Star Rush: Our fascination with filters
A rose by any other name may smell just as sweet to Shakespeare, but did he look through all the app filters to see which would best represent that rose? A warm, retro seventies look from an Instagram filter or a Chromatic filter from Camera+? Maybe color saturated tones from a Polaroid clone, like ShakeItPhoto? Maybe stack a few filters? So many filter options on so many photo apps: where does one start or, importantly, stop?
Photo app filters are certainly popular and nearly ubiquitous in photography apps from Hipstamatic, Picture Show and Camera Bag, among others. A lot of people who contact me are even surprised to learn it’s possible to share photos on Instagram without using the filters, so ingrained is their presence in the app’s identity.
Filters can dazzle. They turn the volume up or down. They can so alter an image as to make the original and the post-filtered versions nearly distinct. Some filters mimic film processes or actual film brands. I use Film Lab quite a bit for this purpose. Apps like Camera+ offer a slider for each filter that lets users fine-tune the amount of the effect applied.
For the most part, a filter’s appeal is its one-touch feature. They are ready-made, creative manipulations. Select, apply and you’re done. In the case of apps like Hipstamatic, the filter is not applied post-capture but in-camera. Choose the filter, then shoot. Cross Process and ShakeItPhoto are two apps I use that can be used either in-camera or applied later.
As popular as filters are, criticism of them can be just as intense. Do they dumb down photography by making the act of taking a photograph thoughtless? Does applying them obscure both the photographer and the viewer’s abilities to discern a strong photograph from a mediocre one? For example, some photojournalists use Hipstamatic, most notably, perhaps by Ben Lowery in a photo essay for the New York Times about life in Afghanistan during wartime. Do images like these so alter an original scene, as observed with the human eye, as to misrepresent a sense of what is “true” about that scene, compromising the contract made between viewer and photojournalist over the factual reproduction of events? In the end, what do we mean exactly by an image that is true? Are we really asking whether the image is authentic, accurate, meaningful or significant? It certainly can be one or more of these as well as none of these.
Recently, a friend and mobile photographer asked whether using Hipstamatic was cheating. My answer was: no. It’s cheating as much as choosing a particular film for its look and style was cheating, or post-processing in Photoshop to achieve a particular look was cheating. They all alter the original scene, and they’re all capable of creating a poor or good image, depending upon human decision-making.
Image manipulation isn’t new, and photographic filters aren’t unique to smartphone photography. They’re used mechanically with film and digital cameras, sitting atop the lens to affect the image’s look and feel or available as options within a camera’s menu. Polarizing, high definition and gradient filters are some of the most popular external filters. Software-based creative filters are also now an option on many digital cameras.
The original scene, our human perception of the scene and the photographic process’ rendering of that same scene are each distinct. What I see, what I photograph and what appears on the screen or in print are dissimilar. Even photographers who are intent on capturing nature unadulterated by creative manipulation, be it software or mechanical devices, encounter challenges in reconciling human visual processes of perception against those of camera and lens. The camera is just not going to process as the human eye and mind do. The camera is creative manipulation. The photograph is an approximation of the original, even if the reproduction closely resembles that original. The photographic image strains to be “natural.”
Smartphone photography makes creative image manipulation easy and accessible. Current apps have reduced the learning curve in applying image manipulation processes from bleaching to cross processing to replicating 35mm film looks. They reproduce Photoshop or wet lab effects in seconds, with just a tap or swipe of a finger. Today’s app filters challenge the concept, and maybe for some, the cache of expertise or specialized skills training required for digital editing or wet lab manipulations. The creativity in these processes remain, though.
What even the coolest filters do not do, though, is eliminate or replace the judgements and vision required to apply any creative manipulation expertly. The photographer’s eye and technical grasp of the relationship between color, composition and framing ultimately determine when manipulation works and when it fails. No amount of post-editing, mechanic alteration, or software or app processes can, at the end of the day, overcome the faults of a poorly structured or conceptualized photograph; they just hide the faults in a muddled image of stacked apps, all of which are the result of less than considered and applied photographic processes.
App filters evoke a nostalgia for, and often mimic, the visual imperfection and impermanence of the film era. App filters reproduce an instant past, give photographer and viewers a semblance of what is ephemeral about our memories to begin with. They reach back to film photography, providing a counterpoint to digital photography’s sharpness. Memories are anything but sharp. Memories are imprecise, faulted and fleeting; they do not last forever or remain unaffected by the passage of time. Our old film photographs use to be this way, too. Film is rooted in impermanence, imperfection and a kind of serendipity. We once had to wait to see what worked and didn’t work. There was a chance the physical photograph or film would tear, wrinkle, bend, fade, be lost -- or even fail to turn out at all.
App filters produce the aesthetic qualities of photography’s past creative processes which were likely marked by vulnerabilities of environment, mechanical device, materials and human application. Some app filters apply these kinds of imperfections onto images, transforming sharp digital images by adding softness, burns, light leaks, scratches, texture. They add conditions that contemporary digital photography removes. They can stir a certain fondness for old processes and outcomes by replicating the imperfections that we’ve been conditioned to accept as inferior. Even so, millions of us of a certain age have albums and boxes of photographs marked by light leaks, over-exposure, softness, blurriness, fading color, creases and other imperfections that came from moving from place to place, passing the photographs through our hands or stashing them between pages of books, only to have them come cascading out years later. Today, this look is cool, and easily digitally recreated using a photo app.
The photograph as physical artifact tells the stories of our past as our memories do: in a bit of hazy, dreamy, affectionate imperfection. A hard drive filled with crispy, clear, sharp images, perfectly duplicated untold times, may not do the same, even as they remain pristine through all of the sharing, blogging and re-blogging.
Maybe these app filters, like the Lomo movement to an extent, is an antidote to the nearly fetishistic attention we sometimes pay to ever-rising megapixels, sharper and shaper images, bigger and bigger image files. Most photographs these days are viewed on small and large screens, yet pixel counting continues, even though few photographs will be printed in such a way as to take advantage of the outstanding resolution, other than commercial photography and fine art photography.
We live in an age that I think is asking: what lays beyond fidelity? For years now, popular music and photography have moved steadily toward clarity and sharpness and high definition through technological innovation. We’ve been prioritizing accurate reproduction for a long time, working toward technical sharpness. Both the music and visual worlds have shrunk audio and visual files to transmittable, shareable size. They’ve made huge changes to distribution and publishing. Today, my iPhone holds 4,700 songs and currently 1,000 photos, and those are conservatively small numbers. I can quickly add more music and images to enjoy, share and manipulate.
Sometimes, clearer and sharper isn’t necessarily better, and they aren’t the only ways to express visually one’s ideas. Perhaps the popularity of filter apps is a kind of return to what existed before. Young photo enthusiasts, those growing up in the post-film era, have a curiosity about film photography: its slowness, surprise, and, yes, its flaws. People like me, who grew up in the film era, are perhaps nostalgic for times past, for simplicity, for imperfection, for something less predictable. It’s not that they were the good old days -- they were days that gave me things that grew old, wore out, faded, were vulnerable. There can be beauty in the brilliance of something organic dissolving. Vulnerability touches us.
How will the worlds of memory, decay and the past look to us in the future, when we find our old Instagram photos looking as old -- or is it new -- as the day we made them. They will give us our past as we never knew it, and the photograph as physical object will be gone. We will likely view old images in our newest devices, and not the ones that captured them in the first place.
Photography is sometimes about the technical accuracy of composition or framing, conceptualization or subject matter, or technical specifications of camera and lens to most accurately, through sharpness of detail, reproduce the natural or mechanized world. Photography is also about perceptions, feelings and impressions of a scene or a photographer’s vision of what she sees as making the scene what it is, why it moves her to record and share it. Photography, once, was about the artifact of the photograph, the material object we held between our fingers, passed along to someone else’s hands.
Maybe we still hold in our mind’s eye the photographs we or others took long ago, and these new, easy-to-use app filters trigger strong sensory memories for those photographic artifacts or the vulnerabilities of those after-images floating in our minds. So, as Shakespeare tells us, a rose is a rose by any other name. Perhaps what some of us photographers are after when we see the rose is to make a photograph that best conveys love and not necessarily only one that most resembles a flower.
Star Rush, @starrush360, is Seattle-based a photographer, writer, and educator. Her photography has been exhibited in the United States and Europe, and published in photography magazines Actual Colors May Vary, Camerpixo, Dodho.com Magazine, among others. Rush is a founding member of the Mobile Photo Group. She teaches composition and rhetoric, and literature at Cornish College of the Arts.