Thursday, April 05, 2012

Are Photo Apps the Digital Equivalent of Paint-By-Number Kits?

Chapter 15 of my ebook, Zen and the Art of Portrait Photography -- currently on sale for $3 off through the end of April, BTW... as are all my ebooks -- begins with a quote from the noted author, playwright, and screenwriter, Gore Vidal, who once observed: "Photography has been the art form of the untalented. Obviously some pictures are more satisfactory than others but where is credit due? To the designer of the camera? To the finger on the button? To the law of averages?”

Dude! That's harsh! (Even if, when you said it, it may have been more than a little prophetic.)

Photography, like all art forms, has its wildly talented artists and its less talented artists. Many of them, talent aside, are pursuing photography as a creative or artistic outlet regardless of the artistic talent their work may or may not represent. There's nothing exclusive to photography from the perspective of artistically less-than-talented people pursuing it. If those with little in the way of traditional artistic talent didn't sometimes pursue art, any sort of art, whoever invented and sold those “paint by number” kits wouldn't have made a dime... and I think whoever marketed those kits made significantly more than a dime off them.

Thanks to the evolution of digital photography, we now have many new ways to pursue and express art in the form of photography, even if many of those new ways of producing photo art somehow -- mostly in our own minds, I'm afraid -- make art (sort of) out of non-artistic photos. These new ways of producing fauxto art (pronounced photo art... of course) have many names, Instagram being the most famous and popular.

Now don't get me wrong. It's not that I think Instagram, or any other digital apps and their filters, are a waste of a photographer's time from an artistic or most any other point-of-view. They can be fun and engaging. Sometimes, when coupled with photos that are already artistic as captured, they might even help produce final images which qualify as legitimate art. But let's be straight with each other, photographer to photographer: As fun and engaging as these apps might be, they do not, much like "paint by number" kits, generally produce "art" that is anything more than digital facsimiles of art. In other words, fauxto art.

Beyond talent factors, Vidal also wondered if the designer or manufacturer of the camera deserves the lion's share of the credit for those "more satisfactory” images, i.e., do camera designers and, these days, do photo app and filter designers, mostly deserve more credit than the photographers who use them?

Any photographer who uses a camera, any camera, whether it's a sophisticated dSLR or one integrated into a cell phone's design, and then applies one of the oh-so-many photo apps and filters available -- apps and filters specifically designed to add artistic touches to the images captured -- knows that unsatisfying photos can sometimes be made into satisfying images even if they may only be satisfying to the photographers who snapped them and who then applied the app or filter... if to no one else.

Once again, don't get me wrong. For many photographers, their work only needs to be satisfying to themselves, or so they say. If it works for them, it works. Period. Okay, nothing inherently wrong with that sort of perspective on one's work. If that were entirely true, of course, those photographers probably wouldn't feel the need to so enthusiastically share their work with others, especially via social media networks like Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, and elsewhere, where so many others can view it. It would be enough to keep it to themselves. But that's okay too. The reality is, certainly for most photographers, why shoot it if not to share it? I'm good with that. More than good. Just please don't act as if it's bona fide art unless it somehow is... bona fide art, that is. Which, I'm sorry to say, it rarely is. (I hope that didn't burst any bubbles.)

Is the law of averages, as Vidal wondered, mostly responsible for “satisfactory” photography? Sometimes, I suppose it is. Especially for photographers who use a spray-n-pray approach to their photography. Never in the history of photography have so many photographers been so able, thanks to digital photography, to benefit from the law of averages. Better yet, even if photographers who count on the law of averages to produce a decent photo here and there don't manage to produce particularly satisfying images from those spray-n-pray sessions, they still have apps and filters and more to fall back on if or when the law of averages fails them.

Is the finger on the button, the photographer's finger, most responsible for “satisfactory” photography as Mr. Vidal asked? Well, call me Old School but, for the most part, I'd have to say yes. Enthusiastically yes! In fact, I'm quite sure of it. Satisfactory and better than satisfactory photography is most often produced -- law of averages, cameras, and apps 'n filters aside -- by better than average photographers with actual talent, a keen and creative eye, and terrific craft skills. None of which can be truly replaced by trying to mimic or fake those things with apps or filters, except in gimmicky, paint-by-number, sorts of ways.

The naked art model in the diptych at the top is Dahlia. (Click to enlarge.) As you can plainly see, it's two versions of one photo; one I snapped a year or two ago at El Mirage Dry Lake, Victorville, CA. I converted the camera original to B&W in Photoshop then imported it to my Acer Android tablet. Once it was on the tab, I imported it into the Pixlr-o-Matic photo app and used three different filters to add a touch of fauxto art to the image.

Do I think the result is kinda cool? Yep. I do. Do I think it's art? Who the fuck knows? It's certainly gimmicky. If gimmicky can equal artsy, than I suppose it's artsy in a gimmicky sort of way. Did it feel more like I used a paint-by-number approach to making what it ended up being? Yes again, at least in terms of the photo app's impact on it. Is there much of my own personal creativity exhibited in the shot? Sure. I directed the model. I chose the exposure and the shooting angle. I composed it and I snapped it. I also think, beyond the image's inherent artsyness, my visual sense of aesthetics are further indicated since I was the one who chose to convert it to monochrome. Also, I decided which of Pixlr-o-Matic's fauxto magic filters to apply.

Bottom line: Is the final image, the app-processed image, personally satisfying? Sort of, I suppose. I do feel that credit for much of the final image's wow value, if any, belongs, as Gore Vidal remarked, to the camera's, or rather to Pixlr-o-Matic's designers. Still, I'll take credit for some of it, certainly whatever credit belongs to the finger on the button.


Bill Giles said...

Among serious photographers, I think that most are craftsmen and few are artists. As craftsmen, we learn to use tools to create the photographs that we, or our clients, want. With a few exceptions, photographers working for clients shouldn't be too creative. It's the client's vision that you are trying to create. What's the difference between a photo app and a Photoshop action? The app was created by someone else and you use it as a tool. An action was created by you, or someone else, and used as a tool. I've done sepia toning on B&W prints in the darkroom. Is that really different from what we do digitally now? I think that there is an element of craft in all artists and the difference is in the tools that we use.

jimmyd said...

@Bill: Agree about client's vision altho for most of what I shoot, I wouldn't call it vision. I understand that apps are simply tools, and perhaps my update should have focused more on craft than art, but what i'm seeing a lot of, a whole lot of, is people trying to pass off the the use of apps as some indicator of their creativity. It's like they think a crap photo is suddenly a really good photo simply because they applied the app and the app makes it look a little cool. The photo is good or not when it was snapped, not because some gimmicky post-prod app was applied.

Rick said...

Once you take a photograph into Photoshop or any other program and manipulate that photo beyond the "traditional" darkroom techniques, you've morphed from a photographer into a graphic artist.

While the foundation of the final product may still look like a photograph it no longer is. Take a look at the work of Michael Rosen and you'll see what I mean.

I think David Bailey said it best with this quote: "It takes a lot of imagination to be a good photographer. You need less imagination to be a painter, because you can invent things. But in photography everything is so ordinary; it takes a lot of looking before you learn to see the ordinary."

jimmyd said...

@Rick: Yep. You're right. I'm familiar, BTW, with Rosen's work. What a great quote from David Bailey. I wish I was aware of it when I wrote my ebook: Zen and the Art of Portrait Photography. I likely would have included it and expanded on much of what it encompasses.