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Sunday, September 26, 2021

Column: Faux-tography

One of those really interesting people you talk to once in your life for hours after meeting as a result of a small dinner party your friend invites you to so he’ll be less alone but then leaves you alone with, well, he was into photography.

Really into photography.

We were at his house and there were antique cameras on antique-looking furniture and every now and then a small digital camera and every other now and then a semi-professional DSLR.

I knew a small amount about photography from a class I took in high school, enough that I can at least remember I enjoyed photography with a film camera. How it required much more of an effort to set up a shot because the film limited us to 12 or so pictures per roll. How the photographer was involved in every step of the process, even developing the roll of film, holding your breath because this was the first test of whether you could do this right. Whatever shots weren’t completely black were probably blurry, and then it was up to your further creativity to salvage what you had.

It’s a time-consuming process that was worth it to some but not to most. In my opinion, it was a dying art; in my new friend’s opinion, “It should die.”

I didn’t realize that this man who collected old cameras and put them on display would believe that nowadays that’s all they were good for.

He showed me a photo that I think he had on display at some gallery for a few days, and I understood. I saw a display of the best of the new photography class at an open house, and I understood. I read a half-assed article listing photography as one of the best professions to enter without a college education, and I understood. I saw another friend scroll through Instagram on her phone, and I saw it pretty clearly: Photography is easy.

To save some face, I’ll admit that there are plenty of people who put a lot of effort into photographs. Dedicated photographers will to go to great lengths to get a difficult and stunning and unbelievable photo, pushing the boundaries of physical limitations or emotional reaction to bring their audience something they’ve never seen before. Then there are people just as respectable who shine a new light on things we’ve seen a million times or something we’ve seen less often that inspires us emotionally. Then there are people who try to do either of those, but never quite get to where they’re going.

Then there are people who put a filter over shots of their food.

Technology has made it easy for anybody with a phone to stylize any of their photographs on the spot, making what used to take time and effort into a social media tool. Instagram is a verb describing an action by would-be photographers, fueled by the desire to pause the moment and share their experience. This is years of technology and spending money to make our everyday pictures look like the everyday pictures of long ago for giggles.

This is not an original realization, of course; there are feelings framing all sides of the revolution. Honestly, I’m not happy taking sides on the issue. I’m no more of a photographer than the Instagramers, but photography is fun, and I’m not taking their photographs any more or less seriously than my own, which I would consider the equivalent of doodling when compared to professional sketching.

I’m sure my friend was happy that film photography was dead because it meant that we had reached the point where it was unnecessary, and technology had allowed us to make great-looking photographs with much less effort. But the easier a task is, the harder it is to be creative.

What I’m sure he didn’t mean, and might not have realized, is how something that is supposed to inspire creativity actually diminishes it. Using the same pre-programmed filters to stylize photos is counter-creativity and forms photography into something reproducible, and often lazy. This is the real source of resentment toward a growing fad ready for collapse.

NICK FREDERICI thinks Instagram is an epidemic. Ask Nick for the cure at nrfred@ucdavis.edu.

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