Once upon a time, film photography was for the professional. Whether it was the commercial photographer shooting advertisements and products, the fashion photographer shooting models and magazines, the photojournalist shooting world events and breaking news, or the avant-garde photographer shooting abstract landscapes and portraits, it was an art-form requiring training, skill, experience, and an investment of several thousands of dollars in equipment and supplies: cameras, lenses, photo stock, chemicals and developing materials, darkroom rentals, instructional classes, etc. It required time, patience, and finesse to set up the shot, compose the frame, wait for just the right moment, and take the final shot.
Even the process and ritual of developing the film in the darkroom was an art: in total darkness pulling the flat end off the 35mm canister, unwinding the film, removing the end from the spool, peeling off the connecting tape, loading the film onto a metal or plastic film reel, placing the loaded reel in the film tank, turning on the light, laying out the chemicals, the developer, the stop bath, the fixer with hardener, the hypo eliminator bath, carefully controlling the temperature of the chemicals, fumbling with it, spilling it, staining it, ruining it, loving it. Learning the delicate process of exposure, how to dodge, burn, crop, all by hand. The feel and texture of the stock on your fingers. The agony of defeat when the photo came out awful, the triumph of victory when it came out stunning.
Photography was a highly specialized field for the trained eye and steady hand, and the results spoke for themselves. Amateur photographers were relegated to the One-Hour Photo, shaky Polaroid’s, and grainy Kodak moments. Even with the introduction of digital photography and high-end digital SLR’s in the 1990’s and the surge of affordable point-and-shoot consumer cameras in the early 2000’s, the distinction in quality of the professional taking crisp, high-resolution, well-composed stills and the amateur snapping blurry pictures of the graduation or family vacation or the pet dog was clear.
In the last decade (even five years) the hyper-connectivity of the Internet, the breakneck advancement of mobile technology, and demand for user-generated content changed everything. Photo-sharing sites like Flickr, Picasa, and PhotoBucket popped up and grew like weeds, putting the focus on the quickie amateur rather than the established professional. Social networking sites Facebook became image-heavy, with more than 250 million photos uploaded per day on average on Facebook. This and the higher megapixel cameras and faster wireless data networks gave birth to trendy photo-sharing apps like Instagram and Hipstamatic. In this new age of apps and smartphones, everyone and their dear sweet auntie fancies themselves a part-time photographer. Take a quick snapshot of a skyline with your iPhone, crop it clumsily, slap a generic “vintage” filter, and boom, you’re suddenly more “serious” and cool and artsy. The intrinsic narcissistic nature of it breeds self-importance, as if a faux-retro filter on your boring coffee photo suddenly makes it more worthy of artistic merit. Suddenly the clear difference between the legitimate photographer with actual skill and talent is blurred.
Gone is the patience and intuition and form and laboring of photography. Gone is the carefully-measured composition of the frame and the reverential hands-on development of the print. The easy-share instant gratification nature of social networking and the exponential progress of mobile technology killed it. While these advances are exciting and admittedly fun to play around with, the original art-forms are cheapened and bastardized over time. Like the duplicate key which becomes less effective from the master key over multiple copies, the digital facsimiles remove the analog charm and human-like qualities. Part of the mystique and intimacy of film photography was that it was so unpredictable. Anomalies were part of the romance. You didn’t know quite what you were going to get until you developed that roll and stepped out of the dark room and held it up to the light of day.
No matter how much Hipstamatic and Instagram seek to reproduce that, the problem is yours will always be the same as everyone else’s. We strive for originality and something that sets apart “our” stuff from “their” stuff, and yet on the internet we use the same cookie-cutter presets. In our attempt to be different, we are all the same. You can throw a filter on life. But that doesn’t make it any more real.