The Circle of Life

Came across this article on the (admittedly grotesque) Gizmodo this morning, and thought I’d chime in.

Hipstamatic generates an atmosphere, an aesthetic that ostensibly doesn’t exist in reality. Our vision only tends to resemble 1970s photography when our minds are lubricated with pharmaceutical enhancements, after all. Is it photojournalism when an image is deliberately changed to heighten or affect mood that we literally can’t see with our eyes for the sake of aesthetics and emotion? Is the definition of reality here merely confined to the collection of objects depicted in the photograph?

Staring at the photo in question, “A Grunt’s Life,” I can see how the photographer—the person who was there, documenting a moment in a time—can reasonably argue that his Hipstamatic print more accurately depicts the feeling of what it was like to be there than if he had simply taken a conventional, straightforward photograph. A photo that, from a certain point of view, is perhaps more truthful.

Here’s the deal: as technology advances, what once required a highly developed and specialized skill set will eventually have assistive software/hardware developed for it that mimics and/or replaces the majority of the skills in that set. Shooting, processing, developing, and printing a photo like this now would take a lot of knowledge and access to resources that most people are unaware even exist. Hipstamatic removes most of these obstacles and enables “average” people without these skills to create in a manner similar to a person with said skills.

I have this discussion with people all the time. There’s a sort of nostalgia that creeps around whenever technology starts to change the way people create. When writing and publishing something was a long, difficult, and laborious process, only people who were willing to invest a great deal of time into that process had their work published. The same goes for photography, painting, filmmaking…basically almost any type of creation had a “price of entry,” if you will. A long time ago, anything that was created was vetted to make sure that it was something that was worth creating.

As I said above, the evolution and widespread adoption of previously all-but-unattainable (due to cost prohibition, licensing, etc.) technology by mainstream culture has placed tools for creation in the hands of folks who do not possess the highly specialized and developed skill set that their “artist” counterparts possess (artist being a term to denote anyone who has devoted a significant amount of time to the development and refinement of a set of skills). Despite this discrepancy in investments of time and energy, there are a not insignificant number of people who have a high degree of innate artistic talent and are able to create a “product” that is similar to the “product” created by the “artists.”

This is usually where all hell breaks loose. Lots of folks decry the use of these new technologies as “cheating,” in a way. “If anyone can do it, it isn’t art anymore!” they cry, “and they have no training!” The death knell of photography has been sounded!

Please.

I’ve had this exact same discussion on the topic of writing and the impact that the internet has had on “good” writing. Many people are of the opinion that people are “getting dumber” or that our literature is “in decline,” when the reality is there is simply more of everything. There are more people taking pictures, writing, making movies, and creating than ever before. The fact that a phone can take a picture today that looks better than pictures looked thirty years ago is just a testament to the progressive iteration that takes place in technology. Nobody ever hung a photographer because he or she didn’t know how to build a camera.

What we’re getting at is that the creation of anything is getting easier, and more people are doing it than ever before. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a wonderful, beautiful thing. People get their ideas out there. I’d like to say that all those ideas are gems of knowledge and insight, but not all of them are, and that’s OK. What we have is a much larger body of knowledge to draw from, and the tools we’re using to pull data are evolving rapidly. Sure, the “overall” quality of the work is declining, but that’s only because there’s so much more out there. That says nothing about the unrelenting and constant creation of high-quality stuff. If more people have access to good technology, then more good stuff gets out into the world. That’s where tech is supposed to fit in, it’s supposed to remove barriers to that sort of engagement with the world that usually only comes with, again, those highly developed, highly specialized skill sets.

Whew.

So, when I see something that says “OH NO HE USED HIPSTAMATIC” I usually put the earmuffs on. There’s simply no place for that anymore. If people say that the photography isn’t real because the app adds things to the frame that weren’t there, then you’re going to have to chase after all the filters, all the lensbabies, all the grease-smeared lenses that are out there. Those aren’t “real” in the same way that the virtual lenses in Hipstamatic aren’t real. Or are they? In the first scenario, someone is taking a physical object and changing the light before it hits the film; in the latter, a person is applying a modification to the image after it has already been taken, but the end result is basically the same.

The most important line in the blockquote above is the one about feeling. In Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, one of the main points of the novel is to illustrate the importance of the “story truth” vs. the “real” truth. Ultimately, it is how we experience things that is important, and how we convey that experience to others is critical.

As technology improves and our ability to convey our thoughts and feelings moves beyond having a specialized set of skills, we will find that the number of brilliant people will skyrocket. It may seem small, but Hipstamatic is just one of the first steps along that path.

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One Comment on “The Circle of Life”

  1. Lauren says:

    I think what’s important to remember is that photography, as art at least, has never been truthful. As you pointed out, the physical lenses (as well as a photographer’s knowledge of film, camera settings, lighting, etc.) have allowed for the manipulation of what might otherwise be considered a “pure” photo. But photo manipulation has existed long before the development of any digital technology – as far back as the 1860s where Abe Lincoln’s head was put on someone elses body. It’s a general misconception that photos represent the truth, but photography is art. Just like in a painting, the artist gets to decide what to include in a photo, what to exclude, and the light in which it’s portrayed (Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother, for example). If people are afraid of losing the “truth” of photography, they’re obviously quite unaware of just how contrived traditional photography is.

    Furthermore, most traditional photographers are more concerned with resolution, as it would require many millions of pixels to achieve the same quality as 35mm film. When a camera is developed that surpasses the resolution of film will traditional photography be forgotten?! No. Did photography replace painting? No, instead it flourished as it never had before, and modernism was born. Traditional photographers might be challenged to reevaluate their art and push it further, but how is that bad?

    As an artist myself, I think that using a prefabricated, randomized, accessible medium such as an iPhone app to make art addresses many major issues in the contemporary art world and will undoubtably work it’s way into the fine art community.

    Now, I am one of those people who hates having to sift through junk to find a good read or a fine piece of art, but I do appreciate the freedom we have to create. More than that, despite the frustrating process of being surrounded by some people’s crap, I appreciate the challenge. Instead of having someone else decide what’s good, I get to choose for myself. I’m not going to sit back and passively take what is given to me, I’m going to engage the world. Maybe it takes more thought and time, but how is challenging people to think for themselves a the downfall of society?

    Great post :)! I really enjoyed this one. I think it would be interesting, for me at least, to look at technology in the fine arts.


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