Hipstamatic and the Time When Photographs Looked Like Paintings

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Frederick Evans' 1896 photograph Kelmscott Manor: Attics looks for all the world like the work of human hands. Dreamy and soft, we look down from one end of an attic along the trusses and beams of a roof toward an open area where light floats in from our left. Alternating strips of grays remind us that photographs were just complex configurations of light, dark, light. And yet, right around this time, they became something more. They became art.

A group of friends and collaborators known as the pictorialists swept through the photography world. Led by Alfred Stieglitz, they called the chemicals they affixed to paper art, and what we see when we look at Evans' photo -- its use of the camera to obscure reality with light rather than highlight it -- is an argument for the elevation of art by machine. They influenced all photography that came after them from Edward Weston to Ansel Adams to your Hipstamatic snapshots.

As with all important artistic movements, we have to ask: why did this happen? What forces were at work that led this group to do something new in the world?

"Many arguments abound, but I maintain it was a technological invention," said Alison Nordström, curator of photography at the George Eastman House, the country's largest film museum. "In 1888, George Eastman invented the Kodak camera. It was relatively cheap. Compared to the old ways of taking photographs, it was really easy. Suddenly, everyone was a photographer. Anyone with a small amount of money and a little bit of skill could take pictures. Suddenly, your mother was a photographer."

For those interested in using photography to make art for art's sake, this was quite a challenge to their status, Nordström explained Thursday at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. in a lecture timed to coincide with the opening week of a new exhibition, TruthBeauty: Pictorialism and the Photograph as Art, 1845-1945. They had to justify their artistic practice.

"The effort was to claim that this machine, this camera, could make art. And one of the easiest ways to make things that people understood as art was to make things that looked like art," she said. "So unlike snapshots, pictorialists' photographs looked like paintings and charcoal drawings and etchings."

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Many works like Edward Steichen's "Flatiron--Evening Camera Work 14" (above) play with fog and smoke. They hide things in the greyscale and even tend toward a hazy abstraction. Everything becomes a little harder to see and a bit more romantic. I'd long, lazily assumed that turn-of-the-century photos looked like this because of technical reasons, that this was just how cameras made photos at the time. That's not true. These photographers were skilled enough and their techniques good enough that they could have made razor sharp portraits, but they didn't. Instead, we have two decades where the best photographs work like memories not recordings.

To my modern eye, they share that impressionism the intentionally digitally degraded cell phone snapshot, all soft-focus and odd-lighting.

Hipstamatic, a popular app for the iPhone, lets users choose old "films" and lenses to create different effects. In a world where anyone with a few hundred dollars can buy a digital camera that will shoot flawless, sharp images of anything automatically, Hipstamatic makes taking photos harder and more subject to random variation. The images it produces are dreamy and imperfect. It's difficult to frame photos well, so canted angles and half-scenes appear regularly in the flickr photosharing groups dedicated to the app's output. Just look at Neema Naficy's photograph of the selfsame Flatiron building in New York.

When you use Hipstamatic, it practically forces you to shoot arty photographs. We can all be cell phone pictorialists now.

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But there's a key difference between what the original pictorialists did and what we do with our smartphones: Hipstamatic photos are quick. They may have the look of a handprinted, turn-of-the-century gem, but they require none of the dedication that the pictorialists brought to their work. It wasn't just what the photos looked like that made them art, but how the artists making them thought about what they were doing.

The cornucopia of photographic and printing techniques created by chemists in the 19th century -- platinum, gum bichromates, liquid silver emulsion, palladium, photogravure --   allowed the pictorialists to make all kinds of aesthetic decisions. Sometimes, they even took brushes to certain emulsions to give them just the right look. And though Hipstamatic may offer the illusion of lens and film choice, the reality is that we control very little about the resulting images. The computer known as your phone does all the post-processing that would have once been done by hand.

Hipstamatic users like myself are more like the push-button camera users of their day, even if the qualities of our images hearken back to Steichen and Stieglitz. If suddenly everyone can be not just a photographer, but a pictorialist, what's a real artist to do?

Nordström said one key response she's seen is that photographers that want to be seen as artists produce huge works, counting on their scale to separate them from the tiny, low-resolution productions of the low-rent digital camera realm.

But she also suggested that the separation between art photographers and snapshotters has long had more to do with attitude than any kind of technical virtuosity. The pictorialists practically started the debate about whether photography should be art, and they won it with their arguments and cultural position as much as with their work. They made sure to get their work into salons and even museums as early as 1911. They said over and over: this is art.

All that hard rhetorical work eventually paid off. The public accepted photography as a valid medium for artistic expression. By the time the sharp lines of modernism slowly overtook pictorialism through the teens, just about everybody agreed with Henry Peach Robinson's contention in his 1867 book, The Elements of a Pictorial Photograph, that photos could be works of art. Nordstrom's talk ended with the quote, tying together the multiple strands of thought about the relationship between technology and art.

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Robinson is saying: technology is a tool, and art is what an artist does.

So while technique and knowledge are important, the tools are not. Some artists may differentiate themselves by blowing up their prints to XXL and mounting them on special paper, but others are dedicating themselves to the iPhone and its photographic potential.

The iPhone artists are executing a nearly identical operation to the pictorialists'. To make people understand something as art, you make it look like the art they already know, right? Everyone knows the pictorialists made art photos, so now you make your iPhone shots look like their gum bichromate prints. You say over and over, iPhone photos can be art. And you push your work into the cultural institutions that define the edges of the art world.

There's an exhibition of iPhone art touring the country right now. It debuted in San Francisco last month, and will hit Chicago and New York in the next two weeks. "Pixels at an Exhibition" features art produced solely with the iPhone -- and some of it is gorgeous. I rest my case with Maia Panos' "Morning Glow," a fine example of the iPhone pictorialist genre.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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