Lost with Phoneby Chris Campanioni
If the Internet brought us to the Age of Information, social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace have ushered in a new era altogether, one that trades in data for documentation. Photographer and director CB Smith refigures that age-old idea of the phone book for his Phonebook (Drago, 2011), a collection of photos taken exclusively from his cell phone and, along with text messages, transformed into a narrative. That phone, a Palm Treo, what Smith calls “the first smart phone, and still the smartest,” captured countless images, now more than four years old, all detailing the intimacy of his life. It is the intimacy of these details that really made Smith wary when the book was finally laid out. “But after that, there was no choice, no going back,” he says today. “When I first got the book, I was like, ‘Oh shit. What did I do?’ I thought I’d never get another girlfriend after this. I got worried for a minute. I put my lifestyle out there and it’s up to you to judge it, love it, bash it, want it … dream it.”
The narrative—if there is one—reads like the proverbial lost weekend. Smith says the idea behind the book came about after a calamitous breakup, in which he began looking through his phone—the most essential tool available for the self-documenter—and realized that there might be a story encapsulated therein. Two months later, it was all laid out by friend Dan Tulloh, a designer at iNDELIBLE. “From the outset, the story is: ‘go go go.’ There is a bit of a John Lennon-I’m-going-to-L.A.-after-a-girl-thing going on,” Smith says. “I was all over. But it’s a cyclical narrative more than anything else. The beauty is being able to open the book from any page and get a story there.” And the story moves from one-word apologies bleeding across the page to conversations about loss and longing, human detachment, and isolation amid the global communication networks meant to connect these people. But then, that’s the great paradox of self-documentation: the notion that the self can somehow be quantified, that constructing a detailed record of everything that happens to us from the minute to the momentous will somehow elucidate that inscrutable issue of being alive. For Smith, that issue was clarified through the process. “The texts definitely come back to haunt you. That issue of, ‘Who am I? What am I doing?’ definitely becomes clearer when you go through your messages,” he says, pausing, and briefly frowns. “And now of course, the whole world knows who I am too. But I did learn a lot about myself through the process. Saw patterns. Realized what my relationship patterns were. Realized when you throw a heart up there, or a kiss—it says a lot of things to a lot of people.”
There’s a segment in Phonebook—appropriately, there are no page numbers—where we get a dose of that need for a construction of self via a structure of self-documentation. “I like that. You live a full life,” his acquaintance says. Smith responds with “got to while I can.” It’s as if Smith is saying the only way to keep doing it when he can’t is to record it now. The snag with self-curation though, is the issue of self-representation. What’s real and what’s just the representation we’d like to show the world? Another conversation later in the story acknowledges this, placed next to a self-photo of a woman’s abdomen in a department store mirror. “Yes carter. But I like to keep it real, and I want to know you. But all what I see dosent seem real to me.” Smith left the grammatical errors of his text message conversations intact, embracing the mantra of a spontaneous no-filter narrative that matches the device he used to capture it. Smith acknowledges the irony—and compulsion—of expressing such intimate sentiments over a cellular device. “We all have masks that we put up every day,” he says. “You hear intonations, see facial mannerisms when you talk to someone on the phone, or face-to-face. And in a sense, texting avoids all that. It’s just another mask we put on.”
The photos, stories unto themselves, that appear beside the words are both dynamic and serene, the fragments of a spontaneous threesome and the wistful image of a sunrise on the shore. They reflect birth in all its incarnations, from a pregnant woman’s burgeoning stomach to flowers in bloom, with one of Smith’s birthday cakes positioned in between. About halfway through his Phonebook, Smith captures a photo of himself taking a photo, with the words “You Never Fought For Me …” inked on his hand. “It’s a Greek tragedy to me in a sense,” Smith says. “Lost, missed love. Pain and desire.” That calamitous breakup that inspired the story haunts its narrative now.
If there’s one lasting image, it’s about three-quarters in: a snapshot of the sky from the seat of an airplane with the text on the opposite page, “Me: Today?” as if in capturing the image, high above the earth, moving with the clouds, Smith could somehow make it more permanent. The final photograph, two people celebrating, arms raised triumphantly in front of a swimming pool comes accompanied by a conversation that might explain Smith’s—and our own—insistence on creating art in the face of mortality. “U know I think u might own the universe,” says his friend. “U are SO metaphySicaal. Spirit world,” to which Smith replies: “baby! Marking our territory … Xoxo.” A page later we receive the sprawled-out last words, “I’ll miss u a lot …” Smith could be referring to any number of things—his ex-girlfriend, his readers, his artwork—or, more than likely, his self.
Today, Smith shoots exclusively with his cellular device, although he’s upgraded to the iPhone. “I’ve now become the phone guy,” he says. “With the quality of the tool, it’s pretty amazing what you can do.” That means everything from a 10-page spread for the November issue of Technikart with Paz de la Huerta, in which the French magazine rented out Le Bain, a suite, and the rooftop of the Standard hotel, and were met with a crew of hair and makeup, assistants, stylists, and Smith, with two iPhones—to yes, a sequel. He mulls the idea around for a while before deciding on unrequited love, that timeless human condition, again. “One entire relationship, documented, from beginning to end. I’ve got hundreds of photos and texts,” he says, before abruptly switching topics. “The important thing is to get out of the gallery world, get out of the studio. Kick the door down. Do it my way.”
The proliferation of iPhones seems to correlate with the evolution of their photo-taking capabilities, but Smith isn’t worried about being subverted by any person with an iPhone in their hands and Instagram in their applications tab. “You still need to understand the craft to make something beautiful, whether it’s framing, or lighting. How to manipulate your tool—which in my case is my phone—makes all the difference. There’s a big gap between a photographer and a person with a camera.” Or likewise, a person with a phone.
CHRIS CAMPANIONI is a first-generation American, the son of immigrants from Cuba and Poland, and the author of the Internet is for real (C&R Press) and Drift (King Shot Press). His “Billboards” poem, a response to Latino stereotypes and mutable—and often muted—identity in the fashion world, was awarded an Academy of American Poets College Prize in 2013, his novel Going Down was selected as Best First Book at the 2014 International Latino Book Awards, and his hybrid prose piece “This body’s long (& I’m still loading)” was adapted as an official selection of the Canadian International Film Festival in 2017. He edits PANK, At Large, and Tupelo Quarterly and teaches Latino literature and creative writing at Pace University and Baruch College.