Sunday, 27 May 2012

Birthday Suit

I turned forty on the weekend so I decided to celebrate.  I wasn't going to at first, as I wasn't feeling great about the whole thing.  It wasn't so much the worry about the onset of wrinkles or crinkly knees (though obviously that is some part of it!), but more really the whole what have I been doing with my life up until now thing.  The where are all the big achievements and what should I have done by now and haven't kind of thing.

But then I thought oh why the hell not?  Throw a party!  It sure beats my original idea of hiding away somewhere and crying into a bottle of wine.  I think I spent so much of the last year stressing about turning forty that I forgot to just enjoy being thirty nine!  That's kind of taught me a lesson in itself.  So here's to not stressing about what age I am in any year any more!!

I celebrated by having some drinks and snacks with a few friends at a favourite local pub with the necessary ingredients for a party, namely access to alcohol...

...a lovely setting with some nice music in the background...


...and miraculously, some glorious summer weather!   Yes summer finally arrived in London just in time for my birthday!

The wonderful Mr V. surprised me with a flash new camera for my birthday, which I proceeded to forget to use all night running around serving canapes and catching up with people I hadn't seen in ages.  I told guests to get dressed up and many obliged!

The evening was a happy blur of wine, champagne, canapes, cupcakes, double chocolate fudge birthday cake and wonderful conversations with friends new and old. (So happy in fact that most of the photos I did manage to take came out completely blurry!!) All in all I couldn't have asked for a lovelier way to celebrate.

It was all quite last minute but I'm so glad I did something in the end.  As a guest remarked to me, it's important for all of us to celebrate milestone birthdays as it is about being visible as a human being in a culture where sometimes it feels that the only phase of human existence that is celebrated is our youth.  So I'll leave you with a lovely thought written in my birthday card from a forty plus friend who is already in the know: really you only get smarter, wiser and more beautiful with age.

In keeping with being visible I am linking up with the other ladies as part of this week's Visible Monday hosted by the lovely Patti over at Not Yet Dead Style.  Quite apt I think!

Thanks also to Bella of the Citizen Rosebud who warmly welcomed me into the forty plus bloggers hall of fame (where you'll find some very stylish forty plus ladies whose blogs I love!).  She sent me a fabulous floral commemorative widget which cheered me up no end and which is going up on the side bar today now that I am officially forty plus!

Sunday, 6 May 2012

To Instagram or Not to Instagram? That is the Question...

To Instagram, or not to Instagram? That is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The trails and tribulations of Photoshop,
Or to take arms against a sea of faux-retro filters,
And by opposing end them?
Once upon a time people used a bizarre process called film photography to take photos.  This involved using rolls of film of which there were a maximum of thirty six photos per roll and you had to choose between black and white or colour.  The rolls had to be developed and printed which meant spending hours in a darkroom playing around with chemical washes and length of exposure times to get the desired effects.

Then the invention of the digital SLR put the use of film to rest, while Photoshop killed off the darkroom and sharing photographs online superseded printing on glossy photography paper.  Suddenly everybody was capable of producing photos that looked like they were taken by a professional film photographer - that is once they got the hang of Photoshop.

Then an application called Instagram made the SLR/Photoshop process obsolete by allowing people to instantly elevate even the most substandard of photos taken on their mobile phone cameras to mini works of art using a handful of retro styled filters.  Suddenly everybody was able to be a photo artiste overnight and they all lived happily ever after presenting washed out, imitation Polaroid versions of their lives on the internet.  Or did they?  This week Friend Friday is about Instagram and whether it has changed the way people blog.

While I don't actually use it, as someone interested in photography it is worth reflecting on the Instagram phenomenon.  Its popularity with fashion and personal style bloggers has exploded as it produces quite cute, retro looking photos without having to bother with the expense and hassle of an SLR.  Having recently been reduced to an iphone as a camera, I began toying with the idea of using it myself to produce photos for the blog and join in the fun.  Then the news emerged that Facebook had bought the company for a whopping $1bn.

The deal generated bewilderment in the City as to how Facebook could justify paying so much for a company that is yet to generate any revenue and murmurs of the next technology bubble reaching bursting proportions started to gather pace and volume. It was actually the speculation as to what Facebook might do with Instagrams' users information that put me off using it.  Facebook's frank disregard for its users' privacy and the company's perceived right to treat them as commodities doesn't bode well for Instagram.  Some Instagram users were concerned enough to recommend people delete their accounts before Facebook gets a chance to harvest their personal data including, disturbingly, location data contained in the images. Just think, physical stalking of your favourite celebrities and favourite bloggers is just one step away from your online stalking of them once you know where they habitually take their photographs.

Interestingly in the fashion blogosphere the news of the Facebook buy out prompted either wish lists from bloggers of improvements they wanted Facebook to implement, or pleas not to tamper with it too much. Yet the issues of personal data, privacy and even personal security barely rated a mention.

It is also an interesting question as to what you trying to achieve by choosing to apply a filter to your photographs to alter their appearance.  In researching the financial relevance of Instagram to Facebook I stumbled on a raging debate online between photography purists and enthusiasts passionately arguing for and against the use of Instagram, a debate which throws up some fascinating questions about current trends in the way we want to portray our experience of the world to others.  The division between the conflicting views are summed up nicely in the exchange on The Verge article "Instagram is the best, Instagram is the worst" between Chris Ziegler, arguing that photography should reflect some aspect of reality, and Dieter Bohn, who sides with the notion that the purpose of a picture is not necessarily to reflect real life.
"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." Chris Ziegler, The Verge
Some of the accusations levelled at Instagram are that it is essentially a lazy procedure in which the user is removed from the true creative process that goes into producing a good photograph.  Creativity, it is argued, is killed off as the desire to experiment is sacrificed for expediency and convenience, with the result that everyone's photos end up looking the same.  Perversely, in trying to make their photos stand out, the reliance of users on a small set of filters from one application that has taken off in popularity across the web will achieve exactly the opposite effect.

After perusing countless Instagram snaps served up on the internet it is clear that no amount of fancy filters can truly salvage a photograph that is already very bad - bad lighting, bad composition, etc... someone with an eye for photography will be able to see poor quality straight though any number of Instagram filters. For shots that might suffer in one department, say light levels, but stack up on others, I find Instagram can actually make the final images far more engaging than the original, and in many cases quite beautiful.

Which brings me to the other side of the argument:
"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." Dieter Bohn, The Verge
While I can understand the misgivings over Instagram, I'm not convinced that the purpose of photography is always to act as a historical reference or accurate record of reality.  Every time a photographer chooses to change the angle of a photo, adjust the white balance, crop out irrelevant details, accentuate the colour in post production, a degree of personal interpretation is being added and the image is being limited to what the photographer wants the viewer to see.  Instagram seems like the logical conclusion to this artistic quest to use photography as a conduit for personal expression. It is however, a conclusion that has been made available to the masses without requiring them to attain any level of mastery in the technical skills usually required to produce quality images.

The photo above of plane trees lining a road in the South of France was taken fifteen years ago with a Nikon FE2 film camera while Mr V and I were on a road trip which was our first holiday together.  It was Mr V's first camera and on it I learnt the photography basics of light levels, aperture, focus and composition. I still remember the satisfying feel and sound of that camera's shutter clicking today.

The camera has long since ceased to function but the photograph and others taken with it still take pride of place in our home.  I remember the two of us spent hours locked away in the college darkroom in Cambridge University where we were studying.  We produced several copies with different finishes which we pored over for ages before selecting one to submit to a student photography exhibition.  It was a labour of love in every sense and the satisfaction in producing the final photos was immense.  Our submission got us selected for the finalists exhibition where it earned the compliment from an attendee of being "beautifully printed".

When we took this shot it had been a conscious aesthetic decision to use black and white film.  While developing the image we brought out the contrast between the light and shadows to emphasise the dramatic form of the trees and lend the finished product the effect of having been rendered in charcoal rather than photographed. What we were trying to convey was not a visually accurate record of what we had seen, but rather the emotional response we had felt on seeing these trees all lined up along the road as far as the eye could see, so regal in their regularity, the sun catching them at just the right angle so that the shadows of the nearest trees on one side crossed the road to align perfectly with the trunk of the trees opposite.  An image we found heart stoppingly striking enough to make us stop the car and risk the ire of drivers behind us to pull out the camera and line up a careful shot to capture a moment.

Why do we continue for years to use black and white film when colour film has been available for decades?  Is it because the feel of the finished image is so different from what we really see?  Colour can be hyper real but black and white or sepia feels like it has captured a moment from another era even if you just took the photo yesterday.  Despite the photo here being a flawed draft (we never got our final submission back) I harbour some affection for the grainy flaws and stains left from the development process.  To me they are the visual equivalent of the sound of the needle bumping along the groove of a vinyl record before the track starts, a reminder of the complex physical process that goes into producing the sound.

One could argue that Instagram serves the same purpose in trying to evoke a more emotional response to an image by imbuing it with a nostalgic feel.  This in turn has generated another criticism of Instagram that is particularly pertinent to fashion and lifestyle bloggers using the application.

Is it not essentially a form of deceit by glamorising your otherwise unremarkable world by applying a few trendy filters to what you ate for lunch, your pot plant, pet, new purchase etc...?  Are we just pandering to a collective lie by presenting snippets of our lives bathed in the glow of low-fi vintage camera lighting?  What about authenticity?  You may also ask why people want to make their photos look like they were taken in an era they may well have never lived through.  When we were young children in the seventies, my mother cursed every washed out, yellowed photograph produced on expired film that was taken on my father's film camera, the very same limitations that Instagram has taken such pains to lovingly recreate with their filters.

In the following article on Gigaom -"The ugly truth: why beautiful wins in 2012", Edward Aten argues that Instagram taps into our fundamental desire to be attractive and to engage on an emotional level with visual content online.
"Before humans ever wanted to be influential, we wanted to be beautiful. Not just beautiful in just the attractive sense, but we want people to look at us and feel things; desire, intrigue, interest. For hundreds of years we’ve been carefully curating our appearance, clothes, jewelry, cars and houses for visceral impact.... 
...Instagram makes our pictures less accurate, but what we lose in exactness we gain in the ability to create instant nostalgia and show our view of our subjects. At its core, Instagram is a simple tool that doesn’t make us better photographers, but better communicators of feelings and experiences, and that's what matters to people."
This is less about presenting what we see but how we see it. As an artistic point of view this is just as valid as using the tricks and trades of traditional photography as we did to reinterpret this scene of trees.

As for the allure of retro, anything from the past will always have some romantic appeal to current and future generations.  It is the curiosity about what we never knew in our lifetimes that lends previous eras a kind of rose tinted nostalgic glow, the same curiosity that drives people to collect and wear vintage clothing, hunt down antiques, excuse flaws and damage as features that give our vintage items "character" and attribute value to what is essentially just old stuff.  We apply the Instagram effect in the hope that it will lend our ordinary modern day memories the same intrigue.

So does Instagram represent a triumph of technology over artistry that should be decried?  I'm not sure.  I for one am grateful that I can walk into any art shop and have available to me the same materials and tools available to professional artists should I wish to try my hand at creating a watercolour or oil pastel just for the fun of it.  But if I don't use my imagination or make an effort to learn how to those materials and tools to better effect, I won't produce anything that I'd find enjoyable or satisfying to continue working on let alone look at.

Everyone should be allowed and encouraged to have interests, free from the pressure of having to stack up against experts in the field, and it is natural to want to share your interests with others - this is the basic premise that Instagram has got right.  Technological advances in photography are making eye pleasing images easier for the amateur photographer to produce and may actually encourage people to go on to bigger and better things.  There was even the suggestion in this BBC article that the craze for digitalised retro effects may actually lead to a revival in film photography.

Finally it is worth remembering that fancy cameras and filters do not produce great photographs, a photographer does.  For some photography inspiration may I suggest a visit to the following blogs which habitually showcase wonderful photographs, both with and without the use of Instagram.


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