Barnacles on a boat keel.

Because I am an aesthetic snob, raised by aesthetic snobs (they would have never copped to that: they would have insisted that they were merely well-educated people with good taste), I approach software like Instagram with knee-jerk disdain. People take their crappy snapshots, bleach, punch ‘em up, smudge ‘em, throw a grundge frame around them and call them art.

I don’t need no steeenkin’ filters, I am an ARTEEEEEEST! (And it’s no fair for all these n00bs to have a short-cut like that, dammit. They should have to learn arcane techniques using expensive software like I did, back when I walked to photography school uphill both ways. Or they should be forced to use film, which is where all this stuff comes from in the first place. See how they like THAT. Hmf.)


So, why are applications like Instagram and Snapseed so incredibly popular? Let’s set aside their easy-of-use and technological merits for a moment.

I think there are two main reasons:

1) Instant nostalgia. For those of us who grew up in the film era, the filters that evoke those times give a patina of age and legitimacy to the otherwise almost soulless perfection of the digital snapshot. For those who don’t remember film, the filters give a “used” look to the image, they create something that looks like an artifact that’s been handled and lived with, rather than an impersonal document. By moving the image further away from being a straightforward record, it actually gains an aura of authenticity.

…and, taking it a step further…

2) Art. We most easily recognize an object as artistic when it has an element of the hand in it, when it brings or represents an emotional as well as or instead of merely an intellectual aperçu. It isn’t just “this is what I saw, and what I think you should look at,” but rather “this is what I saw, here’s how I felt about it and how I hope you’ll feel too, and furthermore, it matters.”

Selective focus and color shifts are the lingua franca of the consumer-oriented image-editing applications. And for good reason, I would argue—they are the tools most likely to move a picture from a starkly literally view of the surroundings to a more dream-like, emotive, and memory-mimicing image. These tropes evoke a world that is shaped by feelings and experience, that is personal and human. They literally take the edge off the technology.

Of course it is entirely possible for these apps to be overused, and after you’ve seen the same unsubtle filter applied to the same type of banal image a gazillion times, they can definitely lose their charm. But it’s worth paying attention to the semantic meaning behind the appeal of these tools. People want to feel something when they look at a picture. They want the sense of the interior world of the person who made it. They want to remember how they felt when they released the shutter.

Most people also want pictures that are interesting, and let’s face it, most snapshots are not very interesting. To the extent that filter apps add visual interest by juicing the color or scratching things up, it’s basically putting lipstick on a pig. But it’s worth honoring the impulse behind the filtering mania: folks are playing with their images, they’re mixing it up, they’re trying to do something more interesting.

I admire that. I hope that they won’t stop with those ten pre-sets in the software, that they’ll experiment both with the way they take pictures to begin with, and how they post-process them. That they’ll try to figure out which effects they like best, and why, and then investigate them, push them, reverse them.

Sometimes the product of a casual photographer with a handy photo app is stunningly beautiful. I try hard not to resent the bejesus out of it when that happens.

But you know what, if it means that the person recognizes that they made something wonderful, I’m all in favor of it. If it causes them to pay more attention to the world around them, to be more diligent in capturing and representing it and sharing it with others, so much the better. That’s a life-enhancing trajectory.

It makes all of us love the world and the people in it a bit more.

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5 Responses to Encrusted
  1. Crash
    February 20, 2012 | 11:23 pm

    Modern cameras do so much for the photographer that it hardly matters if more software is used later. Compare your thoughts to the old photographers, under a hood, holding a tray of explosive stuff for lighting. What they would say about our cameras and the skill needed to do good photography? Later the match-needle approach of my old Pentax Spotmatic.
    I’m hoping that this is a long-winded way of agreeing with your conclusions.
    Wolynski is of another mind. If I correctly recall, she feels the photographer should set the camera, compose, and use the light to create the final product. She does it superbly. You do your style superbly. Different strokes.

  2. NT
    February 21, 2012 | 12:43 am

    Actually, I believe Elizabeth and I are in agreement that you can and should do everything possible to get the image you want. While there is value in learning how to work within the strictures of camera-alone, ultimately what matters is the product.

    Thanks for you kind words, and I agree that Wolynski has a terrific eye.

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