NEVER SAY ALWAYS SAY NEVER
A texture and feel beyond the real: An iPhone snap rendered through the Love 81 film emulator within the Hipstamatic app.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
TALKING ABOUT “TRENDS” IN PHOTOGRAPHY, AS IF THEY SIGNIFY ANYTHING, is like standing near the ocean and commenting on individual waves, as if any one of them will be the standard for all waves forever going forward. More than any other of the graphic arts, picture-making is not so much a strict canon of laws but a seismic measure of our most mercurial moods in a given moment.
As an example, as of this writing (May 2023, in case you wind up reading this in archive), it seems that there has been a recent turn away from the realism of formal photography, once again swinging the pendulum toward apps and software that deliberately muck up precision, processes that celebrate flaws (even artificially created ones), rip pictures free of specific time-era “looks” and otherwise make them sloppier or more random in their result. We are, at the moment, looking for the total effect of an image, including everything that is formally “wrong” about it. Maybe because there is something wrong about it.
The iPhone-bred Hipstamatic alternative to a “serious” picture of the same scene I had taken with my “real” camera.
I am looking at this phenomenon through somewhat fresher eyes these days, even though I have been a long-time user of the ubiquitous and long-running Hipstamatic platform, which has been offering lo-fi tweaks to shooters almost since the dawn of the cell phone era. Problem is, the uneven, customized look of the pictures I created with it have often been categorized in my brain as “something I just do for fun with my phone” versus making “actual” pictures with my “real” cameras. The result was that, over the past ten years, I built up an enormous folder of orphan Hipstamatic images, pictures that I seldom shared and almost never published because I regarded them as cheats, gimmicks, or “just screwing around”….in other words, unworthy of consideration in the same arena as the product of, say, a DSLR.
Which is to say that I have wasted a lot of time trying to arbitrarily disqualify a lot of photos that, upon recent review, really ain’t so bad.
The specific “film” emulator within Hipstamatic that I prefer, a filter effect called Love 81, has emerged over all others as having the proper blend of weathered texture, selective focus, and hyper-saturation that looks both like specific eras or none at all, depending on how it’s applied. And I guess that’s its big strength; the ability to make certain shots come unstuck in time, or to at least suggest times that are unavailable to those of us anchored in the present. Sometimes, like any process, it can ruin what began as a basically okay image, and, also like any process, it can’t make a great picture out of a lousy one. Thing is, our present era is really the best era ever, a world in which photographers can permanently float between disciplines, blithely floating from Never to Always and back to Never at our whim. What could be more human, and more like a photograph?
THE CONCEPT OF FOCUS HAS, over my lifetime (and, I’m sure in some of your own), moved through three distinct phases. The first, when I was very new to the making of pictures, was absolute. All or nothing. An image was either sharp from corner to corner, front to back, or it was worthless. My goals at this point all centered on technical mastery, I suspect because I had none.
The second phase for how I viewed focus could be called front plane, rear plane as I got more adept at the selective use of depth-of-field, making decisions to sharpen either the tree in the front plane or the mountain in the rear plane. Here, I started to actually make deliberate choices on what to emphasize within a frame, and thus to prioritize the order in which I wanted people to discover my pictures.
The third and most recent focal phase, one that could be called priorities within the plane, allows for even more controlled decision-making, as objects that are, from left to right, all the same general distance from the lens, rendered in vastly different degrees of sharpness as a matter of interpretation. This kind of selective focus is abetted by lenses like the Lensbaby line of products, many of which allow for the placement of a sharp “sweet spot” in-camera, anywhere within the image. Even more importantly, many remarkable apps allow for the same effect to be applied in post from a cel camera.
The image at the top left is straight from my iPhone, with all objects across the plane registering in the same depth of field. The larger frame just overhead was rendered using the popular Hipstamatic app, which features a depth-of-field control that can be applied by the same tap-pinch move used by millions for nearly ten years. The effect of the doctored shot is to isolate the subject and her book from the general clutter of the room, suggesting a gauzy dream state as she settles into her chill mode. In inter-plane imagery, even a finished photograph can be re-interpreted endlessly, each “reading” as potentially powerful as a conventionally focused shot, proving, as the best photography always does, that images benefit most from an open approach.
Years after I snapped my first shutter, I try to see myself as being on a journey. Every time I think I’ve arrived at a destination, it’s time to stick out my thumb again.