Wednesday, May 02, 2012

The Hipstamatic Journalist

A recent installment of New York Times' Lensblog features Benjamin Lowy's use of Hipstamatic as a journalistic tool.  On his Tumblr page he states that "To 'point and shoot' has been a liberating experience. It has allowed me to rediscover the excitement of seeing imperfections and happy accidents rendered through the lens of my handheld device."  Imperfections and accidents are indeed wonderful, and I think Lowy is absolutely right to emphasize the liberating power of this tool and its happy results.   It seems obvious to me that the cell phone would be a useful journalistic tool as well as boon to street photographers because it is discrete, small and light, and can transmit images instantly.  So what's not to like?

It's the apps and the manipulations that provoke mistrust, but as Lowy argues there is not much difference really between applying a certain filter and choosing a Holga format over another.  And Lowy is not the only one to point this out; Teru Kuwayama is another cogent defender of the app and he and his crew have used it to great effect for his Basetrack project, images from which were featured in a spread in Foreign Policy magazine. 

But I disagree with the emphasis that Lowy places on the drive to make images look "different enough, peculiar enough" so as to grab the reader's attention.  In an interview he gave at the New York Photo Festival he stated, “So much work is out there . . . you have to stop them in their tracks  [through creating] interesting visual narratives. . . . If you can attract someone because it looks different enough, I think that’s our job, as visual communicators.”

Certainly anyone involved in an aesthetic practice -- anything tied to perception and communication -- is looking to innovate, to experiment with the form.  That is a given.  But this emphasis on the need to look different in order to attract attention and somehow correct the effects of so called image fatigue begs questions about the nature of image-based reportage, its status within the news industry, and the qualities that make it meaningful, which are not solely a matter of achieving a "different look." 

One has to ask, would Foreign Policy have published the work of the Basetrack photographers had it not been for the fact that they used Hipstamatic, and by framing the article in terms of the novelty of the form, does the spread exist to inform us about the realities of Afghanistan and help us to understand it better?  Or is that merely a side effect?  It’s a little odd and disheartening to think that such an extensive spread, a rare thing these days, was made possible because the use of Hipstamatic was deemed newsworthy enough to merit this treatment, while reportage on Afghanistan (or any other crisis) would never in and of itself be given so many pages.  The title says it all: "The War in Hipstamatic: A rare and beautiful look at Afghanistan, through an iPhone."  The emphasis is on rare beauty, not war, not the Afghans, not American policy.  Imagine a similar spread in Life during WWII, “Leica Cameras Bring You War in the European Theater”; or in the 60s, "Young Turks Shoot Khe Sanh in Color!”  It would appear that Lowy was right, that “different imagery” will, at least, compel the editors to pay attention.  And the readers appear to have been moved – to comment on the “nice pics,” that is.  One reader commented, “Great pics. It's pics like these that capture the essence of the environment. I can't seem to get good pics like these with my iPhone especially when it's dark.”  Is this Foreign Policy magazine or Popular Photography?  The novelty of the approach trumped the gravity of the war.  But it’s something of a Pyrrhic victory after all.

It's the emphasis on style that makes me hesitate, as if it were all about finding some visual quirk that lends distinction to the photograph.  Dashiell Hammett once said, "I stopped writing because I was repeating myself.  It is the beginning of the end when you discover you have style."  Rather than style, I would emphasize the need for "vision," which is a very different thing and not entirely visual.  A photographer with vision may not have a radically "peculiar" style, but there will be plenty of  force and meaning and weight because the images are grounded in an original point of view, a narrative that is more than just a neat way to tell a story, because the themes provide a more substantial way of thinking about the world and any particular issue.

I personally think that viewer apathy is less of a problem than the current structure of the media and its relegation of imagery to the status of illustration.  The more inventive the image, the more it conforms to the canon of artistic illustration, so much so that in news magazines illustrations are often used interchangeably with photos.  It is not just that the  photojournalist today has to contend with the fact that "there is so much work out there," it's that the work has lost its status and has to compete with a sea of photoshopped illustrative material.  And the reason for this lies in the shift in the economy of the magazine and newspaper business as far back as the 70s and 80s.  The average news consumer no longer relies on photo essays to obtain information about the world, as they once did when Gene Smith was publishing essays in Life. Slideshows are sideshows.

As a result photojournalists have reacted by cultivating novel perspectives and advocating what is variously called experiential or subjective documentary, as a means of distinguishing their work and their perspective from the run of ordinary imagery based on older concepts of objectivity and what is felt to be a prosaic grasp of reality.  Great work has been done in this vein, but the insistence on "subjectivity" is a kind of gloss over an essential anxiety about the value of the photographic image.

It's not about "challenging old perspectives," as Lensblog states in a paraphrase of Kathy Ryan's defense of Hipstamatic imagery.  In fact Ryan argued that the editors were trying to decide between two sets of images provided by Lowy, one set from a DSLR and one Hipstamatic set, the latter of which was believed to be "more exciting and dynamic; the rich palette and high contrast brought clarity and texture and even poetry to the scenes."  The choice between these specific sets of images does not imply a larger challenge to old perspectives, or that other such perspectives are now passé.  That way lies pure formalism, which is the same thing that has bedeviled Modern Art in the 20th century -- an insistence on formal revolution degrades art to a mere craving for novelty.  It's about having something to say that is worth hearing (or seeing).  To some extent this involves formal innovation, but that is just part of endeavor and if we overemphasize its role and frantically churn out visually different imagery for the mere sake of difference, we lose sight of other aesthetic virtues that are not purely formal or technical.

Besides, it's a battle you cannot win.  Already we are deluged by little green-shifted squares of light with funky borders because everyone is a photographer these days and everyone is gleefully filtering their Kodak moments.  One of the things I found so compelling about Lowy's book Iraq Perspectives (published by Duke University, the oracle of Academic Hip) is that the perspective arose from the specific circumstances of being in Iraq -- he conveys what it is like to live in a world that must be seen from inside a Humvee because normal human relationships are impossible during war.  Instead of connection there is alienation and misunderstanding.  It is a brilliant idea.  This is very different from the arbitrary application of any number of filters and it is not a mere stylistic choice.  This kind of vision comes only from a grasp of immediate and specific circumstances, an engagement not with your tools and filters but with the world in a unique and momentary guise.


Unknown said...

no guts no glory ... great photos and use of an easy digital filter system - a post production process would render unique results for each photo also - besides the technical use aspect there are real issues behind the 'filtered' imagery - which is a focus of photojournalism.

jonathan_lipkin said...

Well said, Jon. Good to see you writing again.

LewLorton said...

I understand the impact of new 'styles' but I see how much 'stuff' that calls itself 'art' and thus safe from criticism, I find myself drawing back and becoming much more narrow in what I will do and even what I let myself enjoy. It seems so easy to fall off the edge into accepting everything because it may be 'beyond my experience.'

Petra said...

We love your article and featured it on

Keep on writing!

All the best,

Jessica van der Burg and Petra Oldengarm