Photographic Laboratory at Your Fingertips

12 Sep 2018, 12:09 pm

by Mariana Musse


Eyes focused on the phone screen, precise fingertips that position the heart above the food plate, and the filter: New York, Tokyo or Rio de Janeiro? If this does not make any sense to you, maybe you are not an Instagram heavy user. Launched in 2010, after eight years the app has over 800 million registered users worldwide – 50 million of which are based in Brazil. In 2012, Facebook purchased the network for 1 billion dollars. Today, its estimated value surpasses 35 billion.

A place to practice voyeurism, to enter the lives of others without invitation. Also, a place to sell ourselves. With fast communication, updates, and the introduction of new tools, Instagram is on the agenda of discussions about the production of images in the contemporaneity. Because of the fast interaction of its users, Instagram is no longer a social network for entertainment only, it is incorporated into the marketing strategies of brands and becoming a showcase for professionals of different segments, from photographers to scientists. To stand out in the crowd, one has to be creative, entertain the interlocutors, and engage them. These needs lead to the creation of new visual languages.

In the context of digital technology, the image is the main character of interpersonal communication. The instant photographic process, the new forms of filing, the possibility of quickly editing images give a new meaning to the role of the photography in our days, which goes beyond the keeping of memories. Added to this digital context are the democratic access to the Internet, the outbreak of new interaction processes, as well as the consolidation of the social networks with the web 2.0.

According to the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, we live in a “liquid modernity,” in which all is temporary and ephemeral, because nothing is permanent. There is no rooting anymore since everything may be dismantled at any moment. While the networks follow the idea of liquidity proposed by Bauman (through the great flow of information contained and updated in the feeds), we perceive the users’ need to find references and identities when they build storytelling about themselves in an attempt to create ties and roots in this new form of sociability. Photography is the visual language that is also used to build up such personalities.

Let us travel in time to highlight the moments at which the technological advancement affected the relation of the subjects and the production of images. When Kodak launched its first cameras with rollfilms at the end of the 19th century, it was difficult to imagine that this product would become part of our daily lives since then.

According to researchers Kamal Munir and Nelson Phillips, with its advertisement, the company created the need to take pictures. Baptisms, birthday parties, trips, weddings, that is, the familiar and common life must be recorded to be remembered in the future. The “Kodak moment” was then built: records of happy moments of the daily family lives.

With the slogan “you press the button, we do the rest,” the company facilitated the technical universe of photography, taking the responsibility for the development of the photos. With affordable prices, a direct speech on photography, and a better portability of cameras, photographing became democratic. From the 1950s on, Polaroid was a huge success among young people when it launched the first instant cameras.

Going a few decades further, we reach the turning point of the production of images by non-professionals: the consolidation of the digital technology. In 2000, Sharp began to sell cell phones with cameras. Despite the low quality of the images and the storage limitations, this achievement opened a new era for the production of images. And this is due to a peculiar reason: the cell phone being an individual device, therefore the cameras also become individual. Years later, the wireless Internet connection transformed the cell phones into smartphones.

Instagram emerged in this scenario. In an allusion to an instant character, the application reproduced, in its first logo, elements that revive the logo of Polaroid. Also, attractive tools such as the sharing of photos, an easy and intuitive image editing, and different looks for photos with aspects that refer to features of the analog films were important innovations to transform the photography universe as did Kodak previously.

After some updates, Instagram incorporated more technical tools for the edition of images. Basically, the photos captured with cell phones have lower quality and some limitations, for example, as to photometry. But the filters are able to hide some flaws of the original image. In addition to applying these looks, the user may also edit the contrast, saturation, tonality, shadows, etc. In an uncomplicated way, every person can edit photos without any need to master a deeper technical knowledge. Unlike the Kodak positioning, which asserted its responsibility for developing the images at its own labs, Instagram offers its users a real photographic laboratory at their fingertips.

Digital culture researcher Jill Rettberg investigates the use of filters in contemporary images. She ponders on how digital culture made tools available that transformed the daily life into something more beautiful and to be shared. When using these looks, we would be “filtering” elements of the image itself: highlighting some of them, hiding others, transforming the image into something that is more interesting than reality itself. Moreover, Rettberg states that the use of these filters may defamiliarize records, making them new and attractive for the photo author, already accustomed to those daily scenarios. That is, the filters would help transform daily life into something spectacular. They are also used to arouse sensations through colors: one can make use of filters that are more luminous, vintage, black and white, etc.; each to create a different sensation to the beholder.

In 2016, Instagram launched a new communication tool in the app: the Instagram Stories. Such device has two remarkable characteristics: the timeframe the post is accessible (for 24 hours only, after that, it is gone), and the amount of features to manipulate the original image. Among them are brushes (quite similar to the old Paint), text fonts, GIFs, face masks, emojis, in addition to filters for photos. It is an entertaining tool allowing the user to customize photos or videos aiming at the engagement of other users.

Since nothing is lost, everything is transformed, we point out once again that Instagram reinvents and uses features of other times. Let us journey to the other side of the world, to Japan, where the photo booths became very popular in the 2000s. There they were known as purikura. The photos were captured, edited, and printed inside the booth. Then the person could manipulate the images, adding texts, emojis, filters, scenarios, and also change the face of the users (it was quite usual to enlarge the eyes in the photos). At the end of the process, the photos were printed and put into small albums dedicated to this collection. If we compare these images to what can be found in the Stories, we can observe a great similarity between the features available and the resulting aesthetics after the manipulation.

One can also note that the manipulation made in the Stories has a great appeal to the emotion the user wishes to convey. Elements such as emojis, extremely popular in the Internet language, are added to the photos and emphasize feelings, and may replace, for example, the text message, being rapidly decoded. It is also noticeable, for example, a series of photos using hearts, whether in GIFs, doodles (a term meaning drawings and scribbles done randomly), or the very emojis to mean “I love”, “I like,” and so on. That is, along with the photo, these other visual elements describe the emotion attached to it.

The use of other visual languages simultaneously to the photo intensifies the communicability of the image. The Stories are no longer merely a place to disseminate photos, becoming a showcase to entertain, amuse, sell products, and tell stories on the network. More often than not, the photography is the basis for interventions of other visual features. It is a fragmented narrative that must be efficient and create relations with other users in a matter of seconds. Whether through humor, exaggeration in the visual interventions, texts (with the photo location and time, or mentions of other users). Therefore, the photography, in addition to its referential nature – that of recording the moment –, also transmits the author’s perception of the moment.

Aesthetic features and practices related to analog photography, in constant change, were incorporated to the universe of Instagram. The image is used to connect. Whether to build up identities, to communicate, to sell. A diary of images, left open on purpose, in which the regular life is filtered, highlighted, and disguised in pursuit of entertainment and emotion.

This piece was first published at the second edition of SP-Arte Magazine, in August, 2018.

Mariana Musse holds a PhD in Communication from Universitat Pompeu Fabra (Spain) and is the author of the book Narrativas fotográficas no Instagram: autorrepresentação, identidades e novas sociabilidades [Photographic Narratives on Instagram: Self-representation, Identities, and New Sociabilities].

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