Perhaps you’ve heard of Instagram. It’s a simple app for the iPhone and iPod Touch that makes your crappy cell phone pictures look like crappy old pictures through filters that change the color and framing. That’s an Instagram picture of yours truly up there on the right, looking all critical and curmudgeonly as usual. If you click the picture you can see it horrifyingly large. Do so at your own risk.
Picture sharing isn’t new, but Instagram does that pretty well, too.
So what’s special about Instagram and why would you add it to your travel story recording arsenal? I mean really, we live in a world in which a huge number of people on vacation choose to lug around massive SLR cameras with massive (and massively expensive) lenses screwed into them, a chiropractor’s dream. Most of these photographers are willing to debate the absolute perfection of their picture output right down to the last immaculate pixel. Who’d want manipulated pictures made to look like they were taken with outdated 1920’s technology?
Um, well, ok, look over there to the right. It’s a simple picture of a tree, reflected in a pond on a friend’s property. I’ve walked this property many times with a DSLR. I’ve never taken this picture with it. I’ve never even thought about taking this picture. Yet I love how it came out. So what’s that all about?
The combination of my iPod camera with its primitive, fixed-focus lens is like a comfort food we’ve enjoyed as children, a box camera un-boxed. Instagram’s filters are the gravy that links us from digital light storage back to chemical transformation of crystalline film coatings. Photography as a narrative medium is now reset back to its primitive beginnings. Images matter. Strong, graphic images—colors desaturated (or oddly oversaturated)—are the things of memory. It’s not about the beetles crawling on the tree’s perfectly rendered bark that you might get with $5000 worth of expensive digital photographic equipment, it’s about the soul of the tree, the symmetry of it, the power of it; it’s about nature as we might never have seen it before but nature as we remember it, low-def, dreamily unsharp. It’s your world, upside down.
The primitive nature of Instagram forces you to look at the common things around you differently. It’s not about forcing you to see in high-definition something you didn’t know you wanted to see—it’s about matching the environment of your own vision. It’s a whole different thing. The pictures, it seem to me, are evocative—if you think about it while you’re taking them.
That’s Martha’s fave on the left. It’s simply a tree hanging over Cache Creek. Nothing more. A darkness, the erotic and ominous dark of a winter’s day, is reflected in it. I hope it sends a shiver down your spine.
But what about this manipulation? It’s dishonest, isn’t it?
Art is all about matching the output to a vision. It’s never about the reality we believe in. Good art is about something else. It’s about different reality, a different way of seeing.
Take Ansel Adams. The magician with a view camera is responsible for getting a huge number of folks to believe that his output presented to you the absolute finest representation of reality you could possibly squeeze out of a big negative.
You can fool all the people all the time, you know. I once spent a day with Ansel Adams. There isn’t a photographer I can think of who didn’t spend more time thinking about new and better ways of manipulating a negative. The man spent an inordinate sum of money on electronics to measure what was going on in that chemical deposit altered by light. His dodging and burning instructions were legendary for their complexity. I’m not kidding, if you saw a straight print of “Moonrise, Hernandez” selling for $12 you’d probably walk right past. It’s not that good of a photograph. Really. Reality sucks sometimes.
So think what you can do with the limitations of a cell phone camera. It might make your eyes seek out better images. Who knows?
I can’t wait to get my low tech photo equipment to Italy. For now, here is the start of my Instagram gallery.
Instagram on the web: Instagram
(And, um, yes, I do seem to have a tree fetish. I’ll get that worked on. Promise.)