the democratization of photography. Cameras are a commodity. They’re everywhere. For exactly that reason, it used to cost you a lot of money to get a decent camera to make art. For a long time having a camera in general was like, “What is that person doing? Who are they?” This whole Vivian Maier thing. Have you heard about her?
CR: She’s this undiscovered artist from the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s. She’d been shooting since the ’50s, but after she died they found 300,000 undeveloped negatives that she’d taken, totally unknown to anyone else. Now she’s being hailed as one of the top street photographers of the 20th century. She was always unique. People remembered her because she had a camera. That was rare at the time.
Now everyone has cameras. They’re all pulling out these phones and doing all these things. How do you stand out? How do you comprehend all that data? It’s mind-blowing. These are our memories. These are what people are using every day. We’re remembering more, first of all, because we’re taking more photos.
Also, as an artist, that’s conflicting, because now my little cousin can take a similar photo to mine and edit it like I used to. It would take me days. But she does it instantaneously on Instagram.
[topic]Are memories dead?[/topic]
Are Memories Dead?
OM: One thing I find distressing about the camera revolution is our ability to form memories with the photos, considering that we are always busy taking the picture and forgetting the life unfolding around the picture, which is what gives it so much context. Memories are in your heart and in your mind. I think we confuse photos on our smartphone as memories. The omnipresence of visual sensors has eliminated the idea of memories. There is a payload of emotion attached to memories. Today pictures have none of that. Even though they’re more beautiful, they’re more omnipresent. There are pictures everywhere. But there is little emotional payload to them.
There is a picture of me and my sister. I was five and she was three. Every time I look at that picture I’m taken back to that time. Not because of the picture but because all the stuff that happened that day is still somehow logged in my head. It is a emotional mile marker, and every time I see her, I am reminded of how far we have come. Whereas today we’re constantly taking digital pictures. We don’t have the metadata of emotion from the pictures.
CR: You’re describing the eternal struggle of a photographer.
Traditionally, a photographer’s job is to document and not partake. I’ve actually written a blog post about this, where I have days of photos and no actual memory of that day aside from the photos that I took. That’s because I’m so lost in the minutia of the camera and trying to get a photo that I’m not participating. I’m hiding behind this machine.
I was with my girlfriend in the Salt Flats in Utah. It was gorgeous. We had a fantastic day, I think, because she was smiling in the photos. But I have no memory of the day. It’s embarrassing. I wrote this blog post called “Don’t Forget the Salt,” because I forgot that day. It was because I was lost behind the camera. How do you balance that out?
One of the main reasons why I call my app Litely is because you can get in and out of the app quickly. I don’t want to spend a lot of time in that app. I don’t want it to be that my girlfriend is driving the car because I’m editing photos for an hour in the passenger’s seat, missing the trip. I’m missing the scenery that’s going by. How do I reconnect with that? So rather than having to send my photos to the [Adobe] Lightroom and bring them back to edit in the way I wanted to, I made an app that quickly applies the edits. And I made the interface easy enough where I don’t have to go, “Tap tap tap tap tap.” I can select it really easily and be done with it.
I actually have a gift for you. The last time we talked was through Twitter, because the iOS 7 camera app crashed on you three times. I felt really bad about that. We learned that iOS 7’s implementation of that camera, at least, if you look at Litely on the iPad, is crap. This is a 3D-printed logo of Litely from Shapeways. My girlfriend has one around her neck. I made three of them. One is on my desk, one is hers. You can have that one as well. I’m sorry that you missed those photos.
[topic]Are filters the new “film”[/topic]
OM: Wow, thanks! This is super cool.
ARE FILTERS THE NEW FILM?
OM: I’ve been using the app, but I still have not figured out how to get the most out of it. Could you write an FAQ or how‑to on what these things are useful for? They’re not all filters. They’re essentially —
OM: It’d be cool to know what these presets are good for. The variations are subtle, and you have to spend hours trying to figure out what the variation is in many of these presets. Yes, you can see the variation from Whiny to Platinum, because it’s color versus black and white. But it helps to understand, “OK, this is my starting point. See if I like that look, or I don’t like that look.”
CR: You’re right. We tried to describe the Venice preset as, “These are warmer colors, and they’re good for skin tones and portraits.” But the presets are loose. It’s fun to hear you describe them, because it’s like a film stock. Why would you use Fuji versus Kodak?
I like to think of Litely as taking a century’s worth of film stock and putting it on your phone. That was impossible not too long ago. You’d choose one film stock, like [Kodak] Tri‑X. It was one of my favorite films ever. It was unique in its capabilities. People have shot it for that reason. Why Tri‑X? It’s one of those indescribable things. It’s the feeling that you get from it.
As you described it, they are Lightroom presets, and the adjustments that you have in the app are the top four adjustments that I use in Lightroom. As a professional photographer, everything that I need — those four adjustments and those filters — are the 99 percent case when I edit a photo.
OM: So if you understand film, you understand Litely better. If you don’t understand film, you don’t quite understand the nuance of the app.
CR: For most people who shot with Kodak, they didn’t really care too much. They just shot, like, “OK, I’m going to use Kodak,” and it became a favorite for certain photographers because of the results. Most people just stuck with it because they liked the result, and it was a trustworthy result. We’re actually building the store into that app now.
You can learn more about the apps and also buy presets, so you can preview the ones that you don’t own on top of your photo and go, “OK, why should I have that?” There are two more packs coming out. We have 12 new presets in the works, and we’re going to release them over time. We’re also adding push notifications to the app so that when we have a new one, you’ll see an alert.
OM: The whole thing is such a guessing game for me. I’ll keep trying. That is the most frustrating part and the most interesting part at the same time. I figured out everything about Camera Plus on my own. I could have emailed someone and they would have helped me, but I wanted to learn how to do it.
How did you get into photography and ended up starting Litely?
CR: I’ve been shooting photos professionally since 2005. Litely is, in a sense, the merging of my tech side and my photographer side. Photography always been this passionate hobby of mine. It was my diary when I was in high school. I always had a camera with me, and I was always taking photos. I was that weird guy with a bag in American Beauty.
That was me, basically. Everyone used to joke about that, because when that movie came out, it was very much an accurate description. It was my cardboard spaceship, I like to say. When I was little, I would look through the family camera and see through the lens. It would change everything. That was fascinating, and it was technical at the same time.
I started a web company in high school as well, just making websites. The design side happened. I worked at Yahoo doing mobile design in 2007. I was doing a lot of mobile design stuff in general. Finally all the mobile design and all the photography came to a head: I got to design my own photo app. It makes sense. The perfect blend.
It’s fascinating, because these are the presets that I’ve been using personally for a long time. These are the colors that I’ve since graduated from.
The Rise of the Silicon Traveler
OM: You live here in San Francisco?
CR: Yeah, I live here currently. I haven’t really been back here too much, though. I’ve been traveling since leaving Apple, the last year and a half or so, pretty consistently. They talk about Silicon Valley or this whole Silicon Beach thing. I think that’s already outdated, because I was able to launch Litely and start an entire business remotely. I don’t really need to be here. I currently have guys in New York, building. I go visit them once in a while, but I like this idea of being a silicon traveler, where we’re always connected and where we need to be.
Looking at the work life, the Industrial Revolution, and Henry Ford, who dictated our five‑day work week, our nine-to-five, “Make sure you stamp out 20,000 parts today in your 8 hours” — I don’t think that applies anymore. Especially while trying to live this photographer’s life and doing tech at the same time.
OM: You would love my friend Matt Mullenweg. He’s a big proponent of the distributed workforce. Gigaom itself has always been distributed. We have so many people living in different places.
I think having a distributed company is essentially a mindset. If the founder doesn’t have the mindset, you can never have that. That ability to be flexible about things is important. I loved the idea so much that I started a website called Web Worker Daily, which is the idea of nomads. We used to call them “digital bedouins,” but now they call them “digital nomads.”
CR: “Digital nomads,” yeah.
OM: “Bedouin” is a more real kind of a phrase. You pitch your tent wherever, and you’re good.
CR: It’s fascinating. We have people in Seattle, in Texas, in New York, and here, and we don’t have an office. It’s kind of working. We try to do that, because I think it fuels creativity. Whatever keeps you inspired. For Litely, it’s integral to get out there and experience the world and to perpetuate that brand. We want to turn it into that. That’s what we’re working on right now — having that message out there, in general, and for people to unlock themselves from routine.
So many people ask, “How are you able to travel all the time?” For the most part, I was full-time at Apple. I was just taking photos on the weekends, because I put in the effort. Like, I’m going to drive three hours this morning, wake up a little bit earlier, and be somewhere cool in California and take some pictures. That’s all you need to do. If you can graduate from that, and even freelance a little bit on some level, then you can keep going.
OM: Sometimes I miss out on opportunities to take great pictures in the world around me. I was describing this to a friend of mine. It’s like, you go to a place — like I went to Italy for a few days — and suddenly photos start happening. Sure, they’re not important to other people, but to me, I have a picture of that moment and everything in my head. When I come here, suddenly after four or five days, everything becomes two‑dimensional. I don’t know why that happens. You would think the San Francisco Bay Area is not a place where things would become two‑dimensional.
The Joy of Winging It
CR: That’s interesting, and people do photo walks for that reason. Then suddenly you’re on a block you’ve never been on, looking at it in a different way. I struggle with that, too, living in a city, because I take pictures of the mountains. How do you stay inspired in someplace like San Francisco?
The way I’ve boiled it down for my own understanding is to trust in the idea of “winging it” and believe in that. You can’t plan a good photo. You have to let yourself find them. Going out and searching for a photo is the wrong way to think about it. You should just have an interesting life and tell the story through hitting a button.
Photos are stories. I don’t care about the visual. It’s more about what it says. If you open yourself up to that thinking and spend five more minutes just walking around and exploring a little bit more, you find things, find moments, that you wouldn’t have found normally.
For example, I got lucky one time. We had an office on the Embarcadero. I heard all these sirens, and I saw helicopters. What was going on? I had a busy day, but I was like, “You know what? Screw it. I’m going to go for a walk and figure out what this is.” I was just following helicopters, blindly.
We came to this area on the Embarcadero. I think it was Pier 19, and it was on fire. Burning like crazy, flames shooting out of the top of the roof. I could have stayed back with the crowd, but I decided to be a little more ballsy. I walked right up to it, as close as I could get.
I could feel the heat and the firefighters around me, it was so soon after it had started. I was supposed to be working. I was like, “I’m going to go just wing it.” I winged it and I got this photo, because I could see that things were starting to fall a little bit. I got it just as it collapsed.
There was a firefighter underneath. I can show you the photo. It was one of those pure moments where I could see everything happening. Ten minutes prior, I would have had no idea that this was going to happen if I hadn’t heard the helicopters. Suddenly I’m watching a building collapse in front of me, almost hitting a firefighter. Thank God he was okay — balls of steel.
That Pier 19 fire, it was the moment that told its own story. I was dumb enough and lucky enough to be close enough to take that picture. That was pure photography to me, because it simply told a story. It wasn’t about the photo. It was more about what was going on in it. The purest form of art is something that you’re not conscious of. You’re just living it, and I happened to have my phone with me, thankfully.
It was an iPhone photo, and it was nuts. It still gets me excited to think about it. I think it’s one of my favorite photos I’ve ever taken. I was so lucky to do it. It’s not because I’m a great photographer. It was just because I was able to push myself to go that extra five minutes and walk in that direction.
OM: Your tip on creativity is to be curious. Forget taking the best picture. Forget thinking about the light or the color. Just be curious about the world and keep going.
CR: There are painterly aspects of photography. It’s forced, and it takes a long time to get there. If you think about what photography’s done for human existence, it’s changed our perspective on war. It’s changed human history.
Since the invention of the camera, the first documented war was the Civil War. We went from this romanticized notion to “charge with our swords” and “war is a beautiful, glorious thing” to thinking, “Wow, war is actually terrible. People are dead, rotting in fields.”
People at home were suddenly witnesses to war. We weren’t oblivious. It wasn’t this big picture in our brains that was puffed up by media. It was a real view of war. Suddenly we see this antebellum movement happen around the same time. We didn’t like war after that, because we realized how horrific it was.
In the ’60s, our view of the earth changed when we saw Earth from the moon. That Earthrise photo changed history, and it started our environmentalist movement. We’re like, “Wow! This little teeny, tiny thing we’re on is fragile, and we’re small. We better preserve it, because it’s not that big.” We’re just looking back at that, the first time we’d ever seen the earth that way.
OM: With so many people taking so many photos, I wonder if we have lost that ability to contextualize.
CR: It’s like the whole Twitter versus Instagram thing. Twitter says you have 140 characters. If a photo’s worth 1,000 words, how many characters is that? A photo says so much more. I feel like Instagram has recently surpassed Twitter exactly for that reason. Psychologically, we get more through photos and Instagram. But we can also get desensitized to it.
I had this thought the other day while looking at these gorgeous photos of Washington, Vancouver, and Canada taken by these guys up there. If I had seen that 10 years ago I would be like, holy crap. But now I don’t even spend the time to Like it. I’m just like, “Oh, that’s cool.” I don’t even double-tap it because I’m so used to it. When you have so many war photos, so many horrific photos, people get used to it.
CR: Visually there are a lot of similar photos. I’ve been posting a lot of Hawaii landscapes. I’m just so bored with them. I have to show other people like, “Hey, is this a good photo?” Because I can’t even tell anymore. I’m just like, “Here you go.” The last photo I posted last night, I had the same thing. It’s cool to see it through someone else’s eyes who hasn’t seen them before. But when everyone sees it and they’re all used to that silly landscape and the entire world is known, what’s next?
I think the truth, actually, is what’s next. The story is all that matters. The memory of it. If that is as impactful as what a pretty photo used to be, then I think you’ve actually taken a good one.
OM: One other thing I’ve often thought about photos is that when you look at all the pictures — like, when I came to New York for the first time, I had seen few pictures of New York. I had only read books about New York. It was all in my imagination.
There was this whole joy of discovery. Like, “Oh, I remember reading that thing, and there it is!” And, “It looks better than I thought it would,” or “it’s less than what I thought.” Your imagination is always in competition with reality.
Now there is little joy of discovery. You go and you’re like, “Damn, I’ve seen this picture. I’ve been there, it seems like.” I went to Berlin last December and January. “I’ve been there” was on a loop in my head, and that just didn’t feel right. I wonder if this is the part of photo revolution that we don’t really talk about, this ability to discover.
How to spot a fake Route 66 sign
OM: Let’s shift gears. Do you have any advice for budding photographers as to what they should be doing and what they should be looking for?
CR: It’s that extra five minutes or five hours, or that extra ten percent that you put into it. Because most people don’t put in the effort, don’t open themselves up to that sort of thing. You could have an amazing experience five feet away, but if you don’t walk in that direction and put in the effort to do it, you will never have that. It’s trying harder and also opening yourself up to letting the photo find you. Living the story, going places that you’ve never been before, surprising yourself and letting the day dictate what you capture.
I’ll tell you a story. I was in Baker, California. Baker is just outside Edwards Air Force Base, a middle-of-nowhere town with just one intersection. Two roads intersect; there are two gas stations and an antique store. We’re sitting there, kind of bored. We didn’t have to get home too fast so we’re like, “Why don’t we go to the antique store?” We go into the store, and we are looking at all the road signs. And we see this gorgeous Route 66 sign. It looks like a real antique. $300? It’s actually cheap. This old man in the back chimes in. He’s probably 80. He says, “You know those are fake?” What, really?
He walks over and goes on to show us how to tell a fake Route 66 sign from a real one. He’s like, “I’ve got some real ones in the back in my shed. You want to see them?” We follow this guy outside the antique store. He goes into this giant warehouse in the back that we didn’t notice from the street. He slides the door open. What I think he’s going to do is pull out a couple signs from some dusty area. He opens up the door and it’s a freaking museum. He’s got a Chevy ’54, ’57 — these gorgeous cars that he was restoring.
It’s the most well-preserved, deep collection of Americana road signs and cars I’ve ever seen. He’s got missiles from the air force base up on the roof. He’s got a plane in there. He’s a pilot himself. It was gorgeous. We were just like, “How are you hiding this from the world? This should be a museum.” He’s like, “Oh, this is my personal collection. I don’t let people back in here.” This is his man cave.
We spent the next hour trading stories. I took a photo of him, a portrait that I love. It’s the story around his life and how he’s curated everything in there. We learned that the Kansas Route 66 sign is hard to find, so most of them are fakes. If you see a Kansas one, it’s probably a fake, unless it’s got these certain things. Or with Texas, it’s such a short word that it doesn’t span the entire sign. They center “Texas.” Or if it says “Route,” that’s totally not right. It only says “66.” There’s never a “Route” anything on the sign itself. Fascinating.
We spent probably an hour and a half or two hours talking with him and having an incredible day. I took one photo. That was his portrait. That photo meant the most to me that day because of what it actually was. We would have never had that experience had we not gone into that antique store and been open, just winging it. I’ve never planned a single photo in my life. Let me say that. I’ve got a ton of work, and I’ve never planned a single one. I’ve been in forest fires and insane, insane things.
There was this other time when we were driving toward this cloud formation. I was with my best friend from college and his new girlfriend, who was a model. They were in a separate car. We were driving, and I saw this giant plume over the mountains as we were going, snaking through on that road. Intrigued, I decided we should drive toward that and find out what it was. That’s the kind of decision most people don’t make. They look and go, “Gee, I wonder what that is,” and they keep driving. They listen to their radio. We decided to follow the smoke. We ended up getting closer and closer. It was this giant brushfire. We kept going. We got closer, and we went up into the mountains again. I’ll show you the photo.
Earlier that day two guys had taken off on a plane, and they crashed and died. That plane crash started this brush fire. I learned this after the fact. That was really horrible.
But we got so close that ash was raining on us. This DC-10 flew over our heads, probably 500 feet up, and dumped its load through the smoke. You could feel the heat from it. It burned as the ash hit you. We had to leave, but we did a photo shoot right in the middle of it. My friend’s girlfriend was wearing a white dress. She fell in front of this forest fire at sunset. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it because of what we went through. We were afraid that we were going to start burning. I had holes in my clothing because the ash was so hot. That photo found me that day.
OM: In your mind, there’s no difference between the lens and your eye, essentially. That’s a good picture, when the lens and the eye are in complete sync. You’re seeing and capturing at the same time.
CR: It’s exactly that. You find this honest moment, where you connect with something, and that’s when you take the picture. That’s all you need to do. It’s enveloping that moment and then putting it somewhere. If you open yourself up, it will allow you to do anything. I’m not a great photographer. I’m just a curator. I know when to hit the button. I leave the rest up to life.
OM: The iPhone isn’t really a camera. It’s like the lens is the extension of your eye.
CR: It is, exactly.
[topic]My iPhone is really me[/topic]
OM: If you let it be, right?
My iPhone is really me
CR: If you connect to my phone via AirDrop, it doesn’t say “Cole’s iPhone.” It says “Cole Rise.” It is me. This phone is everything. It is who I am, because it’s always with me. It’s an appendage, and it happens to record.
The whole Google Glass thing, that’s cute. I think we’ll have something better to be able to capture things all the time. If we can solve the storage problem, then we’ll always be capturing these memories. You still have to decide which one you share, and that’s what we’re doing, currently.
OM: Litely essentially wraps presets into an app. I have another photographer friend, Kevin Abosch. He made the Lenka Cam app. Right now they’re black-and-white. It’s just one style of photography. That’s how he likes to take a black-and-white picture. Do you think more people are going to open up to something similar, where the apps become a wrapper for your interpretation of creativity? Like, it’s less about a tool to take pictures and it’s more about a way to express yourself?
CR: Absolutely. Curation and who curates it are as important as how well it’s built and how easy it is to use. A good example is Lenka Cam, of course, because that’s his style. It’s like paint. If you want to use his style, that’s awesome. I don’t see Litely competing with other apps, because it’s just another alternative. I am the burnt sienna, and he is the magenta. He has his style, people can use it, and that’s awesome. I’ll use his style once in a while if I feel like doing it.
VSCO Cam has its own thing going too. You might feel like using whoever’s style that is. Pretty much, all we have is ourselves and who we are. When you edit photos using Instagram filters [laughs], you kind of go away.
OM: It’s interesting; I started out using filters and now I don’t. The only thing I control on the photo is exposure and contrast. Most of my pictures were slightly crooked, and that is because I had some sight issues. It was Helena Price who pointed out that all my photos were crooked, and I ended up figuring out how to deal with the problem.
CR: They discovered this about Monet. Monet’s artwork became more and more colorful over his lifespan, because his eyes were becoming worse because of macular degeneration or something like that. I forget exactly which way it went, but you can see the progression of his vision through his artwork. That’s beautiful, because you are, in a sense, that filter. I prefer that.
OM: Do a lot of people buy your iTunes presets? Or do they buy the Litely app now?
CR: The Litely app was supposed to spur desktop presets, because the margin is a lot better there. Rather than 70 percent, it’s 98 percent. Both have gone up, but far and beyond it’s the Lightroom app. After the first month, it was easy to see, “Wow. We’re making way more money that way.” It’s cool to be surprised that way. Mobile is certainly here.
OM: Why do you think you’ve been successful?
CR: I’m just like any old other person in the world. I’m just a human being. I’ve tried to live honestly to photography and have cared about it for long enough where Litely isn’t a ploy to make money. It’s a passion. It’s who I am. I’ve been fortunate, through photography, to be able to communicate that message on some level to certain people. I feel that honesty resonates with people. It’s not coming from nowhere. It’s coming from someone who has a message. It’s the same reason why I would buy Lenka Cam versus something like an Aviary. I love what they do, but there’s no one behind it. It’s a business.
OM: That’s what you do with food, fashion, the whole thing. We want to know a story. Somebody wrote about this recently, how customization is the next big wave of the internet. I think it’s the new thing already. People have not figured it out.
CR: I’d love to think of Litely presets as handmade. Although they’re digital, they are made in a place over a span of time with a tool. It’s for a reason that’s more than making money. It’s for making art and telling a story.
Photos of Cole Rise courtesy of Helena Price.