I spent four years in studios and darkrooms, learning a century-old craft, loading rolls of film in to cases containing simple light-capturing technology that had hardly changed since its inception. When you were in lectures or sitting at computers, we were mixing chemicals, shining lights through silver halides, softening our fingerprints with every piece of paper dipped in to crusty plastic trays in rooms bathed in dim red light.
By the final year of my degree, my course (and consequently what I am “qualified in”) had changed its name from “Study of Art: Photography” to “Photography & Digital Imaging”. Those years I had spent in the darkroom resulted in one sad fact: by graduation, the world had ‘gone digital’. Whilst still valuable in some way, most of the practical post-production skills I had worked so hard to perfect were redundant and useless to a 21-year-old trying to find a job in Modern London.
It’s not hard to deduce from what I’ve just said to that I have resentment issues with digital photography. I still love film, Polaroid, my 120mm Holga (light leaks n’all) and the seemingly never-ending supply of disposable cameras I bought as a job-lot on eBay years ago. But it is not only expensive to develop film in 2012; it is increasingly difficult even to find anywhere to process film on the high street.
The investment and advancements in photography from the 1990s were driven primarily by one goal: That digital capture and print output should match the quality of darkroom printing. That pixels should match grains of silver, and the quality should be crisp and clear even at large format. We’ve had a pretty good crack at getting there. And yet, as soon as we hit that point – where a picture you’ve taken on a piece of kit that fits in your pocket can be printed instantly and well without even using cables – we decided to reject it. We invested and invented until we created brilliant technology to allow us to do great things and we are ignoring it.
I love social networking. I love that sharing information in text and image is easy, popular and free. I love that I can post a photo of a London sunset on the Facebook wall of my best friend in Australia from a device I can operate with one thumb, and show 1,300 people how rammed with buses Cricklewood Broadway is on my way to work. I love keeping up with how your night out is going by seeing how many empty cocktail glasses are in the foreground of your last photo and I love seeing visual snippets into the lives of people I may never meet in person.
My ‘hatred’ of Instagram has been a running joke amongst my friends for a long time now. I never actually hated Instagram. My problem with the photo-sharing app stems from everything I have just explained. It is the prime example of how we achieved great technological advances only to reject it. We built sensors and cameras and memory cards and software to create huge, clean, bright photographs and we use this to step back 40 years. We use it to recreate the blurry faded grubby low-fi nostalgia-tinged prints we find curling at the corners in raggedy old family albums. To opt in to a time where we couldn’t print as well as we can now – but without the bit where we actually print anything.
I have no problem with manipulation or post production. Photoshop is amazing. Lightroom blows my mind. Being able to adjust curves and white balance whist I’m on the tube using apps like Snapseed, Iris and ProHDR continually impresses me. It earns me money, it helps us preserve, archive, repair and improve and all for incredible value, too.
I had already formed most of these opinions before even looking at Instagram properly. Over the next few weeks, I’m working (well, tweeting) as one of the Museum of London & Westminster University’s Citizen Curators. Their requirements include writing at least ten project-specific tweets a day (not a massive struggle for me, I’m sure you’ll agree), and hashtagged photos on… yup. Instagram.
It seems the only thing missing from my constant rants about the service was any actual experience of having used it. And now I can’t stop using it.
I’ve been insisting that it is “for the sake of the project” but you know what? I’m quite enjoying it. I post professional photo work on Flickr, blurry photos of nights out on Facebook, and tweet endless snaps of brunches and beers via TwitPic. These things seem to have their place, in my mind. But Instagram, for me, is where these worlds collide. Flickr-worthy artistic merit, with a ‘like’ button a la Facebook, and the ability to post to my twitter timeline. I don’t need to review Instagram. It’s not new and you’ve all been using it for years before me. I’m enjoying the social side of it, but my thoughts about it being classed as a ‘creative photography’ tool are confirmed.
Technology is helping people experiment with creativity in a medium they may have had no interest or ability in until they downloaded one little app. With 2 little clicks you have stumbled through a change of contrast and colour levels, maybe added a toy-town tilt-shift effect to make your local high street look like a scene from Legoland (guilty) and you haven’t even had to worry about getting a chemical handprint on to the thigh of your favourite jeans.
Photography is creative at every stage. Composition takes talent and skill. Controlling how something will look when published takes a certain amount of visual know-how and taste and maybe even knowledge of various art and design principles. Instagram is encouraging people to explore these things without having to spend years in under-funded art schools up and down the country.
Modern photography is cheap, accessible, quick, easy and social. We share everything, and despite that being the essence of contemporary life for the technologically-minded, we insist on adding a look of history to our images. Photos tell a story and the series of filters we apply on Instagram adds a history to those stories that doesn’t yet exist.
I love going back to my family home and looking through old hand-bound books of self-processed photos of family holidays and albums of Polaroids and 35mm snaps of sunny birthday parties. If I ever have children, are they going to have anything like that to look through? Are they going to be really confused that the quality and grainy appearance of prints from my childhood improves as my face gets older on the pages of those albums, then suddenly jumps right back to looking cheap and discoloured once I got my first smartphone?