March 13, 2014

Is Instagram Ruining The Art Of Photography?

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In September, the Brooks Museum of Memphis held an Instagram contest for their Shared Vision exhibit that intends to represent 100 years of photography. When #memphisshared was hashtagged under a Memphis-related picture, it was entered. The museum’s judges comprising of two curators, a local photographer and a social media expert chose which Instagram pictures they felt best portrayed the city. Of over 1,200 entries, those selected will be hung in the Brooks Museum for two months.

The exhibit’s co-curator, Jenny Hornby, clarified the museum’s underlying intention: “We wanted to involve the local community in adding a contemporary chapter that represents mobile photography. Today’s cell phones and photo-sharing apps have blurred the line between professional and amateur photographers. The Brooks wanted to organize an exhibition that represents that.” When Instagram fills museum galleries, the question is: is amateur Instagram photography ruining the art of professional photography?

Yes, and the reason is simple. When the masses are given the tools to create, the quality of said creation is dumbed down. An example of this is the history of literacy. Until the age of Johannes Gutenberg, literacy was a skill of only the elite monks and scholars of the Western world. Because the Church wanted to keep a tight reign over the Bible’s interpretation to the general public, a select group was chosen to preserve the capital ‘T’-Truth of the Word of God when written, read and spoken to ensure nothing went awry.

Thanks to Gutenberg and the subsequent invention of movable-type print, the course of history has developed and now we can easily access a wide range of literature with vastly varying quality. From Don Quijote to 50 Shades of Grey to the several blog posts you read this morning, literacy and its accessibility has allowed every day people to express themselves to the masses with an increasing velocity and ease, but it has come at a price to the overall quality of literature. Although literary geniuses like David Foster Wallace or Thomas Pynchon are amongst today’s equivalent of the Medieval Age’s elite, most of us are an E.L. James-type– writing to fill the time just because we can.

Much like literature, photography was once left to the skilled, well-studied, highly-innovative and patient. Oh did you need patience! Louis Daguerre waited at least ten minutes for a single photo’s exposure. If a subject moved during that time, it simply wasn’t captured. Imagine holding an iPhone completely and utterly still for that long. The slightest of movements would mean not capturing that duckfaced selfie you held for ten minutes. Yikes! But like the beginning of any invention, we can all be thankful now for  the progression of time and said invention’s subsequent development. But, is the mobile development of photography replacing the art of the skilled photographer?

Unfortunately, yes. That’s not to say the world won’t continue to have those exceptional photographic geniuses. But now that the majority has a camera in their pocket, we are all deemed photographers equipped with enough apps to edit and filter our own personal galleries of ‘quality’ works– quality that is now defined within the parameters of an Instagram-able square.

But, what makes Instagram unique from basic mobile photography is its twenty choices of varying exposure-saturation-contrast combinations. Adding a frame, rotating, or adding a rectangular or circular focus are additional features. The underlying goal: to adjust reality. To beautify, antique, change original photographic content alters the followers’ perception of your immediate world, potentially leading to an increase in like-button taps. Regardless, the problem here isn’t tricking people’s perception of reality. Photo editing has been an essential part of photography’s history since the late 1800s with portrait manipulations of President Lincoln. In today’s mobile era, the problems lie in the lack of technique and skills required to implement photographic manipulations and in the restriction of creative freedom the limited number of filters allow. The only necessity for a quality Instagram ‘pic’? Opposable thumbs.

A year ago, Time magazine asked the public to put their thumbs to work and hashtag the pictures they wanted to submit for a chance at print publication. The experiment was a success for both parties. Time received quick, free photographic content and people were led to believe their run-of-the-mill Instagram portfolios were exceptional. During the same time, Sports Illustrated hired a professional photographer to document a sporting event on an iPhone 4s for a six-page feature. The impact social media has on today’s journalism is undeniable and unavoidable.

When Megan Lavey-Heaton, TUAW’s news editor and The Patriot-News’ newspaper designer, was asked why this alliance of Instagram and well-established print publication is occurring, she responded,  “I think what Time and Sports Illustrated are seeing is this engaged audience and wanted to make sure that they were using those platforms to reach that audience. Time, especially, utilized those images as a reflection to how much the world has changed since Apple introduced the first massively popular smartphone. We’re seeing the world through our phones now, and Time‘s subsequent “The Wireless Issue” really drives that point home with the cover made up of a collage of Instagram photos.”

Easy, quick accessibility and widespread audience engagement are primary reasons why Instagram is and will continue to play a vital role in print publication. However, the increase in free, Instagram content from the @averageJoe could lead to less commissioned work from highly-trained, well-experienced photographers simply because: why wouldn’t it?

High-quality photographs would be at stake; but in an era where contemporary exhibits in museums mean overly saturated, Nashville-filtered, square iPhone pictures taken by anyone in the city, quality is bound to digress. In place of quality, however, through the inter-connectivity of Instagram-worthy life experiences, the popular picture app does re-enforce and bolster a shared (or, rather, hashtag-able) sense of community and engagement.  TC mark

featured image – Shutterstock

N.M. Hughes

I am a Southerner with a British wit. As a rule, Californians annoy me and New Yorkers make me feel at home.

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