A very interesting article in The Atlantic on October 15 about photography and the defining of art: “Hipstamatic and the Time When Photographs Looked Like Paintings”. The writer, Alexis Madrigal, looks back to the time of the pictorialists (Alfred Stieglitz, et al) and their efforts to differentiate themselves as “artists” when faced with the rising commodotization of cameras and technology.
Madrigal interviews Alison Nordström, curator of photography at the George Eastman House, the country’s largest film museum, and she says:
“In 1888, George Eastman invented the Kodak camera. It was relatively cheap. Compared to the old ways of taking photographs, it was really easy. Suddenly, everyone was a photographer. Anyone with a small amount of money and a little bit of skill could take pictures. Suddenly, your mother was a photographer.”
There is clearly a strong link to the recent shifts in technology and the growing realization for many “professional photographers” that yes, indeed, your mother is now a photographer. This growing realization has frightened some and opened up doors for many others.
The anxiety resulting from this commodotization of the technology and the democratization of the process of shooting and creating content has meant that talent and creativity that might never have been seen are now easily shared and visible across all kinds of platforms and, for many, there does come that moment when you realize that a lot of emperors now have no clothes.
By this I mean that there are a lot of old school photographers who are now out there sweating because the game has changed and they want to hold on as long as they can by drawing lines in the sand defining who is really a photographer and who is not a photographer. This is a really interesting topic, but I will write more about it later.
Instead, what I want to focus on in this post is the other aspect of the article, and certainly one that gets reinforced in the comments section, and it is this:
“And though Hipstamatic may offer the illusion of lens and film choice, the reality is that we control very little about the resulting images. The computer known as your phone does all the post-processing that would have once been done by hand.”
“Hipstamatic users like myself are more like the push-button camera users of their day, even if the qualities of our images hearken back to Steichen and Stieglitz.”
If you scroll down to the comments, you then get gems like this:
That’s why the Hipstamatic appeals to the general public but has very little respect in the iphoneography community. The shot of the wall isn’t art just because it’s a little green and hazy. You have to put in the time – pressing a button doesn’t make something interesting, doesn’t help an artist find their “voice.”
And if you pop over to Pixels – The Art of the iPhone, you’ll find this in their submissions guidelines:
8. We strongly suggest that, if you must use Hipstamatic, use it sparingly. We want the pictures that reflect YOU, not Hipstamatic. I highly recommend further apping Hipstamatic shots to reduce the cookie-cutter imprint/filtering Hipstamatic imposes on images. More on this later, in the form of an article.
Now, Madrigal can be given a pass on his comment because he ends the article on an ambiguous note and he does a great job of delineating the fact that some of the things that delineate the “artist” from the non-artist are self-definition (i.e., the photographer who declares his/her photos to be art) and he is careful to say “Hipstamatic users like myself”.
However, what struck me most as I was reading the “very little respect in the iphoneography community” comment was this: who exactly constitutes this “community” and why is it the right of this community to declare that people who use a certain app over another are not to be taken seriously?
If you want to be really simplistic, ALL photography is just pushing a button. Sure, digital photography makes it that much easier, but if you really want to control the outcome, you need to make some choices no matter what tool you are using: Where is the light? Will this work better in colour or in black and white? How should I frame the shot?
It is absurd to think that someone who has put in the hours learning how to use a camera on manual settings and taking thousands and thousands of photos is going to approach a subject in the same way as someone who is just picking up a camera for the first time and pressing the button. In fact, take it back even one step further, I would argue that most people who have never walked around with a camera for hours and hours and hours are not even going to see certain shots to begin with (notice I said “most people” because some people just have “an eye” no matter how long they’ve been doing it).
I am not trying to defend the Hipstamatic app in particular (although I do happen to like it and post a daily Hipstamatic shot here), but, rather, I am refuting the notion that you need to use more tools on your iPhone to be considered a true “iphoneographer” or “artist” with an iPhone. Running a boring photo through 3 apps is not going to make it more interesting, but stopping in your tracks on an afternoon stroll and seeing this shot (while I have a DSLR in my bag with two lenses) and deciding that it’s going to look great with Hipstamatic’s Bettie-XL is purely about the eye and not the tools: