Imitation of Instagram

I had not realized the extent to which this relatively new international online obsession was really a seamless extension of the last fifty years of consumer picture making. And to excel within its confines is as challenging as it has ever been.
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The fabulously popular and successful social media platform for photographs, Instagram, offers a square canvas and a spatial resolution of 640 pixels per side. I have in the past viewed this as a throttling limitation, a keyhole through which my photographic interests would not pass. And up until this weekend, I was right, given that I retain a passion for photographic illusions of texture, depth, and resolution. But the simplest analogy has changed my point of view: The miniature. As with miniature paintings, the artist will adapt content to fit the smaller format. Come to think of it, much consumer 35mm film photography, Instamatic snapshots, old Polaroid SX-70s, or newspaper photojournalism – would not be unduly compromised if viewed through the little squares of Instagram.

Instagram champion Charles Read has accomplished more with this little square proscenium than I could have imagined. [Do review his photographs here: http://instagram.com/chasread ] He characterized the format as a discipline of graphical emphasis, yet a discipline that is liberating – allowing the photographer to discriminate in favor of a more singular contemplation – in contrast to the pesky chatter and chaos of detail. Now I’m thinking that this Instagram “discipline” is really aesthetically consistent with the most iconic products of twentieth century photojournalism. Or the album covers of the last fifty years, or magazine covers in general.

Wait. I seem to have upset my position in the aesthetic continuum of photographic practice (pressing emerging digital tools into the service of my aforementioned passion for the illusions of texture, depth, and resolution). Do my enthusiasms have more in common with those of large-format view camera photographers of the 1930s ‘40s and ‘50s? Well yes. But there is a twist, a condition well known to historians of technology. New, more capable tools come online to replace older tools and methods. But those new instruments inevitably transform the old job or lead to unimagined new applications. In the last few years the growing capacity of digital cameras and attendant technology (GPS metadata, RAW file post processing, in-camera scene analysis, and the like) are allowing me to re-visit the passions that drew me to photography fifty years ago. A contact print from an 8” x 10” negative can provide the ultimate photographic illusion of infinite detail and affords the opportunity to discover within that detail information that was unobserved at the moment of exposure. I loved that. I did not love the cumbersome mess of making those negatives, or the sluggish slog of exposing them. My full-frame (a digital camera chip that is the same size as a 35mm negative or slide) Canon camera will not yield the indescribable perfection of the 8x10 negative, but such cameras are now providing the means to make images with new and uniquely ineffable quality. At least this is an assertion that I’ve been scrambling to support with my own photographic work in these last few years.

 
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