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Hipstamatic angst, Instagram anxiety: time to move the conversation forward

It’s back – another round of high octane commentary on the supposedly nefarious influence of Hipstamatic and Instagram on the world of photography. We’ve had Jean-Francois Leroy of Visa Pour L’Image deride these apps as “all a gimmick…pure laziness“. We’ve read Kate Bevan in The Guardian detail how she loves manipulating her own digital images, but thinks Instagram and its fellow travellers is “debasing photography.” And we’ve seen the announcement of Hipstmatic’s plans for a photojournalism foundation scoffed at by the likes of Foto8.

There’s plenty of room for a constructive critique of how filters that replicate earlier analogue forms have become so popular. A good place to start is with Nathan Jurgenson’s analysis of “faux-vintage” photography and the way it manifests a “nostalgia for the present.” Heightened by social media’s power to view the present as always a potentially documented past, Jurgenson argues that images from Hipstamatic, Instagram and other services work to make our prosaic and vernacular images “seem more important, substantial and real.”

And there will be plenty of time to ask hard questions of Hipstamatic about whether its serious with its plans for a Foundation of Photojournalism and what benefits, if any, it might provide for the production of new stories.

But, really, it’s time to move the conversation on. This applies to both the supporters and critics, as Ashley Gilbertson tweeted this week:

The vehement opposition to these apps commonly operates in terms of ideas of ‘legitimate photography’ versus ‘illegitimate photography’, in which a supposedly new realm of popular manipulation is undercutting the cultural status of established photography, all infused with a professional anxiety about the influence of ‘amateurs’. We’ve got to get beyond this frame. I’ve long argued that we have to reposition debates about photography so we recognise the inherent and unavoidable place of aesthetics and representation in the production of each and every photographic image, no matter who is making them. I’ve written about that in relation to photojournalism generally, specific images like the most recent World Press Photo winner, as well as everyday, personal photos. If we think about the latter, we might just appreciate that popular culture has a sophisticated appreciation that images can be both produced and hence constructed, yet function as documents, evidence and records. The stale, either/or, rendering of ways to understand our condition totally fails to apprehend such complexities.

Much of the criticism directed at the Hipstamatic is profoundly ahistorical. Given that the development of the app was driven in part by an interest in Polaroid, we have to wonder whether the detractors are as critical of those photographers who choose cameras, lenses, films, printing paper, or digital picture profiles to get a particular look to their images. In other words, don’t they have to mount a critique of pretty much all photography and photographers? John Edwin Mason had a series of tweets that made this point well, starting from the revelation that Ed Kashi’s Instagrams were subject to some online abuse:

We also have to dispense with the idea that everything produced with these apps is poor, banal or the same. If you want to see a great contemporary image maker who can produce visuals with smartphones and apps way better than most, check out the work of  Richard Koci Hernandez.

One of the things that is most significant about Hipstamtic and Instagram is that they make photography popular, social and mobile. This is why Facebook is prepared to pay $1 billion for a company that has no revenue. It’s not actually about the photography – it’s about the social and the value of Instagram’s user community, which numbers 50 million or more and is growing at the rate of 5 million per week.

All that said, this post is not actually a defence of these apps. I’m not interested in being for or against. I want to put the critiques in context, understand their historical and conceptual limitations, and reframe the issue. There has been too much heat and not enough light.

The primary question has to be what stories can you tell with what tools? Do these new tools help produce more interesting visual narratives that can be connected to more people? It’s entirely possible, and could even be happening now, but those have to be the grounds on which we should judge their success or failure. Let’s move the conversation forward to that point, and dispense with the angst and anxiety.

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media economy photography

Photographic anxiety: should we worry about image abundance?

Should we be worried about image abundance in the contemporary world?

In recent weeks I have heard a number of affirmative answers to this question. At both the University of Sunderland’s excellent “Versatile Image: Photography in the Age of Web 2.0” conference and the Les Rencontres d’Arles symposium on “Photography, the Internet and Social Networks,” a number of contributors voiced concerns.

Heard in presentations and conversations were declarations about the number of circulating images. We live in a time of “too many photographs” and the digital revolution is “worrying and dangerous”. Metaphors of flooding were common. We are inundated with pictures, leaving us as a “lonely figure found amongst the surfeit of images”.

This proliferation was said to have negative consequences. This “over-abundance” makes us “image bulemics” suffering from visual excess. “Quality has been exchanged for quantity”, “taste is dulled and crushed by multiplicity”, and we have arrived at a point where “nobody believes images anymore”.

This quote seems to sum up the connections between quantity, anxiety and effects:

Today the eye of modern man is daily, hourly overfed with images. In nearly every newspaper he opens, in every magazine, in every book—pictures, pictures, and more pictures…This kaleidoscope of changing visual impressions spins so rapidly that almost nothing is retained in memory. Each new picture drives away the previous one…The result—in spite of the hunger for new visual impressions—is a dulling of the senses. To put it bluntly: the more modern man is given to see, the less he experiences in seeing. He sees much too much to still be able to see consciously and intensively.

But this quote is not recent. It dates from 1932, and is from a German article on image fatigue (reference below). It shows that, in a period we regard as a time of editorial control, relative slowness, and contemplation, anxieties about visual abundance and its effects were also common.

Although few express worries about being swamped by words or text in contrast to pictures, concern about “information overload” has an even longer history. Having located concerns as far back as 1565, Vaughan Bell wrote:

Worries about information overload are as old as information itself, with each generation reimagining the dangerous impacts of technology on mind and brain. From a historical perspective, what strikes home is not the evolution of these social concerns, but their similarity from one century to the next, to the point where they arrive anew with little having changed except the label.

What is driving the contemporary concern about image abundance? In part it’s the scale of production enabled by digital production and circulation. There are probably 500 billion digital images produced each year, and more than 60 billion have been uploaded to Facebook (with 8 billion on Photobucket, 7 billion on Picasa, and 5 billion on Flickr). When the majority of mobile phones have cameras it is no wonder we take a lot of images – the iPhone 4 is now the single biggest source of Flickr uploads.

I don’t doubt that the ease of digital technology means that overall there are more pictures than ever. However, these macro statistics can be a bit misleading. As Joerg Colberg pointed out a while back, if you take the overall number of photos on Facebook and divide it by the large number of users, the average Facebook album is little more than a hundred images per person. Is that any larger than the analogue prints collected in a traditional family photo album?

The anxiety associated with image abundance condenses a range of concerns. Listening to the debates at Arles in particular, I think this anxiety is driven by a professional concern about the rise of the amateur, and the way in which this is seen as destabilising traditional frames of cultural reference. Most of the statistics cited in relation to the contemporary proliferation of pictures refer to popular production. What people fear is being swamped, I suspect, are the assumed qualities of the professional image.

Far from being a threat, I see the abundance of images as an opportunity for ‘the professional’. We live in a culture where people avidly consume photos. But in this culture there is still a scarcity of certain types of imagery – those which drive a story.

Critical, engaged and reflective photographers (as well as curators and editors) are the people who can offer in-depth, narrative explorations of important issues at home and abroad. Indeed, the general familiarity and fondness for single images in our ‘photo-op’ culture might have expanded the space and grown the demand for more complex, thoughtful visual stories.

There is much to study about photography in all its forms in the context of web 2.0. But in relation to the metaphors of excess, flooding and their assumed effects, its probably time to move on from repeating clichés of cultural anxiety to embracing new creative production.

 

  • Reference: Paul Westheim, “Bildermüde?”, Das Kunstblatt16 (March 1932): 20-22. I am indebted to Mia Fineman, Assistant Curator, Department of Photographs, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York for the quotation. She provided the translation, which comes from her dissertation, Ecce Homo Prostheticus: Technology and the New Photography in Weimar Germany (Yale University, 2001).
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photography politics Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.2: John Moore, and the iPad autograph

Thinking Images – an occasional series on a small selection of the week’s visuals and the thoughts they prompt…

 

John Moore’s long term project Detained – covering prison sites run by US military and intelligence agencies as part of the global war on terror – was featured on the Lens blog this week. Moore’s work is an important act of documentation, both covering and connecting sites that otherwise remain relatively obscure. It was reviewed a day before WikiLeaks – again in partnership with an array of global media outlets – released another tranche of documents from the Iraq war. These revealed more accounts of torture and more civilian deaths resulting from the US-led invasion of Iraq. The more we find out the grimmer the picture becomes. (Caption for photo above: ‘Oct. 27, 2005: A juvenile detainee in a solitary confinement cage at Abu Ghraib was punished for talking through a fence to other detainees’).

This week Barack Obama became the first president to autograph an iPad, during a campaign stop in Seattle (photo: Susan Walsh/AP). Earlier this year Obama expressed his disdain for such devices, when he remarked that “with iPods and iPads and Xboxes and PlayStations – none of which I know how to work – information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than the means of emancipation.” Obama’s critique chimed with Malcolm Gladwell’s claim earlier this month that “the revolution will not be tweeted” – shorthand for saying that the transformative power of social media was being over-hyped. A couple of things unite Obama and Gladwell. First, both have no experience of the technologies they criticise. Obama confesses he doesn’t know how to work any of the things he names, and Gladwell has never been a Twitter user (something that led Jay Rosen to call Gladwell’s article an instance of journalistic malpractice. Alexis Madrigal is far less critical, but nonetheless points out two of Gladwell’s false assumptions here). Second, both see the platform itself as a political agent rather than just a mode of distribution, which nonetheless – because of the ease and scope of political collaboration it makes possible – has potential political consequences. An interesting counterpoint to this techno-cynicism is that in China (from where I am currently writing) it is the social media and sharing sites (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube etc) that are blocked. That doesn’t prove that they are inherently transformative, but it shows some regimes fear that might just help those pursuing change.