Instapoopy

posted by Jeff | Thursday, July 19, 2012, 11:16 PM | comments: 0

There was a piece in The Guardian today about one person's dislike of Instagram, the photo sharing service paired with software that stylizes photos into various things that tend to look like defects. It's a little inflammatory, because the title talks about "real" photography, which is obviously something completely subjective. But it does start to talk about how it affects creativity and alters images as historical records. I agree with those points, but my distaste is also colored by an aversion to anything so trendy that everyone does it.

This isn't about equipment. iPhones these days in particular have pretty great cameras in them. Heck I just watched a "shoot out" of video cameras that shows what you can do with an iPhone, compared to cameras that cost five figures. 

It's not really about art or skill, either. That's not to say that cell phone photos can't be art. I would say that fringing the edges and crushing the dynamic range doesn't make them art either.

It's also not about the function that Instagram plays in terms of sharing photos and creating community. They do a nice job in that regard, which is probably why Facebook was so anxious to buy them. (For another discussion, this is a problem of the "app economy" that the Internet has evolved, or devolved into.)

Like I said, there were points that I agreed with. The first is that it creates a sameness among photos, and that sameness hides the story behind the photo. Yeah, this sounds like it's getting into discussions of what art is, but I think this is bigger than art. For example, take this photo that Diana snapped with her (relatively) crappy 2010 Samsung Focus:

What would altering this photo accomplish? I suppose it might hide the crappy overexposure of the phone, but then it would have the sameness problem. You'd lose the warmness of the sun on Simon's face, the tiny bits of snow in a few places, the thick detail of the dormant bushes, the wet asphalt texture from the thaw, the subtle shape of my leg muscle (kidding, sort of)... The entire feel of the moment, as it happened, would be gone.

Maybe this is my issue: Technology has made it so easy to manipulate media, and everyone is so busy doing the manipulation, that they never ask if they should. (I stole that from Jurassic Park.)

There's an interesting technology curve that we've traveled through in the last 15 years. When we were shooting on film, we could get our images into the computer, and if you were hardcore, you had a negative scanner. Software made it easy to get stuff out of those negatives you never thought was possible. It also got easier to clean up the noise and remove scratches and such. We tried so hard to get good results from film on to our screens.

Shortly thereafter, we realized we could start to be creative. We could play with color to convey a certain mood, or soften parts of a photo to deemphasize it. We could use every ounce of dynamic range to show people what we saw when we were standing there, or crush it to remove the shadows and highlights and leave our subject. Wedding photographers also started doing cute spot color, but we'll pretend they don't exist.

Digital came around, and then we were free of the expense of taking photos. Then they put cameras in phones, everyone started carrying phones, and now we're never without a camera at all. The fabulousness of this is not lost on me, which is probably why I don't care for the aesthetic of undoing all of this progress for the sake of fashion.

I started to go down this path a bit with video. There are tools now where I can apply an effect to something I shot, and make it look like a particular genre of film. The results are amazing, but I've stopped myself to ask why I would do that. Does video of Simon need to look like he's in the Transformers movie? I'm learning to do color correction, for both technical and artistic purposes, as it's a fascinating discipline. Most of what I do to video ends up being for clean up, "for the record," as it were, something I still tend to do for photos.

And yes, there is experience bias as well. I have old photos of me on prints from 110 film that are in dreadful condition. It hurts a little when I see a photo taken with an 8 megapixel camera reduced to the quality of something from the late 70's.

I suppose the good thing about fashion is that it changes. One day you're in, the next, you're out (Auf Wiedersehen!). Particularly as cameras in phones get better, I look forward to seeing what the future looks like.


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