I have long been a fan of photography as an art form. It offers a level of intimacy, of detail and of (potentially) accuracy that few others offer. It is therefore, by turns, both easier and more difficult to master.
Easier, because virtually anyone can have access to the tools necessary to produce a photograph. The mechanics of using a camera are (increasingly) straightforward. Even simple point-and-shoot cameras can produce surprisingly high quality pictures. Even cell phones now come with exceptionally high resolution cameras that can produce sharp, focussed and well-exposed photographs.
And yet, while anyone can take a picture, taking a good picture is a different matter altogether. The mechanics have an influence – the typical exposure is somewhere between 1/30 and 1/2000 of a second, a minutely fractional slice of time that makes critical choosing when to push the button. More importantly still are all the finite judgements that go into the composition of a great photograph – the combination of framing, focussing, exposure and depth-of-field that collectively represent all of the control a photographer has before triggering the shutter.
A great deal of additional work, of course, can be done in the dark room. The tools of dodging and burning – code for selectively making sections of a print darker or brighter by controlling the exposure times of different araes of the paper – have long been accepted by even the most ardent of purists as necessary to make a high quality print in the darkroom. Other techniques – from choice of filters to choice of chemicals to choice of paper – helped influence the finished product. And the advent of tools like Photoshop helped to create the ‘digital darkroom’, moving from scanning of negatives and evolving to a fully digital workflow, from exposure to printed photograph.
Lately, a different means of production has evolved: Instagram. A phone app, it takes the tools previously limited to the professional and puts them in the hands of everyone. Take a picture, choose a filter, apply the results and presto – instant art. You can replicate everything from a cheesy 1970s Instamatic to the highly saturated work of Hiro. Then you can share the results with your friends and your world – through Facebook, Twitter or your Instagram page.
Without trying to come across as a snob (and I may yet fail in doing so, but I’m going to make an effort here, so work with me) the near ubiquity of Instagram is its potential downfall. While it is a great tool for making interesting effects, it runs the risk of being the universal hammer that turns everything into a nail. Certainly, the use of filters has long been a technique for making dull photographs more interesting. But their continued and repetitive use desensitizes the entire experience.
What started this stream of thought is the following picture, which showed up at random and largely by accident in my Facebook feed yesterday:
It’s without question a striking photo. It reframes a very familiar scene (the Toronto skyline) in a new and interesting way, using a visually stunning footbridge over the Humber River in the foreground. The sky is gorgeous, the repetitive nature of the clouds giving what would otherwise be a flat expanse of sky form and texture. It’s well composed, leading the eye from the foreground naturally to the focal point of the photograph. And its supersatured with colour not normally found in nature.
Photographic purists used to say that one should only photograph in black-and-white, as it was too easy to make a badly composed picture look good by throwing colour at it. Restricting picture taking to black-and-white demanded attention to composition and exposure, contrast and texture, to make a good photograph great. I will, for the sake of full disclosure, contentedly admit that I used to only shoot on black-and-white film for the longest time (back when I still used film in a camera) for pretty much this reason. I now shoot mostly in colour because my camera is digital, and the colour pretty much happens all on its own without my doing anything; I can choose later on to convert it to black-and-white, or keep it as it is.
The supersaturation of Instagram (not just the ability to introduce vibrant colours that aren’t actually there, but the ubquitous use of it to do so) tends to create exactly the same problem. I would have loved to have seen the above picture in its original form, to see the scene as the photographer saw it when they clicked the shutter in the first place. The photograph is strong enough that it would still look striking even produced in black-and-white (just squint while looking at the picture to see what I mean). It didn’t need to be Instagrammed to be a great photograph. But it was anyway.
In music, performers are criticized for using too much technology to compensate for a bad performance (Google ‘autotune’ for more debate on the subject than you could possibly care to find. Instagram is potentially the Autotune for the smartphone-weilding photographer. And the risk inherent in this is not that it makes bad pictures look better; it’s that it takes great pictures and then hides them.