A brief note on photography and apps and the photographic commons

Facebook’s Tom linked to a thought-provoking essay, “Instagram, Hipstamatic and Other Reasons Photography Is Starting To Suck”. The article’s thesis is obvious from its title.

If you’ve ever tried to take a photo everyday, similar to a 365 project, you’ll understand that it’s a pretty hard thing to keep up and it starts to loom over you everyday. I attempted one with my digital SLR, and it was even harder because it meant either going out everyday and taking photos, or having lots of photos of my dog. If you take it seriously, and have the time to complete them, you will find that your photography improves, but for the majority of people, it’s too much like hard work. The good thing about the project was that it encouraged me to carry my camera with me everywhere which meant that I was taking more photos which turned out good, but I ultimately didn’t have time to use it everyday and ended up producing a lot of rubbish too.

Apps such as Instagram take the idea of a daily photo blog and turn it into an iOS app for your iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad and throw in a bunch of filters in there for good measure. You can get some good results from your iPhone, but as I said before, photoshopping for photoshopping’s sake is not a good thing. Currently, Instagram have 150 million photos uploaded, that’s 15 going up every second, with a staggering 80% of using filters (and a bunch more in the other 20% have had filters applied in other apps, such as Hipstamatic). The pressure of trying to get a good photo by the end of the day invariably leads to poor content and composition of everyday life, enhanced by obvious digital filters. This is doing photography no good whatsoever.

These photos are then shared through Facebook and other means where the photographer receives praise for their work. Now, I have no problem with this as it is, but what’s not good is when people start to see this as photography, as they’ll never learn how to really improve on the artform, which they may have otherwise been interested in.

There is quite a lot I agree with in this essay. Many popular photography apps can substitute technology for aesthetics, their relative ease of use decreasing the incentive for photographers to learn more focused skills. I’m also willing to agree that the vastly increased volume of photographs shared with the world, enabled by the spread of inexpensive digital phone technology, makes “art” photography substantially more difficult to find and to market than at any point in the past.

I do disagree with the author on the utility of the distinction that he makes, however. I’m willing to bet that for most people who take photos, enabled by digital technology, the theory and formal aesthetics of photography are irrelevant: they just want to take photos. The alternative to widespread and inexpensive photography apps isn’t the acquisition of advanced photographic skills for our internet era by the masses, but rather the masses not taking and sharing photos at all.

“That’s the thing about iPhone apps that appear to do all the work for you, they make you think that what you’ve created is something special, when in reality, it’s just an excuse to rearrange a bottle of gin, a porcelain model of a dog, tilt the camera and apply some dodgy filters to make it look 50 years older than it actually is.” If that works for the photographer and the audience, well, what’s necessarily wrong with that? Retaining the ability to distinguish between different photographic styles should be enough.

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