Hipstamatic and the Time When Photographs Looked Like Paintings

by Alexis Madrigal

[I had to find this piece for a project. I’ve linked to it in our Press Section for many years, but I just discovered it is now hidden behind a paywall. I’ve recreated it here on PIXELS, since we were the genesis of the piece (the traveling exhibition mentioned was our collection of prints from PIXELS traveling from Apple store to Apple store as we presented the new art form to the public at the request of Apple). This is one of the best articles ever written about iPhoneography as far as I’m concerned.]

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.”

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.

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.

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.

Maia Panos ~ Morning Glow

Originally published October 15, 2010

Alexis Madrigal is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and the host of KQED’s Forum.

Clint Cline ~ Even. Then.

Bill Evans Trio – Emily (Helsinki 1969)

From the YouTube comments:

I love EVERYTHING about this video…the black and white, the music, the clothing style, the beautiful girl at the start, and especially the view out the window while Bill, Eddie and Marty are playing. I only play this during November and December of each year so the view out my window is similar to this one. Sounds crazy I’m sure, but it gives me something to look forward to as winter approaches, then during those cold, gray days I have this to help me through. I am so grateful all who put this together back in ’69-’70 and then to those who brought it to all of us fifty years or so later. So…today, November 14th 2019 is my first day hearing and watching this since last year. It’s great to see you my old friend!!!

{sunday} Meg Greene Malvasi ~ Walkabout

The wolf had crossed the international boundary line at about the point where it intersected the thirtieth minute of the one hundred and eighth meridian and she had crossed the old Nations road a mile north of the boundary and followed Whitewater Creek west up into the San Luis Mountains and crossed through the gap north to the Animas range and then crossed the Animas Valley and on into the Peloncillos as told. She carried a scabbedover wound on her hip where her mate had bitten her two weeks before somewhere in the mountains of Sonora. He’d bitten her because she would not leave him. Standing with one forefoot in the jaws of a steeltrap and snarling at her to drive her off where she lay just beyond the reach of the chain. She’d flattened her ears and whined and she would not leave. In the morning they came on horses. She watched from a slope a hundred yards away as he stood up to meet them.

She wandered the eastern slopes of the Sierra de la Madera for a week. Her ancestors had hunted camels and primitive toy horses on these grounds. She found little to eat. Most of the game was slaughtered out of the country. Most of the forest cut to feed the boilers of the stampmills at the mines. The wolves in that country had been killing cattle for a long time but the ignorance of the animals was a puzzle to them. The cows bellowing and bleeding and stumbling through the mountain meadows with their shovel feet and their confusion, bawling and floundering through the fences and dragging posts and wires behind. The ranchers said they brutalized the cattle in a way they did not the wild game. As if the cows evoked in them some anger. As if they were offended by some violation of an old order. Old ceremonies. Old protocols.

She crossed the Bavispe River and moved north. She was carrying her first litter and she had no way to know the trouble she was in. She was moving out of the country not because the game was gone but because the wolves were and she needed them.  —Cormac McCarthy The Crossing

Happy Sunday.

From Wikipedia:

On 19 January 1936, Paul Hindemith travelled to London, intending to play his viola concerto Der Schwanendreher, with Adrian Boult and the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Queen’s Hall, on 22 January. This was to be the British premiere of the work.

However, just before midnight on 20 January, King George V died. The concert was cancelled, but Boult and the BBC music producer Edward Clark still wanted Hindemith’s involvement in any music that was broadcast in its place. They debated for hours what might be a suitable piece, but nothing could be found, so it was decided that Hindemith should write something new.[1] The following day, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Hindemith sat in an office made available to him by the BBC and wrote Trauermusik in homage to the late king. It was written for viola and string orchestra (Der Schwanendreher employs a larger complement that includes woodwinds). Trauermusik was performed that evening in a live broadcast from a BBC radio studio, with Boult conducting and the composer as soloist.

Trauermusik consists of four very short movements. The first movement is marked Langsam. The second movement (Ruhig bewegt) is less than a minute in length and the third is only slightly longer. The last movement is the heart of the work and in it, Hindemith quotes the chorale “Vor deinen Thron tret’ ich hiermit” (“Here I stand before Thy throne”), well known in Germany via the harmonisation by Johann Sebastian Bach. Hindemith was unaware at the time, but the tune was very familiar in England as the “Old 100th“, to the words “All people that on Earth do dwell”.[1]

The piece also contains quotations from Symphony: Mathis der Maler and Der SchwanendreherTrauermusik immediately entered the repertoire of violists, as well as cellists and even violinists.

The Swiss philanthropist and music patron Werner Reinhart, to whom Hindemith had dedicated his Clarinet Quintet in 1923,[2] later told Gertrud Hindemith “there was something Mozartian” about her husband’s writing Trauermusik in half a day, and premiering it the same day. “I know no one else today who could do that”, he said.

The Art of the iPhone