Contemporary Culture from the Bottom Up


This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series Grinder of the Month

Photo of Derek Roden by James Hollenbaugh

Photographer Derek Roden sees through Instagram’s filters to find beauty in unusual places.


Every day we upload millions of photos on social networking sites, capturing the moments of our daily lives to share with friends. Most of us, however, document our surroundings in an expected, almost identical way, following trends dictated by popular apps, shooting what stands out to us immediately and imposing a popular filter on top of the image before diffusing it.

It’s easy to predict what our friends will upload: self-portraits from arm’s length while walking down a well-lit street, documentary style pictures from rallies and parades, catchy quotes scrawled with chalk on the pavement or storefronts of the places we shop and eat. We take joy in sharing and viewing these mirrors of our existence but we are not necessarily using them to explore the various layers that exist in the background of our lives: we rarely scavenge the neighborhood for debris or unusual vistas. And we’re even less likely to optically meditate on these forlorn objects long enough to let them refashion themselves before our eyes.

If we did this more often, however, we might unearth an unexpected radiance; one that would make our friends pause in the middle of their web-browsing to notice the quiet and unexpected brilliance of our sensitive image. This instinctive exploration of the visual underground is the forte of Derek Roden.

Derek Roden is a 34-year-old Pennsylvania native who photographs a range of subjects with a keen eye for texture, shape and visual composition. He specializes in shooting things we tend to take for granted, approaching them in a way that forces us to see them as them as much more nuanced and lively than we normally assume them to be. Shooting his subjects up-close from unusual angles, his work is a record of everyday objects filtered through the eye of a very talented and intuitive photographer.

Roden’s interest in photography was sparked when he was casually hired to work as a lighting grip on a low-budget independent feature. He soon began to analyze his surroundings in terms of their photographic potential, creating photographs in his mind without ever using a camera.


His first serious photographic project was a series of nude portraits of friends whose bodies and arrangement defied conventional notions of beauty and bordered on an idolization of the grotesque, often employing bondage props and gruesome stage blood. His fascination with deformity and decay then led to projects involving amputees, dead animals and close-ups of scars.



Roden initially worked in 35 or 120 mm, preferring analog to digital photography and black and white to color; he reveled in the anticipation of waiting for his film to be developed. His photography picked up a new pace and took on a new feeling, however, when he purchased an iPhone in 2011 and downloaded the Instagram app to photograph his infant daughter. While the overuse of Instagram’s filters has been widely criticized, Roden’s work tends to eschew the filters altogether, opting instead to merely employ the app’s square, medium format frame.

Capitalizing on the accessibility and ease of his new phone camera, Roden began shooting in a number of new environments, most noticeably at a Lancaster roadhouse named House of Pasta, where he tended bar one night a week. He began to notice the strikinglypicturesque qualities of crushed cigarette butts, dirty dinner plates, and deposits of grease on kitchen appliances.



Roden’s images force us to pause and notice the sublime in the ordinary, the refinement underneath the grit and the patterns in the daily chaos of our most prosaic and seemingly insignificant moments–soap suds dissolving in a sink, a grill coated with burnt-on grease, discarded trash, peeling paint on a light switch–things we are supposed to overlook because they lack the luster of cleanliness and containment.These are the things we’re told to hide, to clean up before people come over, before the next patrons are seated at the table. Roden’s images expose the shadows of our lives and acknowledge the vitality of objects that are assumed to be inanimate. His work elevates iPhoneography from a predictable medium of instant snapshots to one that forces us to view our concealed world thoughtfully and appreciate it deliberately.

View more of Derek Roden’s Photography here.

Special thanks to Derek Roden and Michael Bowen for assisting the preparation of this article.


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Written by Nicole Casamento

Nicole Casamento is the founder of Culture Grinder.

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  1. Pingback: Culture GrinderPHOTOGRAPHY BY DEREK RODEN » Culture Grinder

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