Your Beautiful Pictures Are Stupid: Against Trendy Digital Photography


“I hope the ghost of Walker Evans punches me in the face,” wrote producer Eric Spiegelman last night. He likes to take pictures with his iPhone and then quickly tweak them, as the people do today, with the filters and the apps. He has his own process: “I adjust some levels in Photogene, crop the image, run it through one of a handful of CameraBag or Lo-Mob filters, then use TiltShiftGen not to make a tilt-shift image but because a little bit of blur goes a long way, and because TiltShiftGen has a killer vignetting tool. But this is a farce. It’s like saying I’m a cook because I mix and match TV dinners.”

This epidemic of easy-to-manipulate “arty” images infesting our blogs and our Facebook pages is way out of control. And it’s not just photography. Take a look at the Vimeo HD channel.

Every trick in the book is showing up in pretty much every photograph and video these days. Super-limited depth of field! Film emulation! Diffraction! Long exposures, tilt-shifting, faux Polaroid, high contrast, faux lomography! When was the last time you saw a video without a beautiful, sweeping time-lapse segment?

And you know what it all means? It means every picture and every video looks the same.

That’s not to say they don’t all look spectacular, and the videos, in particular, definitely show “craft”! Like that’s actual work, for the most part.

There are times when processing and effects are coupled with talent and narrative and skill, sure! Like this video.

This is made doubly complicated because it’s actually a movie about photography and a photographer. One thing he says is that he shoots like this because he wants to show things the way he sees them in his head. But artificial contrast and saturation aren’t the way we see things in our head. The eye-eyes! There are two of them, and cameras only have one “eye,” and they operate differently!-and the brain are not at all like the camera. And yet this is a pretty incredible film, but only because it’s about something.

But we have learned to “think” in images this way. These are romantic and really somewhat infantile image techniques. They’re childish and nostalgic. They’re about sunny days and buzzing bees and reading books on a porch, and about road trips and romanticizing urban grime and being oh so gently alienated.

And really, it’s gross.

The good news, or at least the retrograde news, is that there are Flickr groups like Cross Processing — FILM ONLY, of all-analog photography. And the always-active I Shoot Film and Film is not Dead!!.

Online at web resolution, though, can you tell the difference between film effects and digital effects? Sometimes, yes, you can! That’s because the actual analog film effects aren’t as “interesting” as the quicky digital ones. They aren’t as thrilling to the eye. They’re not as cheaply emotionally evocative. They’re just pictures.