Fake distortion, real humanity

April 23rd, 2010


Photo by bananacasts

My first thought was, oh come on. Over the last month my internet friends – and it feels like most everyone else with an iPhone – have become big fans of Hipstamatic, an app that adds a bunch of effects to make an iPhone image look like it was taken by a poorly-built camera. You know, hip.

About as hip as an advertisement from the Nineties.


Photo by lindstifa

The colors are washed out. Cute little over-exposed areas are added to an otherwise all-digital image. Each picture is lovingly framed with negative-film border, tape marks, or stylish matting.

At some point I even made a quip on Twitter that after Hipstamatic, the next trendy camera app will take pictures that look a crappy camera phone. This gratuitous degradation of image for a stylish and trendy effect comes in the age of affordable digital cameras that can often beat the detail of a traditional negative film camera; the age of relatively easy to use software (and powerful enough computers) to aid in processing images so they look as natural as reality.


Photo by sniffyjenkins*

Reality. For the people who can afford smartphones, powerful computers, and high-powered cameras, reality often consists of the real world sandwiched between time on the computer, looking at text or photos of things that exist in the real world. Photos are so abundant, easily accessible, and ubiquitous that for many people photos are preferable to the real thing. Not that this is a new phenomenon. A photo can be cropped and modified so that the subject has a greater impact on the viewer than when physically viewing the subject. It’s the high-speed internet, fast computers, and vast storage that magnifies this to a degree that someone with a subscription to Life magazine in the 1960s could never comprehend. I can go through thousands of pictures of Monument Valley, so many in fact that I’ll tire of the place without ever having visited.

With all of this power, this abundance, this opportunity for exactness – why take pictures of your kids with an program that distorts a perfectly fine image into something you might find in between the seats of a ’74 Lincoln Continental?


Photo by sniffyjenkins

The Hipstamatic app was inspired by a namesake physical camera made by two brothers in the 1980s. The pictures are similar style to ‘Lomography‘ – a well-marketed trend from the 1990s (remember my comment about ads from that decade) where the photographer would take near random images of objects and revel in their ‘found photo’ style. Nowadays ‘lomographic’ pictures are taken on powerful digital cameras, with distortions added in Photoshop. Hipstamatic takes advantage of the iPhone’s processing power and makes the effect instantaneous – and only reinforces the lomographic style, as evidenced by most pictures found online.

It takes a few pictures of families and friends taken with the Hipstamatic to see any motivation beyond the retro faddishness.


Photo by monkeyfrog**

The pictures…well, they look real. They look like memories; a little washed out, a little dramatic, and all heart. The brain is powerful enough to make up for the loss of clarity, and in so doing the image has an inescapable honesty. All because of errors and destructions added by a computer capable of fixing them. The messiness of a Hipstamatic photo mirrors the messiness of life, and by adding it the truth in the image comes out.

I’m not saying that clear images are bad. The best photojournalism combines the the sharpest possible copy of a sight that’s anything but sharp. A burning child running from her burning Vietnamese village, several Marines hoisting the American flag on a tiny speck of an island in the Pacific – these pictures are messy in different ways than one of your kids eating ice cream at their favorite restaurant or your teenage daughter trying mightily to distinguish her individuality at Disney World.


Photo by monkeyfrog

What’s happening is we’re reaching for inauthentic tools to make something authentic again. We distort the pictures of our lives to reclaim them from an inhuman sterility of the perfect picture.


Photo by bananacasts


Thanks to bananacasts, lindstifa, sniffyjenkins, and monkeyfrog for letting me use their images.

* sniffyjenkins’ first novel, Advice for Strays, has just been published in the UK. I’ve read it and it’s wonderful.

** monkeyfrog provides excellent health advice on both her personal site and on EmpoweHER.



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