Photographs through an art filter

Experiments with photo art applications, in particular the PRISMA application.

by Philip Hall

Passing photos through ready-made filters hasn’t really taught me much about how paintings and drawings are made, but doing this for a decade has taught me how important it is to have an artist’s eye and how the artist’s eye – even when it is automated and a little sugary – can be so transformative.

My first experience of art was difficult. I was six and my father dragged me around the Louvre in Paris and all I wanted to do was to sit down. I tried to show interest. I remember the little picture of the Mona Lisa at the end of our long walk through the galleries.

There was a cordon to stop you from getting too close. It was a little dark. There, a lady with a smile looked at me from the painting. She had a strange, high, wrinkle-free forehead. It was mysterious; why was my father showing me this? I wasn’t tall enough to see the pictures, either, so I had to crane. There was another small picture my father looked at for a while. What was he looking at? I asked him. I think he said it was a picture of Adam and Eve. Well, my mother’s name was Eve, so I looked up at it. But it was quite a dark painting. I couldn’t make anything out.

The art that my parents seemed to value was African art. Even the drawings and paintings on the wall. Wherever we went, our parents bought handicrafts and the creative work of the people of the countries in which we lived. Pride of place were Makonde carvings, ancient and abstract. They showed circles of people intertwined or holding hands and forming one sculpture made from ebony. Dark, hard, ebony.

My next encounter with art was in France, where my grandfather – despite the fact that he said he didn’t like modern art – took me to all the modern art galleries along the Cote d’ Azur. I visited them arm-in-arm with my grandmother. The highlight for me was the Chapel Matisse, which, strangely, at age 14, made me cry. I came back 40 years later with my wife to see it again and I cried again. And I hardly ever cry.

When I was older, I read John Berger and John Berger said something that made a lot of sense. Art was paid for by the rich and very often reflected the concerns of the rich and so, the artists had to paint beyond the intelligence or understanding of the mercenary aristocrats and merchants. Or s/he had to paint with their complicity. Like a sort of court jester, or a confidant.

I saw The Draughtsman’s Contract. An aristocratic and childless couple hires a young artist. The husband is infertile. The draughtsman thinks he has been hired because he is talented and witty and good company. What he does not know is the wittier and cleverer he is, the more he seals his doom. He is there to impregnate the character played by Janet Suzman and then be killed.

The wealthy are more concerned with conserving their wealth and power through inheritance than they are with wit, science and art. The movie was off-putting because there were sex scenes with Janet Suzman, who got down on her knees like a brood mare (Peter Greenaway was being obvious here) and Janet Suzman was my mother’s best friend throughout school.

John Berger said that there was a fetish about original art and that there was very little difference between a reproduction and the original. The original was used as a way of monetising something because there was only one of it. He pointed out that the art of the rich shows off the possessions of the rich and presents the picture the powerful and wealthy want to present as a form of propaganda and that the art of that time objectified women.

I did not know at the time that Berger was responding to a much greater, deeper and interesting set of observations made by Kenneth Clark in his series Civilisation. Neither did I realise that Berger was contradicting the art critic Walter Benjamin, who believed that original art retained an ‘aura’.

When I was 18, suffering like hell, I travelled across to France to see my old school friends and my first proper girlfriend and then broke up with her. But it was a messy breakup. As we always did in Paris, we visited modern art museums and saw art house movies. I wasn’t as pretentious as my friends, but I tried to catch up. It didn’t come as naturally to me as it did to them. That’s where I first noticed Gustave Moreau. I still like his work.

We met again in Switzerland and I had an awful time with no money in Italy and finally had to try to get back and hitched across Austria. And I mention this because in Austria an artist gave me a ride from Vienna to Innsbruck in his combi. He was working for a quiz show programme where people answered questions from a telephone box and his job was to set up the telephone box. He said he would give me a lift if I helped him and I did. I set up his telephone box in the rain and the bright lights of the TV switched on and the quiz show hosts suddenly switched on their charm, too. Just like that. It was rather shocking and sinister.

But on our long drive, the quiz booth man explained conceptual art to me and told me about the marvellous Marcel Duchamp. He himself was a conceptual artist, you see. I and I saw what he meant and why Duchamp was great.

Remember, in literature and art, with semiology, the question of authorship is disputable. We are talking about the subjectivity of the viewer, mediated by society, and the subjectivity of the artist and his or her intentions and unconscious intentions and the influence of society on that author and so on and so forth. The 80s and early 90s were the time of post-modernism when D.Js like Fatboy Slim were mixing other people’s music and experimenting with it and calling it their own. It was the age of commercialisation, theft and sarcasm.

In Madrid in the late eighties, briefly, I spent time with an aspiring Australian film director who had just made a film called ‘Saliva‘ and who wore ski pants. I annoyed her a lot because I argued, having read something in El Pais, that the CIA had supported the abstract art of people like Rothko and Pollock and later Schnabel, as a way of undercutting the influence of radical figurative art. They didn’t want any Diego Riveras, thank you very much. They didn’t want political art, they wanted Andy Warhol. The Australian was furious with me. Abstract US art was sacred to her.

And I could continue to recount all the experiences that formed my appreciation of art, but I won’t. I just want to explain why I decided to take using an art app with a phone seriously. Without any pretensions to being an artist, I wanted to experiment by trying to take the pictures that I wanted to and then layering them over with filters.

In an age of a billion photographers, what does it matter? I can co-create. Did the app create art from my photo or did the photo allow the app to make it more like art?

Moreover, the technology is a phone. So, I have been using phones, which are annoying because the designer of the phone camera always automates it and tries to second guess the user. The photo that you take is already ersatz before you actually pass it through a filter. The following pictures are the selection of result of a decade of amateur experimentation with art filters, mainly from the application PRISMA.

Passing photos through ready-made filters hasn’t really taught me much about how paintings and drawings are made, but doing this has taught me how important it is to have an artist’s eye and how the artist’s eye – even when it is automated and a little sugary – can be transformative.

And now, in a strange turnabout, I have met an artist who says he is willing to contemplate turning some of these pictures into actual paintings, changing them again in the process. We shall see.


Pete in Rahima (2013)


The Other Side of the Sun (2014)


Southern Trains (2014)

Eve (2020)

For we like Sheep …(2018)

Fair at the Museum (2016)

Barbican (2021)

Ventilator (2021)

Sea Horse (2015)

Winchester (2019)

Fallen Tree, North Downs Way (2018)

Sodium Light of the Gulf (2012)

Self Portrait, Saudi Arabia (2014)

River Itchen (2018)

Thames Path (2022)

Flowers (2015)

Richmond Park, Ladderstyle Entrance (2022)

Pilgrim’s Way (2018)

Gertrude (2018)

Train to Venice (2013)

The Triangle (2021)

Gertrude (2021)

Stone Lamb (2022)

Brothers after COVID (2022)

Mini (2021)

John and Tere in Richmond Park (2022)

Flowers (2012)

Kitchen Still Life (2022)

Carmen Drinking Coffee (2017)

Piccadilly (2015)


View over Ranmore Common (2019)

Trees in Winter on Coombe Hill (2020)

New Malden Station (2014)

Peter Cowlam (2022)

Ice Cream, Venice (2013)

Net Curtains (2020)

Kingston Rowing Club (2020)

To and Fro (2014)

Vaporetto (2013)

Fox (2020)

Pollarded Tree (2021)

Eve’s room (2016)

Flower (2017)

Epping Forest (2022)

Pembroke Lodge Approach (2022)

Tea Shop in Skipton (2022)

Twickenham (2020)

River (2022)

Night Tree (2016)

Window (2021)

Screen (2021)

Skipton market (2022)