18 August 2012

The Irony of Post-modern Photography

Some thoughts on modern photography:

My daughter takes pictures on her phone then loads them up to Instagram to get that authentic “look how cool and groovy my life is” look. These aren’t a clear record of whatever friend or kitten she points the phone at, but that isn’t important. The point of the blurry orange-toned images is not to capture a moment in time, as photographs used to do. Today digital images have to have a post-modern ironic spin to them, though I don’t think the people who use Instagram realise they are doing this.

When I was studying photography academically we were told a photograph used to be about saying “I was there”. Think about your holiday snaps. However, now that photographs can be taken by your phone and instantly sent to friends or uploaded to Facebook the unspoken message of the image is “I am here”. With Instagram and other software packages that alter the look from that taken directly by the device the photographer is unwittingly saying something else. Deliberately distorting the picture might be a way of distancing yourself from the now. Is the implicit message “I am so cool I am barely here”, or “I am here but am superior to it all”?

Isn’t it interesting that as digital cameras become increasingly accurate the fashion for grainy over-exposed imagery is growing? What’s going on? I would like to think it is because people miss the magic of old style film photography.

There is that lovely feeling of nostalgia when you look at the photographs of your childhood in the 70s. These are now fading to orange or blue, and will one day, I’m afraid to say, disappear entirely, but for now you can’t help associate hazy pictures with good times.

Black and white photographs taken in earlier years are keeping their precision longer, but there is a strange distancing effect to them. Somehow people seem to be further away than if they had been taken with modern cameras. It’s like the difference between a television programme filmed with a digital camera and one made with a film camera; the actors look nearer and more present when filmed by a video camera.

This has something to do with the lenses and internal workings of the particular camera. You’ll be glad to know I won’t go into that here, but it’s worth noting imagery captured by film has a mysterious, perhaps even an ennobling quality.

Blogs about gardens are built on photographs of plants and insects (and cats). The more accurate these are the better they are at showcasing the flowers or vegetables or whatever the author wants to talk about. Some are amazing, some duff. I tell myself my own garden photos are ‘for illustrative purposes’ so I don’t have to worry about the quality too much – it’s the lazy photographer’s mantra.

Just for fun I have taken some images using an old Kodak twin reflex camera bought on eBay. Tragically they don’t make the actual film anymore that would fit in the camera, so I cheated and shot through the eye piece of the old camera with my normal digital camera. To help with light and focussing and all that a cardboard tube, about a metre long, had to be rigged up. Then some nifty Photoshopping was called for to bring out the images.

looking through eye piece of kodak twin reflex camera
Looking down the tube to the top of the camera

twin reflex camera and cardboard tube
Tube made from an Amazon box, a Tesco Finest biscuit box, and the box from cereal bars.
These are sellotaped and strapped to the top of the camera.

Isn’t the final result gorgeous? These aren’t of Garden65 as it is. These are the garden as seen in a dream.

Photograph taken with Kodak Duaflex II camera

Photograph taken with Kodak Duaflex II camera

Photograph taken with Kodak Duaflex II camera

Rarely does post-modern irony produce any beauty (just ask Grayson Perry) but I think in this case it has.