Walking Away

A recent picture of my daughter, walking down a boardwalk.

Boardwalks are for walking.

Except that as I was scanning through my digital files, I happened to come across this picture, of my daughter walking down a boardwalk, three-and-a-half years earlier.

Deja vu – Walking Away Again.

Same perspective, same framing, even the boardwalks turn left at the end. But different places, different seasons, and pictures taken 42 months apart. How did I manage to recreate this image twice, with such a complete unawareness of the earlier image? Is this a kind of camera “tunnel vision” that kicks in, whereby my eye is looking for that sense of “depth” which the lines of the boardwalk provide? Or is it something else? As far as I can tell, I don’t think there’s a single image of my son walking away down a boardwalk, so why does it always seem to be my daughter that I’m catching in this particular moment?

There’s undoubtedly an unconscious internalization of compositional aesthetics that helps to explain why the framing is similar. Indeed, photographs of children on boardwalks are a common motif (and I don’t claim any great originality in these images). But I think that there’s also something about the aesthetics of nostalgia itself that run deep in these two photographs. Representing my youngest child, my daughter, as an independent being (and a determined walker!), moving forward on a path (but still safely inside the railings?), offers links to other kinds of narratives at play. If nostalgia was not present in the making of the image, it is certainly there in the archiving, re-viewing, and remembering them over time, where the temporal dimensions are marked by less by the changing seasons and more by the changing, growing body in the middle of the frame. It’s not easy to separate the father from the photographer in these pictures.

The running joke growing up in my family of photographers is that if people were in the picture, then it must have been taken by Mom. Dad’s photographs at this time in his career focused largely (although not exclusively) on scenic works. Perhaps I am guilty here of over-aestheticising a family moment, taking a memento of a trip and trying to turn it into something bigger. Or maybe it’s a reflection of deeper, subconscious anxieties about what “walking away” symbolizes, that mixture of excitement and trepidation that always hangs in the balance.

Or maybe my daughter just likes walking away from me, and being out on her own. Perhaps not surprisingly, the image below shows her around the age of 1. It was one of the first photographs that I printed and framed for her room. Ever the determined walker.

Walking Away

Yes, I do also take pictures of my kids with faces showing, in case anyone’s wondering.

Instagram Invasion

I’ve been working on this post for a long time, but it never got posted because new things about Instagram kept cropping up — almost daily, it seems.  But just recently Instagram changed its terms of agreement to give itself the right to sell users’ photographs, including commercial rights, which is causing a bit of an uproar.  I may come back to the question of digital rights in a later post, but for the moment let’s keep the focus on the aesthetic issues that originally got this post rolling.

Brad Mangin, a professional sports photographer, raves about his iPhone and using Instagram, which allows him to both share and tweak the photographs in order to give them a retro look.  He even gets them published in Sports Illustrated. (Although one wonders how professional photographers in particular will feel about the new terms of agreement!).

In contrast, over at the Guardian, Kate Bevan argues that “Instagram is debasing real photography,” and suggests that apps like it are the “antithesis of creativity.”  Joe Macirowsky has even built Normalize, an app that takes instagrammed-photographs and returns them to “normal.”  Photography discussion boards are full of derision for instagrammed photos.

A more interesting argument is Joerg Colberg’s piece on “Photography After Photography? (A Provocation),” which is a broader exploration of digital photography and the question of artistic boundaries, but has this to say specifically about these types of apps:

There is no artistry here other than the application of some software filter that in a very deterministic way makes your new digital photograph look old. So there is no chance. Art without a trace of chance, a trace of an accident isn’t art. No artistic risk, not art … What is more, it’s deeply reactionary, but in an uncommitted way. You could, for example, buy a real old camera and stuff film into it, to create your genuine old-timey photographs, but that effort isn’t even made. It’s a pointless nostalgia, where you’re yearning for just that one aspect of the past without all the rest.

I have actually made a somewhat similar argument in discussing the landscape photography of my parents and their camera club years of the 1970s and 1980s.  Pointing to the curious movement within digital photography programs towards adopting the colour grain and characteristics of particular slide films, I suggested that “Such visual enhancements offer a retro veneer that invokes a particular nostalgic mood, but they ignore the wider mode of how such technologies and the active pursuit of photography shaped the view.” (p. 286, Placing Memory and Remembering Place in Canada – sorry for the shameless book boosting!).

However, despite believing that not enough attention is paid to “modes” of picture taking, I don’t agree that adding filters is necessarily “pointless nostalgia.”  Nor do I think it’s productive to denigrate “the masses” for manipulating their own images in whatever fashion suits them, even if it’s horribly done (or horribly hipster-ish).  I think that it’s more productive to ask why certain aesthetics find new traction in new technological form.  Do “lo-fi” techniques offer a way to ‘humanize’ a clinical, cold, modernist device like a smartphone?  Is it a particular attachment to the 1970s as a time period, when colour film was rather unstable, variable, and subject to all kinds of purposeful and accidental developing techniques?  Is this a visual attraction that parallels certain audio nostalgic leanings, such as the popularity of the Sheepdogs or Blitzen Trapper’s American Goldwing? (Both HIGHLY recommended, btw – and these examples don’t even cover the whole folk revival of things like the autoharp, of all things)  Or is it a kind of uncertain lamentation for the decline of film, and the film industry symbolized by Kodak’s bankruptcy and the erasure of its presence on the North American landscape.

Photography itself is arguably the quintessential modernist technology, as Joan Schwartz argues, and yet it has consistently cloaked itself in rather antimodernist forms.  Kodak was selling nostalgia as early as the late-19th C, marketing cameras as a way to “capture memory” and to hold on to childhood.  In the twentieth century, I have written about Ernest Brown, an Edmonton-based photographer who claimed that his massive collection of glass plate negatives were not simply an historical record, but were valuable because he was trained in the “old ways” of photographic development and offered purchasers of his historical albums assurances of his artistic craftsmanship in using the “purest” of chemicals.  Photography, it seems, has always been ‘old’ and yet, is always on the edge of the ‘new.’  Digital photography may have unmoored the image from its emulsions, but its indexical power remains embedded in its assumed temporal and geographical attachments.  Adding retro filters is about playing with the temporal dimensions of the photograph, juxtaposing the visual cues of previous eras with what we know is the current grounding of the 21st C digital object.  Whether or not this is a “reactionary” or “progressive” artistic endeavour is perhaps worth debating, but it is far from simply trying to make “bad” photographs look “good.”  Perhaps in an age that is arguably swamped with a surplus of images, such tweaking is an extension of our desire to customize, to personalize, to have our pictures say more than simply “I was here, then”.

Last August, Instagram topped Twitter in terms of the number of times the app was accessed on mobile devices.  Is it any surprise that Twitter now has its own filters?

One can’t comment on Instagram without having a little bit of humour, so here’s a beautiful parody of Nickelback’s song, Photograph. (contains a bit of raw language, so young tender ears be warned).

Acknowledgement: many of the links in this post (but not all) came to my attention through petapixel.com.

Camera Design Nostalgia

Olympus has produced a new camera.  Or an old camera.  Take your pick.

Olympus OM-D

Surprisingly little has been written about the fundamental tension between the camera as a penultimate expression of modernist technology, and the photograph which has come to stand for quintessentially antimodernist tendencies – nostalgia, memory, longing.  Digital imaging, however, has started to merge what were once fairly clear trajectories.  It was not surprising that software manufacturers started to mimic film in how images were post-processed, although the extent to which lomography, cross-processing, and other techniques (which, as my father would say, used to be called simply “bad” photography) now dominate the digital imaging vernacular (Exhibit A:  See Instagram).  The more we can reshape the image, it seems that the less we want it to look like an actual digital artefact.

However, the nostalgia for the analog print technique appears to be moving back up the food chain and it is cameras themselves which are being re-visioned according to “classic” analog predecessors.  Thus, Olympus’ OM-D recalls the heritage of its classic OM series line of SLRs, introduced in 1972.  I never used Olympus film cameras, but sometime in the early-1980s my parents bought me a Pentax MX, which shared very similar aesthetics, although it had a very different design philosophy.  It was a lot of camera for my age – indeed, it was the same model my father used, and a step above the one my mother used – but since I ended up using it for almost 20 years, it was apparently worth the investment.

The Pentax MX was a flagship camera for the company, and was produced from 1976 to 1985.  The MX was proudly manual – no program modes, no automatic focus, no shutter / aperture priority, no exposure compensation options.  It did have depth of field preview (the funny lever above), and through the lens metering with a half-click of the shutter release button.  I learned how to take exposure readings on neutral grey areas and adjust shutter or f-stops accordingly.  It was mated to a bizarre 45-125 mm f4 Pentax zoom lens, which was passably sharp but slow and heavy.

But nostalgia’s a funny thing.  The MX was my companion for almost 20 years.  But after many years since then of ergonomic grips on solid digital cameras, pulling the MX out again to take some pictures of it revealed to me how awkward the camera really was.  The lens made it feel unbalanced, the straight lines made it difficult to grip properly, the molded plastic was rough and unscratchable, but not something I’d want to return to.  These were cameras that were built to serve the film, to maximize its own efficiencies as a machine – the photographer adapted themselves to the machine, rather than the other way around.

Without film, many of the mechanical constraints of early cameras are no longer in play, and yet the return of particular features (like the large pentaprism on top), haunt us as design aesthetics.  If instagram and other photo filters are any indication, then the market for these kind of retro designs is not people with actual experience using the film SLR predecessors, but those who were born with digital imaging, and who imagine those earlier ages as perhaps embodying a more “authentic” experience of photography.  It’s hard to tell if this more upscale version of hipsterism is simply the creation of marketing firms, or if there are deeper questions at stake (in our collective psyche? – whatever that is) ; perhaps we are still uncomfortable with the idea of digital imagery and the impermanence and instability it, potentially, represents.  Such designs reassure us, although it’s hard to imagine what a “classic” digital camera might look like in the future – will it be the au courant retro designs that appeal to present and near future collectors, or will it be the avant-garde of today that will become nostalgic objects of desire in the future?  Or perhaps it is the idea of the camera itself – a machine with the sole function of producing a still image – that will be the new point of retro desire, given the onslaught of integration with other features (from high-end HD video to smartphones) that threatens to dissolve the camera as an entity.