Ping / Counterping is a special feature where editors of The Verge debate issues from the world of technology head-to-head, no holds barred.
There's nothing like a staggering billion-dollar acquisition to put you on the map, is there? Instagram — already an enormously popular photo-sharing service on the iPhone with some 30 million users — recently made the leap to Android, and Mark Zuckerberg himself announced earlier today that Facebook had scooped the startup for a cool ten figures. That's serious money for a company that didn't even exist three years ago. If Instagram wasn't already ubiquitous, Facebook's backing means it's probably about to be.
But not everyone is buying what Instagram's selling. Are the retro-hip filters destroying the visual internet or are they simply the zeitgeist of our time? Chris Ziegler and Dieter Bohn jump into the fray.
Chris Ziegler: Stop pretending to be an artist
A century from now, we're going to have a generation of hopelessly confused youngsters.
"Mommy, why was everything really yellow back then?"
Like it or not, every hastily-captured cameraphone picture we post, every snarky comment we tweet, every embarrassing video that ends up on YouTube is collectively creating an enormously detailed and indelible record of our time here on this earth. Actually, it's amazing. Seriously, it's a really cool time to be alive: never before in the history of mankind have we been able to prove that we were here, to show how we lived and what we did, in lifelike fidelity.
Therein lies the problem with Instagram.
Instagram and its various analogues have created a legion of smartphone users who are quite literally uploading billions of damaged images into the public record. Yes, "damaged." Because when you apply a parlor trick filter to your photo, you're not enhancing it, you're destroying it. You're robbing it of its realness, its nuance, and replacing it with garbage that serves no function other than to aggrandize your own false sense of artisanship.
And make no mistake, you aren't an artist.
If you were an artist, you wouldn't be using Instagram in the first place. You certainly wouldn't be using a filter as a crutch. At the end of the day, that's what Instagram filters are: a crutch, a misguided replacement for a properly composed shot and a decent sensor. The moments that you want to share with your Facebook friends and your Twitter followers should be about the raw realism of your circumstance, not some hand-waving fakery conceived by a small handful of (admittedly very talented) code monkeys in San Francisco.
News flash: I don't care about the fake retro metadata imprinted into the fake top edge of your fake 35mm slide. And ultimately, your great grandchildren aren't going to care, either. Nor are mine. Please don't confuse them about what our world was really like; let's give them something real to look at, to study, and to learn from. If you insist on using Instagram simply as a photo-sharing service, fine — even though there are already several great ones out there, I'll grudgingly accept. But throw those filters away and never look back.
News flash: I don't care about the fake retro metadata imprinted into the fake top edge of your fake 35mm slide
Dieter Bohn: Every photographer is an artist
No image is ever "real" to begin with
A hundred years from now, our children will be much more concerned with finding a cure for the zombie virus than about the "accuracy" of our photos. Still, I think it's worth explaining why that high horse you're sitting on is made of fragile and ultimately illusory sticks.
First and foremost, you're suggesting that the purpose of taking and sharing photos is to create a historical record that's as true, as "accurate," as possible to real life. Well, no, that's not what people are aiming to do when they snap a shot with their camera phones — not everybody is a journalist and even journalists recognize that an un-retouched image isn't true to real life. Last time I checked, when a picture gets taken there are things left out: the things outside the frame of the shot, the smell of the fall leaves, the sound of the plane overhead, the feel of the wind raising the hair on your arms as you capture a tiny portion of your experience on a beautiful fall day.
See, an image is (in part) a stand-in, a placeholder for those things. When most people share photos, they're trying to share their experience at that moment. Adding a filter is a way to make what came out of an inaccurate image sensor feel more true to that moment.
But OK, fine, even though you're deeply wrong about the purpose (and value) of sharing photos on Instagram, let's move on and get to the real problem here. The fidelity problem. There is no image that is not already "damaged," as you put it, the moment it's saved. We've already discussed that an image can only capture light that's in frame — but after that, what happens? Image processing. Tiny microchips are already making artistic decisions before you can even apply your hipster filters. Colors get saturated, pixels get interpolated, and most importantly on most cameras: JPGs get created. JPGs in all their artifacting glory. You say that adding a filter robs an image of its "realness," but my friend: no image is ever "real" to begin with. They are and will always already be damaged.
What's more damaged? Posting a photo that looks bland and lifeless but more accurately presents all of the foibles and failures of your sub-par 8-megapixel shooter? Or posting a photo with a filter that you feel more accurately presents all the feeling and nuance of the moment you are trying to express in the limited and frail medium of imagery?
Even if we grant that someday there will be a perfect camera with infinite megapixels, infinite Lytro-esque depth, and zero post-processing on the created file, the images it kicks out will not be "real" and "true." They will be — wait for it — artistic.
Here's the nut of the argument you're making: "you aren't an artist." Well, yes, yes I am. And so is everybody who snaps a picture on even the worst cameraphone. Choosing the shot, missing one fleeting moment but capturing another, moving one foot to the left so you can get the right light: these are all artistic decisions.
Every photographer is an artist and every photograph is art, period. Every photographer is already interpreting and adding their own point of view to the things he or she photographs. The spread of tools like Instagram means that we are democratizing the ability of regular people to do more interpretation. To argue otherwise smacks of elitism.
The real question here is: why do you hate democracy?
Chris Ziegler: There is nothing more elitist than an artificial vignette
I'm not arguing that Instagram users shouldn't be allowed to use filters — I'm arguing that they should show some self respect and take pictures worth looking at without the benefit of a vaguely retro-esque sepia tone. Why, for the love of all that is good and holy, are all of these pictures yellow? Can someone explain that to me? No, you can't.
Let me put it this way: if Instagram filters are your definition of democracy, I'm hanging a portrait of Karl Marx in my home.
There's infinitely more benefit to consumers and to society as a whole if we concentrate not on making our cameraphone shots yellow, but instead on building better sensors and better camera software that makes it easier and more natural to take good photos out of the box. In fact, this was a directive for Windows Phone prior to version 7's release, and other devices like the HTC One series have really put a focus on this as well. We can do it; we have the technology! We don't need to be propped up by tired filters that got boring after the first couple hundred shots. (Ironically, the iPhone 4 and 4S — where Instagram came into its own — have always taken excellent shots with minimal effort.)
You're right, pictures don't necessarily reflect real life, I'll admit that. And yes, I tweak contrast and white balance as a matter of course. But the goal is always to present a better shot that represents some aspect of reality. It's puzzling to me that Instagram users are actively seeking to ruin their photos in the same way a 50-year-old photo left sitting in the sun might be ruined. You might be able to make the case for doing that for, say, a high-concept exposition at an art gallery. But to feed hundreds or thousands of ruined images onto the cloud? It makes no sense.
If Instagram filters are your definition of democracy, I'm hanging a portrait of Karl Marx in my home
Dieter Bohn: Instagram is not a historical archive
Aesthetically, we may just have to agree to disagree
Now we've come down to it: "pictures don't necessarily reflect real life" vs "the goal is always to [represent] some aspect of reality." Well, which is it then? I'd argue that the former is always true and the latter is a fool's errand. But I don't need to prove that photographs shouldn't attempt to re-create the real for Instagram to have value — just that the images created by Instagram's filters have some measure of artistic merit.
At the end of the day, what is the purpose of Instagram? It's certainly not to create a "historical archive" of "as-accurate-to-reality-as-possible" images — even if such a thing were possible (it isn't), nobody uses Instagram that way. Instead, it's a way to share images with your friends and to make those images more interesting and compelling — more artful.
You can rage about how these filters are "ruining" the original images, but that's an aesthetic judgment, not an objective argument. Aesthetically, we may just have to agree to disagree, but I prefer the Instagram versions in most cases. Just look at the images on this very article. Which ones look better? The straight, unprocessed images or the images that have had Instagram's filters applied?
Since you're already admitted that it's OK to alter images for white balance and such, I know you don't genuinely believe that filters are inherently evil. It seems the real problem you have is that you don't like the particular filters that Instagram has created here. Fair enough — they definitely lean towards a faux-retroism that in our day and age borders on overuse. Honestly, though, you're fighting against the zeitgeist of our times as much as you are fighting against the artistic sensibilities of a few people who just got a gigantic payday from Facebook. Don't hate on Instagram, hate on the time in which we live. Realism went out of style years ago and even then, it was just a style.
Now, if you want to talk about technological shortcuts ruining art, we can at least agree that autotuning is a crime against music. Kids today, right?