I’ve never been much of a fan when it came to Instagram and the currently popular “artistic filter” trend many photo-editing software developers as well as camera manufacturers tend to include with their products. Perhaps because I saw such one-click manipulations contradictory to the word “artistic” – they’re too accessible, too wide-spread. To such an extent, in fact, that there’s often no input from the actual person behind the image left. You could go as far as say most of the images enhanced with the mentioned filters look as if they were made by one person, and not thousands and millions who took those photographs. I find such filters, when used by masses of inexperienced photographers, rob their work of anything other than basic, technical look, character of the filter used. There’s no artist left, no person, no photographer, just the simple, instant effect of the filter. “Artistic”, in my dictionary, stands somewhere close to “unique”. It’s hard to call something unique when it’s used about a million times every day. Or more. Possibly much more. As if that isn’t enough, most of the time these filters are used to turn mediocre photographs into something that’s “deeper”, with a concept, with an idea behind it, even if it’s yet another “duck face” (a rather funny terminology) portrait. In the same way as some people use B&W conversion just because it looks more “artistic”. The look – whether it’s a grainy, high-contrast B&W or one that distorts color in an attempt to mimic cross-processing from film days – covers up all imperfections (often with different, aesthetically pleasing imperfections). You look at the image and you see effects, not the content. The filter fools you if you allow it to. It’s sometimes rather hard not to be fooled, frankly, given the fact that there are indeed some awesome images on Instagram.
Back when film was up there – and perhaps even more noticeably today – it also bore a certain distinctive look. You can choose Ilford HP5 Plus for those amazing tones, especially for portraits, or Delta 3200 for a moodier, retro look. Perhaps in this regard filters are similar (not identical, mind you, merely similar) to different film rolls. The biggest difference is the post factum use of filters. With film, you decide what sort of look to use before you take that photograph. You then need a properly good photograph. Cross-processing was used intentionally, without previews and was different every time. With Instagram, you just cycle through until you find which filter, in your opinion, makes that image look best (or acceptably good) and apply. And yet, as I’ve mentioned, there are some truly good photographs to be found in Instagram. A simple conclusion, then. It’s not the tool, not the effect, but how you use it. That, however, doesn’t explain Instagram’s film-like filter popularity. At the most, only one out of ten (just my guess) photographers today love film for what it is. So what’s with all the Instagram madness and the one hundred million active users?
Obvious reasons first come to mind. Instagram is just that – instant. You snap a photograph and share it in the strongly photography-centered social network, all thanks to a very straightforward, simple workflow. Don’t underestimate mobilography. I’ve fallen for it, many professionals and artists have, too, because if there’s one thing you always have with you, it’s your mobile phone. Mobile phones have cameras, and people love visual information. That’s all very fine and understandable, however. Instagram just fills a certain niche, much like Twitter, but does it focusing on visual content rather than words. What’s more interesting is the meaning “instagramed” photographs posses to their authors, the very need to apply filters before sharing. A while ago, I read what I think was a very insightful article on NYMAG.com by Christopher Bonanos, “The Retro Mojo of Instagram”. Christopher emphasized the value each photograph possessed in the film days not only because of the moment captured, but also as an object, one that’s difficult or even almost impossible to copy and replace (especially when talking of Polaroid). An object you protect and treasure and pass on to your children. Instagram brings back a small part of that value. You see, at first, effects are fashion. Fashion is but a novelty, it’s temporary, it goes away, it changes and morphs into something different. Underneath fashion, in the case of Instagram filters, hides a photograph unique to it’s creator. Such value may not be as strong with Instagram as it was with film photography, it may even be fake, but the emotional attachment is there none the less. It makes that photograph ever so slightly more valuable as an object which, in turn, leads to desire of having more such objects.
And so it brings us to the one hundred million active users. As everything, Instagram rises to fall. But until it does succumb to a constant level of popularity, one not to grow or decline, let’s not scratch our heads at the thousands of, apparently, worthless and boring entries of someone’s breakfast or dirty socks. They may be worthless and boring to us, not their authors. Perhaps, then, we should use it to create something of value to ourselves and not mind what others think?