Monday, May 16, 2011

Delightfully Shitty, Yet Ironically Refined

Digital cameras have become so cheap, so saturated in our society that very few choose to use film still. Even the professionals, shooting for artistic purposes, use high-resolution digital cameras instead of film. There are many good reasons to do so: It’s cost-efficient (the price of electricity to power it), the cameras allow instant feedback on the photo that was just taken, and they tend to automatically configure focus and exposure settings. Not that a real pro uses automatic settings, right? Right?

Most of us are walking around all day with a camera in our pocket attached to our cell phone. Each frame that this camera snaps will collect more than a million points of light to compose those photos—some as many as 12 million.

In fact, some of the best digital cameras will take 25 megapixel images, revealing an absurdly high resolution. They return stunning, sharp, vividly colored photos that look about as close to perfect as you can get.

However, people are sick of perfect. They want shitty.

Yeah, you can be like everyone else and take boring perfect-looking photos, or you can get nostalgic and take pictures that look like your grandfather’s photo albums: Blurry, questionable coloring, weird framing effects. These photos are reminiscent of a day when only the well-trained could wield a camera with accuracy. The rest of us, unable to preview the images we just captured, would crank out a roll of 24 frames that looked like ass.

This is nothing new. People loved Polaroids so much that there were protests when the facility that manufactured the film closed down. Other companies even tried making their own version of the film, but to no avail. The instant analog camera gave way to the instant digital camera, and we were left with no choice but to take excellent photographs.

Then Hipstamatic came along, followed by dozens of other apps that make your mobile phone’s photos look delightfully shitty. Many popular image services also offer presets that will take your perfect-looking photo and turn it into a cool-looking sickly-green blurry mess, so you can use your high-quality digital camera instead of just your cell phone. There are even a handful of apps that make your digital photo look like a Polaroid, awkwardly large bottom margin and all.

The anachronistic pairing of subject matter and retro effects leaves the viewer with an impression of irony, a sense that something isn’t quite adding up, and it’s not supposed to. It’s like trying to calculate four plus apple. Then the joke is out; your children, wearing the t-shirt of whatever band didn’t exist back when years began with a one, are posed in a photo that looks like it was taken in the 1960s—and they look freakin’ cool. Even their unfortunately unfashionable friend looks awesome in a pukey green color. Perhaps it’s all the anti-focus.

Years ago, before digital cameras were so universal, people built their own pinhole cameras at home to capture ultimately basic images ranging from fuzzy blobs to over-exposed fuzzy blobs. These tin-can cameras were the original Hipstamatic, allowing people to spend money to develop terrible pictures for their friends to look at in confusion before being informed that the images were taken with homemade devices.

Pinhole cameras are interesting things. They allow you to really be involved in every aspect of the image-capture process, illustrating that it’s nothing more than light falling on light-sensitive materials. The fuzzy image is hardly the point, but rather the final step of the process. It’s like cooking from scratch; the food is the finished product, but it’s hardly the most important part.

Now that people are getting sick of stylizing their crisp portraits into psychedelic nightmares, some have taken a shine to film again. It’s an inevitable trend to watch people resolve back to earlier technology in a nostalgic frenzy, and it gives people a sense of satisfaction to know that those terrible photos aren’t merely the result of a stock preset but rather their inability to properly control film. It’s the same reason people buy an NES off of eBay and deal with its problems rather than just playing the games on an emulator on their computer.

Hopefully we’ll start to see something really interesting come out of this renewed interest in photographic film, but in the meantime, we’ll have to deal with regular old clear images and hipster-friendly photos.

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