Instagram is a new photo-sharing service that lets you make a digital picture look like an old faded print. One of the more popular filters makes the image look like an old Polaroid camera picture. It does this by changing the color balance, the contrast, and (to my eye) applying a soft-focus duplicate layer on the sharper original. It simulates the low-grade optics of the consumer-model instant camera depicted in their logo.
Technically, it degrades the image, reducing the amount of original information in very specific ways. But a lot of people (who are too young to have ever used an original Polaroid camera) find the result appealing. My grumpy-old-photographer act only raises the question of why the service has been so popular. And when I say “popular” I mean Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg dropped a cool $1 Billion to keep it out of Google’s hands.
Scratching the creative sharing itch
Instagram certainly didn’t invent image filters or photo sharing. What Instagram does really well is to combine image filtering and photo sharing in a quick, super-easy system. It pushes the social “hey, cool picture” button and the “wow, that was easy” button at the same time. Its popularity is a direct result of giving busy people a culturally-approved artistic and social outlet. People are actually taking pictures of everyday situations and objects, and sharing them with the world.
Wait, what? “Culturally approved?”
As the saying goes, Earth without art is just “Eh”. Yet while nearly everyone in traditional cultures makes some aesthetically-embellished craft, in Western cities most people don’t. We even look at creative people as being a little strange. In the same way that enthusiasm is only allowed in sports arenas and certain churches, creativity must be left to the professionals behind the velvet ropes.
What percentage of people sing, play an instrument, draw, paint, sculpt, or make… anything at all? We are surrounded by factory-made items and art. We’re embarrassed if we don’t sing as well as the professionally trained, digitally-enhanced performers we hear on the radio. Our villages are invaded by expensive, global media talent against which we all measure ourselves.
And when most of us do create anything, we lead with an apology: “It’s not very good”. This may be one reason people envy celebrities – it looks like it would be fun to act in a movie, paint a picture, or make a portrait of someone just because they look interesting.
Our education system is no help at all, because our curriculum is all about competitiveness. There is little allowance for the time it takes to become good at making anything just for its own sake. As educator John Holt says, school children are indoctrinated in the terror of giving the wrong answer. No wonder art and music are last in line for funding – it doesn’t fit our cultural model.
I know of no other animal that makes art. Yet we’ve created a consumer culture that denigrates every creative impulse we have. We’ve been trained to make fun of each other when our creative efforts are not “professional”. We even compare our own bodies to those of Photoshop-enhanced, professional models, athletes and actors. This is a tragedy.
There is a widespread human need to create something – anything – and share it with our village. By displaying one photograph at a time, Instagram sets off the image we made and says; “There! This is something I saw. I’ve just elevated it above the snapshot level. Connect with me for a moment, and see it, too.”
That’s a billion dollars, right there. That’s how badly we want to be creative beings, and not just consumers of what others make.
Create something – anything.
What you create has value to you, and that’s enough. Pick up a pencil and do a sketch of something. Then look at it and revel in its unprofessionalism. Do two sketches a day for a month and you’ll surprise yourself. The point is not to match professional work, but to claim your freedom to create.
Sing off-key. Dance a clumsy jig in the office. Take a picture for no reason than you liked what you saw, and share it with someone (on Instagram, if you like). Write a short story. Make a short video that tells the story. Every amateurish thing you do is an act of rebellion against consumer culture. The word “amateur” means “lover” – no other reason is necessary.
- Wall St. Journal: See some photos before and after Instagram
- Now that phone cameras are getting really good, along comes Instagram to screw up the pictures. See, that’s what I meant by “grumpy old photographer”.
- I strive for the most clarity I can achieve in a picture, not only because I like to do technical photography, but because I like the sense of being there when I look at the result. While most people have seen such photos in art exhibits and National Geographic, they may not realize that the digital camera they already own is capable of approaching such results. All it takes is a bit of knowledge and experimentation.
- No surprise I like Tromp D’oel painting, either.
- Edwin Land (the man behind the original Polaroid camera) was a stone genius who worked closely with Ansel Adams to produce some amazing photographic equipment and processes. Back when this was going on they had undergraduate students testing prototypes. My father was one of these lucky individuals; he’d get a case of the new film, and go around the San Francisco area with the new cameras and his Weston light meter, taking careful measurements and notes to bring back with the pictures. This was how he learned photography, seeing instant feedback on his work that almost no one else in his time got to experience.
- Ansel Adams was a clear-picture and detail person. Along with Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham and others, he founded the F64 Group, dedicated to sharp-focus, carefully-framed and exposed photographs. The group was formed in opposition to the Pictorialists, whom Adams derided as seeking “depth through fuzziness”. In spite of this, the Pictorialists… were not wrong to make photographs the way they liked them. Quite the opposite, actually.
- Mike the Mad Biologist: Slow death of art and music in K-12, another reason why austerity sucks