It’s about the sharing:
Vernacular photography in the Age of Google Image Search
This piece originally appeared on The New Everyday, September 30, 2013.
Two summers ago my dad and I drove from Seattle to New Orleans. The longest car trip either of us had ever taken, our route took us through some of the most scenic parts of the country. The drive was majestic, American, and overwhelming in ways you never expect until you're actually doing it. During the five-day trip, we barely ever played the radio. We chatted, gazed out the window at the passing countryside, and I posted pictures to Instagram.
Instagram is photo-sharing social network that had just started to generate some buzz for pushing the retro trend in mobile photography. Using the Instagram application, users crop their images to a Polaroid square and apply digital filters that make any image look as if it were taken with a vintage camera. Launched the previous fall, the free service announced it had amassed five million users just before our trip.
With a mix of curiosity and purpose, I set up my Instagram account over lunch in the parking lot of an Arby's near Bozeman, Montana. I've never been much of a picture-taker; but for a once-in-a-life-time, cross-country, father-son road trip, visual documentation seemed compulsory. The only camera I owned was in my iPhone 3GS, which, needless to say, offered more convenience than image quality. Instagram's retro-filters seemed like they might improve the look of mobile phone pictures taken out the window of a moving car.
The filters did help, in a way. The auto-zoom blurriness, inconsistent depth-of-field, and poor lighting in my images, when altered with a Walden, Lo-fi, or Sutro algorithm, looked almost intentional. The images took on an ambiguous poignancy; yet, for all my fiddling, the pictures remained disappointing records of what we'd seen. In an instant, the application of a filter would bestow on an image the weight of memory it hadn't earned. The resulting photos had a sameness to them, and if I didn't mark them with captions immediately, I soon forgot where I took them and why. As my father followed the slow curves through the gorgeous mountain ranges of Colorado, I cropped and recropped, compared one filter to the next, and tried to come up with a witty slogan for the fifth nearly identical, washed out image of a mountain.
I was aiming out the car window to take a shot of the western edge of Yellowstone National Park when I was overcome by the shear innanity of what I was doing. The beauty of Yellowstone has inspired incalculable photographs over the past century. My partner's father, a semi-professional photographer, has numerous undeveloped contact sheets from his visits to the park alone. A simple Google image search would return millions of better photos than I was capable of taking at that moment. Even so, I felt the need to upload yet another throw-away image with the very device I could use to look up thousands of much better pictures taken more intentionally, by more well-equipped photographers. What, I began to wonder, is the point of taking more photos in the age of Google Image Search?
Continue reading “Instagram’s recursive aura”