If I told you that you were creating art every time you took a photograph on your smartphone, I think it’s unlikely you’d agree. But you are, undeniably, making an artistic choice in the taking of each photograph; and by thinking about the implications of Instagram, Hipstamatic, and other smartphone photo applications, we might reveal something about our cultural hang-ups.
Othello, a tragedy which hinges on the reliability of visual data, opened this week at the National Theatre. Nicholas Hytner’s production is one of ‘contemporary realism’, a modern-day setting, in our world – and so, Othello’s cry of ‘Give me the ocular proof’ – and the tragedy of this false ‘proof’ – ring both more truly and more troublingly. For the visual image – and, specifically, photography – now occupies a curious space somewhere between art and truth. ‘I’ll believe it when I see it’, we say – like Othello’s demand for the ‘ocular proof’. We tend to believe that the photograph of an event not only tells us that something happened, but how it happened. In other words, we have begun to accept the photographer’s interpretation of an event as fact. In her book On Photography, Susan Sontag argues that ‘photographs are as much an interpretation of the world as paintings and drawings are’. A photographer makes choices about that which he or she photographs – the framing, the angle, the filter, the composition, the distance, the focus. Whether we are professional photographers or not, we make the same choices when taking a photograph, even on our phones, and even of ourselves – we’ll pose in a particular way we consider most flattering. The camera accordingly captures our pre-set version of reality – not a documentation of the way things really are. It’s a set-up. But one photographic choice in particular reveals a lot about us. Instagram, and other programs like it, feed our desire for the ‘vintage’ and the ‘retro’ by altering photos with a colour filter as they are taken. By recreating the aesthetic quality of 50s, 60s and 70s film photographs, it imbues even the most mundane, quotidian, or familiar subjects with a cool, ‘classic’ feel.
There is something artistic about these photos, however. My point is not that pressing the shutter button requires any particular creative talent: rather that the popularity of Instagram reveals a culture in which our choice to represent mundane things in artistic ways reveals much about our values. When everything is disposable, the ‘classic’ and ‘vintage’ take on more value: we also consider them more worthy of artistic merit, because they mimic photographs from previous decades which are now valuable possessions simply because they are old. Thus Instagram: a modern application whose function is to recreate the look of the past. Last year, Lana Del Rey’s hazy, grainy video for her single ‘Video Games’ was described both as having an ‘Instagram feel’ and as being ‘the look of 2012’. Retro is modern. Vintage culture is part of our mindset in 2013: we’re stuck on what has gone before, and we take photographs which tell us that we are part of it – an artistic interpretation, whether we realise or not. The photograph – which we tend to think captures reality as it is – is always, in fact, a piece of art, often communicating our desire to reconnect with the past. Instagram has been designed so that it can reflect our modern lives through the lens of the past; and so, our Instagram snaps become quick and disposable works of art.
Review of Othello: http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2013/apr/28/othello-adrian-lester-national-review Susan Sontag’s On Photography: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Photography-Penguin-Modern-Classics/dp/0141035781