Recently I had the good fortune to listen to one of Australia’s most popular inastagram photographers speak. Misho has been very active since day one of the service and is a solid ‘street’ style photographer.
After his talk I decided to write down a few thoughts on, why I ‘instagram’?
35mm SLR photography when it was introduced in the early 1900s was met with a similar level of derision that some detractors of smart phone photography pour upon that medium today. While todays sheer volume of cameras probably outweighs the entire number of 35mm film cameras ever made, this volume of images never stopped people from using the tools at their disposal to serve the function they sought them out for, from documenting special occasions to crime scenes and everything in between. It was a much smaller percentage of practitioners however who really pushed the boundaries of what a small format camera was capable of. People like Alexander Rodenchko, Robert Frank, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Lee Freidlander and Gary Winnogrand. What these people did with their cameras was and is revolutionary, it pushed the genre around, really teasing out the idea of a good picture and how a good picture was made. Timing in these instances was one of the ways some of these practitioners exploited the tools characteristics, size and portability others. Aesthetic concerns like grain and contrast were others. These picture makers all worked in ways that the cameras size enabled them to. It allowed them to make images that could not have been made with any other camera. Each then added their own spin on this approach, such as Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment.
Strengths & Shortcomings
Let’s be clear here, 35mm DSLRs are capable of superb technical results. But the camera still in its shape and size is designed for speed and immediacy but not huge output sizes. If I was asked to shoot a billboard sized image using one, I doubt the resulting image would stand the rigours of that. Yes it could make a decent sized a3 or a2 print, far and above the needs of many amateurs, even fashion spreads in magazines or more than adequately catered for with a full frame sensor like the Canon 5d, but for the real size and impact larger sensors of medium format digital cameras are what is required, which conversely affect the speed and operation of the image maker.
Speed & Versatility
Enter the compact camera, or, the phone camera. Size, ease of use, discreetness, all these things make for great candid photography, on the street or anywhere else for that matter. But these things come at a cost, literally and figuratively. This is why people who can master the shortcomings of this little camera are so popular on instagram. Some of the phone cameras perceived shortcomings are, its lack of controls both technical and aesthetic, the file size produced, the file type produced, and other technical shortcoming such as shutter lag.
Capitalising on the Medium
Now, picture this, someone who has no idea of the history of 35mm photography and only sees these shortcoming as attributes, and you have someone who may produce stunning imagery. Or some one who is prepared to build on these shortcomings to make pictures that confront and challenge perceptions about what a good photograph should look like and you might be on to a winner. Pushing the boundaries though? Difficult to tell and the sheer volume of images and image makers will never really make that an easy job.
Subverting the Dominant Paradigm
Other people don’t care about these perceived shortcomings. They see the other attributes such a s permanent internet connectivity as a bigger plus, despite small screen sizes and high levels of jpeg artifact compression. For them and I count myself as one of these, the IDEAS about how an image should look is as interesting as the image itself. No descivise moments, no, or long form narrative, just a cerebral hit via your visual cortex. Personally, I sit in the ‘subvert the dominant paradigm’ camp. I like to exploit the almost infinite depth of field these cameras have, their lack of selective focusing controls and the shutter lag. These properties all add up to making a good picture a real challenge. So when I accomplish a good picture, I am stoked and want to share this with as many folks as possible. In this instance a good picture may actually be the antithesis to the current culture’s ideas about a good picture. Now; factor in the idea that anyone around the world at any time of the day or night can see the image I’ve made, and appreciate it for what it is, a small slice of life ‘frozen’ or a quirky view of the world as only a small camera sees it, then you have one of the reasons why I am a frequent instagram user.
The Good, the Excellent, & the Bad.
When it comes to qualitative measures, I only have my own experience to draw on. That experience stems from many years of learning and thinking about photography as well as showing other people how to attempt to try and make good images. What makes a good instagram picture though?
Well composition, being one of the few controllable variables is one indicator, timing another, as well as an appreciation of light. By composition I ran an appreciation for an understanding of how lenses and cameras see the world and turning that idea on it’s head. The way a camera sees and the way true human eye sees are world apart, appreciating that and applying otto create strange compositions is a craft unto itself, made even more difficult with the timing of elements required to produce a good photo. I’ll be honest here timing is everything with a phone camera, just like traditional 35mm street photography, but amplified as the camera isn’t quite instant like a shutter on a traditional camera. Misha and Oggsie two ‘street’ photographers on instagram are both masters of these tools. They also both use extra camera applications to augment the native camera in their phones to better control and exploit exposure and lighting particulalrly . And capture plenty of interesting moments they do.
One of the shortcomings though of instagram for me is the long form project, very difficult to get that kind of idea across, with such a steady stream of fabulous images scrolling past your eyeballs each time you load up your instagram app. For example, Robert Frank’s most famous body of work became a classic, because it took the form of a longer narrative, something that expressed his ideas about America at the time, both as singular images and as a group of images seen as a whole. The internet isn’t bad at this, but instagram is not very good, tumblr too has its shortcomings here. Flickr on the other hand can be used quite well to this end, but is hampered by the amount of text that can be used to tie the work together in the long run; as well as the amount of visual noise on flickr.
So in the end, speed, ease of use, surrealism, these are the reasons I use intstagram.
You can find me on instagram as, @s2art.