I was happy to read this restrained rant against photo filters by one of CNET’s tech writers, Stephan Shankland. Led by Instagram with 7m users, photo filter apps have become increasingly popular as iPhone photographers recast ofen banal subject matter into bright, poppy, retro images. That is, 7m users reliving a design aesthetic that they probably weren’t alive for. Previously these kind of effects were painstakingly achieved through box cameras and the like, but as Facebook has decided to piggyback on Instagram’s success and add filters to its photo editing tools, what was previously an indie hobby is becoming increasingly mainstream. Incidentally, Facebook thinks it has about 60bn photos on its database. SIXTY BILLION lomo-fied photos, all over your news feed.
I genuinely dislike these photo filter apps – the most popular being Instagram and Hipstamatic (even the names are intolerable) – and find it surprising that a generation of super-connected people choose to filter their lives through an artificial aesthetic which belongs to the 1970s. Pop culture’s nostalgia for history, to recast the present against the golden haziness of the past is hardly anything new, as testified by the ongoing popularity of retro dramas like Mad Men, or (in the UK) The Hour. But the tendency seeps across the media more widely, to interesting, if not always commendable, effect. Take Foreign Policy, which chose to host a photo essay on the war in Afghanistan dubbed “The War in Hipstamatic“. The essay consists of a series of highly coloured photographs of the war in Afghanistan which recall, to borrow Hipstamatic’s own chirpy tagline, “the look and feel of plastic toy cameras from the past”.
The NYT’s Damon Winter has won plaudits earlier this year for a similar project – so clearly not everyone feels quite as offended as I do by this. Indeed, Winter writes an articulate defence of his choice, saying that using Hipstamatic has no effect on the actual content of his war photography. It is worth reading in full.
What has gotten people so worked up, I believe, falls under the heading of aesthetics. Some consider the use of the phone camera as a gimmick or as a way to aestheticize news photos. Those are fair arguments, but they have nothing to do with the content of the photos.
I disagree. Recasting Afghanistan in grainy colours feels, at gut level, like an insult both to journalism and the soldiers who face a much greyer reality on a daily basis, and the aesthetics actually distract from the content.
Of course, you could ask how far this snobbery should trickle down, and to what extent using any filters in photography is trickery. The simple answer is that I don’t know; I’m not inherently against people experimenting with Diana cameras or or Polaroids. But with more and more people taking retro photos as the norm, rather than the novelty, this insistence on recasting the present is going to get tiresome at best.