Maybe it’s a bit like Marmite; you either love them or hate them. Believe me the narrow-eyed cynic in me really really wants to hate them, but I can’t help it. I’m hooked. I love instagrams (and really I use instagram as a catch-all for any kind of images made/enhanced by a smart phone photo app. I also use vintage cam and Hipstamatic occasionally and there are some others I haven’t tried yet like Tilt Shift Generator and PictureShow which are interesting). I know they’re a bit too mainstream to be cool anymore and they’ve had a bit of stick, but they are fun and simple and easy and surely all the best things in life are and should be those things. I think they are as exciting as the Polaroid camera must have been to Walker Evans when he first got his hands on his new ‘toy’, the SX-70 40 years ago.
And cheaper! The ultimate democratic art form!
OK, so maybe they’re not examples of Quality Image Making, but we all know that you can have the best kit in the world – it’s not going to make you into a pro photographer, or an artist for that matter. It’s what you point it at that counts Evans said (I did promise I would come back to this, didn’t I?). I would go further than that and say It’s what you do with it that counts. He was lucky because he was already famous and established as an artist-photographer so some nice people made his lovely Polaroids into a book after he died, otherwise surely they too would be lost and forgotten; checked into the end-of-the-road snappy stop shop for stray photographs, like billions of others.
These kind of ‘throwaway’ snapshot images almost seem to reproduce themselves. They supersede the medium of photography. They are disposable, junk; the visual equivalent of white noise, proliferating, littering our screens, our minds, our lives. I have this vision of the end of the world when everything has imploded and all that is left are millions of little shiny glimmering photographs, like Polaroid snapshots. Our starry lost souls floating aimlessly around in a void of empty, black space. This will be what we are reduced to.
I wonder then if the criticism levelled at these tools is more about a certain elitist attempt to protect or safeguard the worthy status of photography. But why do we need to do this? Why do we feel like images like this are somehow base, a bit dirty or cheap, whereas say bad writing is OK, it’s just bad writing. If we get back to what photography actually is about, like words, and all art, it is communication. People will always seek to communicate. We need to communicate. It’s instinctual. I would argue that nowadays we communicate as much through pictures as we do through words.
It doesn’t cheapen anything really because all people are doing is communicating. It might be annoying, and thoughtless, but, like meaningless words, we can toss them aside because they probably weren’t meant to speak to us anyway.
I am also aware that the youth-of-today probably doesn’t know or even much care that these retro-vintage style filters are appropriating an aesthetic made fashionable by the Polaroid camera in the 70’s and lomo-style cameras like Holgas, Lubitels etc. It just looks cool.
But why does this even matter?
Is it just because it’s too easy, somehow? After all, all art is about aesthetics, and appropriation (Warhol, anyone?). Nothing is truly ‘unique’. We are always borrowing ideas from other people; things we see around us, things we read, we get inspired and hey presto a new idea furrows its way into our brains and takes on a life of its own which is a little bit like something someone else did, but maybe we take it a bit further, or we put a new spin on it. Let’s be honest, there’s a lot of recycling going on.
At school when a child ‘borrows’ an idea from another child we don’t call it cheating anymore, we call it ‘magpie-ing’ (thanks to the great Pie Corbett). I love this, because it is liberating. Not only does it teach children that knowledge and ideas are not things to be guarded jealously, but are free and should be shared amongst our fellow human beings, but it also exposes the creative process to them, which previously might have seemed a bit mysterious or impenetrable. This is how creativity works: you open up your mind, you look, you listen, you read, you become receptive to other people’s ideas, discuss them maybe, inform yourself, and through them, your own ideas will grow and develop (if you nurture them).
This is why it is often said to be a good writer you have to be a good reader, and probably the same is true of photography and looking. Generally, to be a ‘good’ artist you need to be sensitive, attuned to the world around you, and be able to draw that into you work in order that you have something interesting to say.
Anyway, this is why I like instagrams so much. Not because they are really anything that great, or because they are trying to communicate anything particularly deep or meaningful, but because they don’t pretend to be anything more than they are, which is fun and nice to look at. They don’t take themselves too seriously.
BUT if you don’t want them to end up forever inscribed in the graveyard of your C: drive under: oh yeah I meant to actually do something with these one day then here are a few ideas, just in case you are stuck for things to actually do with your instagrams:
© Emily Hughes and searchingtosee, 2012