Friday, January 6, 2012

Instagram scattered thoughts

The simple way to think about Instagram is that it's a play on nostalgia--that it looks to recreate the sense of a previous era's photographic aesthetic for the purposes only of making pictures seem vintage.

The problem with this view is not only that it ignores an important reason why people actually seem to use the app. That is, it seems to foreclose a discussion of the emotions that we are trying to evoke with the app's various filters, focus options, captions, etc. Rather, it also seems to paper over the question of how the form of the app is changing what we think constitutes photography.

How does Instagram change our understanding of the snapshot? What are users trying to tap into other than nostalgia?

A framing thought: the photo filters *don't* really aim to recapture any lost sense of how photos creates meaning or induced emotion. When these filters weren't filters (that is, when it was just the way analog technology worked), the style would have seemed eminently modern. So at the very least Instagram actually warps the sensations created by the filters in the very act of trying to reproduce them.

I dunno. I'm on a bus. Thoughts instagrammers?


  1. Lunchtime thoughts:

    Fully agree that Instagram makes a quick and easy way to approximate a vintage photo. In my opinion 11 of the 16 filters create an older feel to the image, depending on certain aspects of the photo itself. Several of the filters – especially Early Bird, 1977 (reflecting its intent), Toaster (Does anyone use that one?) – seem to be deliberate polariod approximations. They accomplish their deception by reducing the contrast, lightening the shadesm, imparting a faded yellow hue and a broad white border, which creates an end result that appears overexposed and self-consciously amateurish. Other filters, such as X-pro II and Sutro, achieve vintage by darkening the colors, adding vignette and allowing the user to add a black border. The inspiration for this effect is perhaps less immediately apparent. I think it is reminiscent of early professional color photography…. Color photos of Hollywood stars from the 40s, and images such as this shot by American photojournalist Russell Lee, from 1940:

    I think the question of why instagram includes so many options to vintage your photo is an interesting question. Certainly part of the reason is that lo-fi is trendy amongst a large swathe of our generation. The resurgence of vinyl (and, for the more extreme, cassettes or even reel-to-reels), old fashioneds, bicycles without gears (and… brakes..?), organic foods, all seem wrapped up in something fundamental. A yearning for a more authentic life, where we can understand (and, thus, choose) the things we employ to keep us happy and nourished. A protest against a type of modernity where ingredient lists are incomprehensible and cars unable to be fixed with a wrench. The fact that accessing the instagram vintage feel requires an iPhone, which is among the most unapologetic vessels of everything modern – sold by the world’s largest corporation, possibly built by children in unpalatable working conditions but we don’t know for sure, and you can’t even change the damn battery yourself – is high irony.

    Personally, I think another factor in the rise of vintage iPhone photography is a protest to the rigidly uniform aesthetic of digital point-and-shoot cameras that facebook has made ubiquitious. These tiny advanced digital cameras enable outdoor photos to be crisp and properly exposed, which is an improvement over film cameras, but they lack any depth of field everything is in perfect focus. Indoor shots with these cameras are almost always taken with a harsh flash, which makes foreground elements unnaturally bright, without shadow, and the background unnaturally dark. Worse, they all look the same – people smiling, and centered in the image. A source of dark feeling. The easily accessible vintage look that Hipstamatic started, and instagram has improved upon, seems to have freed and inspired people to take more interesting and spontaneous shots. That’s a great thing, even if it’s fundamentally inauthentic.

  2. ....BUT I think instagram has already become something far more than a way to make polaroids from 1977. iPhone vintagery is fun certainly, and it doesn’t require hauling around a Polaroid camera and using a scanner, but it feels like a fleeting trend. It’s already being drowned out within the instagram community by a style of iPhone photography that better reflects the modern essence of the iPhone itself. Nearly 50% of the photos on the app lack any filter at all. Early Bird is the most popular filter, but is used on only 15% of photos. In my opinion most of the compelling photos I’ve seen on instagram are not recognizably vintage at all, but are truly beautiful photos that were created on an iPhone. This is in part a testament to the amazing capability of the tiny iPhone camera to produce photos that render beautifully on an iPhone screen. This is enabled by the fact that the iPhone screen is so small that, even with its high resolution, it is difficult to detect the difference between a low-res iPhone photo and a high-res photo taken by a camera costing thousands of dollars. The difference would be pretty obvious if the photos were printed, or even displayed on a normal computer monitor, but that’s not what you do on instagram.

    The fact that you can create beautiful shots with your iPhone without using a filter means that making a shot vintagey is a stylistic choice, and that instagram’s longevity is not contingent on hipsterdom’s.

  3. I'm actually right smack dab in the middle of writing about this (or something like it), and also wrote a bit about it last June ( where I concluded:

    "Instagram’s popularity is attributable to one primary factor: the ease of sharing one’s story. Instagram becomes a beautiful scrapbook of our daily lives, which we can instantly share with our friends. By choosing a filter for a photo, I am choosing how I would like to present myself to the world."

    The most impressive thing about that piece is that I didn't use the word "nostalgia" once!

    I think your initial thought is completely accurate ("The problem with this view is not only that it ignores an important reason why people actually seem to use the app"). Nearly every article I've read that mentions nostalgia w/r/t instagram is really just an article about nostalgia with a few passing mentions of how instagram works. Nostalgia is simply too tempting.

    So, I'd like to put some pressure on the idea that "When these filters weren't filters, the style would have seemed eminently modern." I'm thinking specifically of the polaroid and the workarounds that were necessary to compensate for the limited focal range and the unpredictable colors. Eventually people convinced themselves that these things added to the aesthetics of the photo or made the photo more "romantic." Walker Evans, for example, found the polaroid particularly well-suited for portrait photography (the hopped up reds made everyone look flush and full of life.)

    My point is that the polaroid, from the moment it was released, was understood to be good for some things and terrible at most things. Put another way, I'm guessing most people who had a polaroid camera also had an instamatic and, like us with instagram, were able to choose whichever aesthetic they preferred.

    And my experience with instagram has been exactly that–-I pick one filter over another because one LOOKS better. In fact, sometimes I find the best filter is no filter at all. (Which, btw, I find it telling that almost every instagram+nostalgia piece forgets to mention the significance of the #nofilter tag.)

    Ultimately, though, it's really the social aspect of instagram that's of any significance. I'll leave you with a quote from Edward Land, inventor of the polaroid:
    "We could not have known and have only just learned–perhaps mostly from children from two to five–that a new kind of relationship between people in groups is brought into being by SX-70 when the members of a group are photographing and being photographed and sharing the photographs: it turns out that buried within all of us–God knows beneath how many pregenital and Freudian and Calvinistic strata–there is latent interest in each other; there is tenderness, curiosity, excitement, affection, companionability and humor; it turns out that in this cold world where man grows distant from man, and even lovers can reach each other only briefly, that we have a yen for and a primordial competence for a quiet good-humored delight in each other: we have a prehistoric tribal competence for a non-physical, non-emotional, non-sexual satisfaction in being partners in the lonely exploration of a once empty planet."

    Read the rest here:

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