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Summary:

The same kind of criticism levelled at the photo-sharing service Instagram — that it ruins photography, or makes it cheap and shallow — has been made about other forms of media, including blogging, citizen journalism and Twitter. And in each case the critics have been wrong.

For a simple service that lets people share their photos with others from a mobile device, Instagram gets a lot of criticism, bordering on hate. And it’s not just because the tiny startup is being acquired by Facebook recently for $1 billion, which will make all of its employees exceedingly rich — it’s because some people seem to believe that the ease with which amateur photographers can post photos to the service, and the filters Instagram provides in order to add special effects to them, are ruining photography. This isn’t really that surprising: it’s the same kind of criticism that has been made about blogging, citizen journalism and Twitter, among other things — and in each case the critics have been somewhat right, but mostly wrong.

In one of the most recent diatribes about the downside of the Instagram phenomenon, freelance writer and photographer Kate Bevan writes in the Guardian about how the use of cheap filters is debasing real photography — which she says used to require some level of skill to produce, and therefore had some level of quality — and how apps like Instagram and other photo-editing software encourages people to click and add pseudo-artistic effects without really thinking about what they are doing. As she describes it:

“For me, the Instagram/Hipstamatic/Snapseed etc filters are the antithesis of creativity. They make all pictures look the same. They require no thought or creative input: one click and you’re done.”

Should photography be left to the professionals?

Coincidentally, another rant about Instagram appeared at The Atlantic on the exact same day as Bevan’s piece, this one by Atlantic Wire staff writer Rebecca Greenfield. In it, Greenfield looks at the recent meme known as “Rich Kids of Instagram,” which makes fun of the cheesy snapshots that presumably wealthy users have taken of themselves with helicopters, famous people, etc. Like Bevan, the Atlantic writer also talks about how the filters Instagram features were actually based on classic photographic effects that often took a lot of money and time to produce, a point professional photographers also like to make.

Greenfield then discusses some of the archetypal photos that have become commonplace for users to post on Instagram — pictures of their food, their trips to exotic places, and so on — in order to make the point that the service is inherently shallow and fake. As she puts it:

“Some might call the process democratizing —- everyone is a professional! —- but really, it’s a big hoax. Everyone is just pressing buttons to add computer-generated veneers to our mostly mundane lives.”

These kinds of criticisms are not new, as a search for the phrase “Instagram ruining photography” illustrates: notorious technology curmudgeon John C. Dvorak has slammed the service as a “shlock photo-sharing app,” and The Verge hosted a debate in which two of its photo editors took opposite sides of the question. Dutch graphic designer Jaap Grolleman says that thanks to Instagram “we’re drowning in a sea of photos and I think our ability to filter the good from the bad almost disappears… there are only so many ways you can to take a photo of sandwich you and a billion other people had for lunch.”

Grolleman’s comment about lunch reminded me of what people said about Twitter when it first launched — and continued to say for a long time after that — which was that they weren’t interested in people tweeting about what they had for lunch. By now, of course, most people have come to grips with the fact that Twitter can be a powerful tool for distributing breaking news about all kinds of global events, including earthquakes, assassinations and revolutions. And the same kinds of comments were made about blogs as well — that they were just for unpaid writers living in their parents’ basement, and couldn’t possibly be taken seriously.

More photographers are better, and more writers and journalists

Running through many of these criticisms is a kind of anti-amateur argument: real photography should be left to professional photographers, real journalism should be left to professional journalists, and so on. Can tools like Instagram be used to post shallow photos of nothing in particular? Of course they can, in the same way Twitter can be used to post messages about what you had for lunch, and a blog can be nothing but a repository for your ranting about cats, or whatever your personal obsession might be.

But that doesn’t change the fact that these tools also break down the barriers for participation by talented amateurs of all kinds — photographers, writers, journalists and movie-makers. And smart media companies are taking advantage of this, as Sports Illustrated is by running Instagram photos for the first time. A professional photo-journalist made an interesting comment in a story about Instagram that ran in the Telegraph last year. As Teru Kuwayama put it:

“You could make an analogy to the advent of the electric guitar or electronic music. Much to the annoyance of classical musicians, those things made ‘everyone’ a musician. I grew up on punk rock, hip hop and death metal, so I welcome the post-classical age of photography, and the explosion of amateur expression that comes with it.”

That philosophy shouldn’t apply just to photography, but to other kinds of expression as well — including the explosion of amateur writing and journalism that has come through the blogosphere and Twitter and Facebook, and what Om has called the “democratization of distribution” that they allow, not to mention the explosion of self-publishing that Amazon’s Kindle has helped to create and even the use of platforms like Reddit for journalism. Are there lots of shallow uses of these tools? Sure there are. But that’s not the important part.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Rosaura Ochoa and Luc Legay

  1. Matt Terenzio Thursday, July 19, 2012

    Doc Searls has said that the photo he would have picked for a print product is never the one that gets all of the attention online. I have no point but it’s an interesting fact.

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    1. Don’t be so hard on yourself, Matt — I think there is a point in there :-) maybe it just means that different media require (or value) different things.

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  2. André Felipe Thursday, July 19, 2012

    Remembering that those smugs also think they are “real” photographers when they buy their Canon 5Ds, or “real” filmmakers with their GoPro cams. People sharing photos via Instagram or videos on Youtube or thoughts on Tweeter are just having their time sharing stuff with friends.

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  3. These applications and services (Not just Instagram) are not ruining photography they are ruining photographers.

    A picture is a picture. The value of aesthetic effects that were once scarce was based in part on their attractiveness to the viewer and their scarcity.

    The attractiveness hasn’t changed – just the scarcity. Photographic effects are no “less” for being easier.

    But as always people get all muddle headed when the boundaries of their world shifts and the categories in which they think don’t apply any more. Artistic value, economic value and cultural value are all a combination of various factors such as formal innovation (the effect of the new), accessibility, scarcity of process and skills, insight into the ‘human condition’, etc etc…

    Take cultural and economic scarcity out of the equation and the value of some photographic technique changes.

    Big whoop. Get over it.

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    1. Robin Deacle Monday, July 23, 2012

      Ric, I think you make a great point. Times change and we have to adapt. I can also understand, as a former journalist, that it’s difficult to see skills and wisdom you’ve spent your life developing replaced by an app. I don’t think that’s something you just get over.

      Refocusing on curating this volume of content, now that would be adapting.

      Robin

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  4. Sorry, but unlike a lot of the “future of journalism” conversations, I do think the criticisms of Instagram are valid.

    In the case of journalism, blogging still requires work – it takes time to form coherent thoughts and commit them to the Internets. Sure, most blogs are over-biased, under-researched…but the cream rises to the top.

    In the case of Instagram, while it is fun, the same arguments used for journalism do not apply. Instragram degrades a photo (it reduces the resolution, crops it to a 4×3 shot, and applies the filters at the whim of the photographer) in just the click of a button. No thought, no personal editing.

    It is a phenomenon of the internet: just because its easy, doesn’t mean that it works. I’m happy for you that you can take a picture of your tuna sandwich, crop it, and make it look like a 1970’s polaroid, but it’s still a half eaten sandwich.

    If you want to prove it yourself, spend a mind-numbing 15 minutes thumbing through Instagram, and then go to a professional or amateur photography site. Pick a few, like Jason Bell’s site (http://www.jasonbellphoto.com/) or The 37th Frame (http://www.the37thframe.org/)

    If you want to see what real vignetting looks like and what is involved (as opposed to the push button variety Instragram uses) then check out http://toothwalker.org/optics/vignetting.html

    Hell, even Flickr has better photography examples.

    Look, I have nothing against photosharing, or even filtering images, but Instragram is something else…it’s a photographic food processor that absolutely destroys the original image. My instagram “hate” comes from a $1B valuation for a company that not only doesn’t provide value, it subtracts it.

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Rob, but I think you’re missing the point — it isn’t about the quality of the photography at all, it’s about the ease with which photos can be taken and shared. If you focus on how it isn’t like professional photography you’re going to miss what’s interesting about it.

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      1. Thanks Mathew.

        Perhaps I didn’t express it clearly, but my point is that ease-of-use and photographic quality are quickly related by these services, and that relationship can either be healthy or unhealthy.

        I’m not saying I would expect Instagram images to be stacked up against professional (or pro-am, I want to stress) photographers, but that the “ease” of instagram contributes to the destruction of the underlying photo. And the vast user base contributing to this unending stream of consciousness does, I believe, devalue both professional and amateur photography to a large extent.

        Photo sharing sites don’t have to corrupt the image just to maintain ease of sharing – I threw Flickr out as an example of a site that maintains the original intent of the photographer. In the mobile space, a comparative example is the now-defunct PicPlz. (PicPlz hit the deadpool right after the Instagram acquisition… which I suspect was not coincidental timing.) Taking photos and sharing on PicPlz was just as easy as Instagram (I would argue that the PicPlz app was better than Instagram), and it also allowed for image filtering… but, the content was never corrupted. The filters did not distract from the shots, the composition window was maintained, and the image resolution was (to a certain size) maintained. As a result, it felt as though the PicPlz community took more pride in their photos than the Instagram community…all without destroying the easy point-and-shoot-and-share workflow.

        So, again – I understand the point you were trying to make, but I think in the case of Instagram, I think the backlash is probably deserved.

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      2. I think you miss the point. Kate’s piece isn’t about the ease of sharing or taking photos, it’s about the hideous and uniform deformation of the photos.

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        1. Yes, I know — but I think that misses the larger point. In many cases, perhaps even most, the specific quality of the photo is irrelevant. It’s focusing on the trees instead of the forest. Thanks for the comment though.

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      3. Says you. I don’t think you get to decide what points other people want to make, any more than we get to decide yours.

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    2. Benjamin Rhau Friday, July 20, 2012

      Like many critics of Instagram, you are taking the worst (and to be fair, common) examples of its use and presenting that as the only contribution of the medium. There is a huge artist community (of street photographers, in particular), who put a tremendous amount of thought and care into subtle edits, maintaining the camera’s native resolution, and not using the app’s native filters at all. The sharing, learning, and discovery made possible by the social nature of this app have uncovered and developed talent in a way that’s never happened before in photography. Is there also a lot of bad photography on Instagram? Of course. But there is a lot of new, pretty phenomenal art that was brought into this world because of the app. Instagram doesn’t “ruin photography,” just as Draw Something doesn’t “ruin” illustration art.

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      1. Good point, Benjamin. Thanks for the comment.

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  5. ian mcclelland Thursday, July 19, 2012

    Clay Shirky discussed all this 10 years ago. All that’s happened is that the filter now comes after publishing, rather than before. This is part and parcel of being in the post Guttenberg world. If you don’t like pictures of sandwiches, just filter them out.

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  6. wow, now they are sounding like the newspaper industry and the music industry after technology changed those business models. sorry, professional photographers just need to define and separate themselves from the rest of the group. everyone’s a photographer nowadays, deal with it i say. plus, we get more and more photographs that we’d never see if it weren’t for technology and social media. my usual .02 ;)

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  7. I’m sorry an iPhone pic, looks Nothing like a picture with a 5D or any good DSLR for that matter, if so called “real” photographers are so afraid of the instgram revolution, then they should be, because people now more people had the photo bug, then ever before, Guess that means you better get your ass in gear and push your art, instead of complaining that theres MORE people out there doing the same thing… TRY HARDER. ( but seriously 1billion?, the app annoys the crap out of me, why can’t i use it online? stupid and annoying )

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  8. Petty ridiculous hearing backlashers of Today’s technologies that helped millions get across their message across. Maybe they odd to try living in the stone age where life is a laborious amount of work.

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  9. This reminds me of when the Mac made it possible for techie engineers to make their own presentation charts… with every font and style represented on one graphic. Eventually they got over the novelty, realized why they’d hired graphic designers, and appreciated us all the more. :)

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  10. Interesting debate. But, for me, this is not at all about the merging of amateur and professional, about democratisation or barriers to access.
    It’s about this – photos produced using Instagram are essentially faked. They are the product of filters that retrogressively mimic decades-old camera defects. I think that’s naf, a little embarrassing, but fascinating.. Why are people taking pictures of their office or of conferences as though they were toting a Lomo? I suppose you have to have some joy in your life, but it’s a bit weird.
    The blog, as a medium, didn’t mimic its forebears in this way. It was a new form.
    I’m fascinated, though, by how dozens of old cameras have essentially been atomised in to a phone. Good luck with the comeback, Polaroid.

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    1. This should not be compared to journalism and bloggers. Bloggers and journalists are two different things. Some journalists blog, but writing online using other people’s work does not make one a journalist.

      And the impact of these photos is nothing compared to the issue when people start to think that bloggers produce “news”. That is having a negative impact on society.

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