Instagram and the snapshot aesthetic

I recently read The Photographer’s Eye by Michael Freeman, and came across some interesting lines on the ‘snapshot aesthetic’, whereby lacking composition is pitched by casual photographers as a deliberate technique. The book predates Instagram, but I think the comments are given extra context by the rise of social media and phone photography.

Freeman writes;

“Artifacts [such as blurred focus or broken composition] in photographs can work very well, but they do so by trading on what we know an accurately taken image should look like. In other words, to be successful and accepted, they can only be occasional. Willful disregard for the principles of composition and design can only be justified conceptually – by saying, in effect, ‘this is not a normal photograph’ … This is photography as conceptual art, and concept is being substituted for skill.”

If I quote more I’ll be in breach of copyright law, but Freeman had two basic points:

First, that this technique works best when it is employed deliberately, rather than out of ignorance. You have to demonstrate that you know what you’re doing before people will give you credit for doing something interesting with this style. It’s much like songwriting – people took Bowie’s more experimental work seriously because he’d demonstrated time and again that he knew how to write a number one hit. Had he opened with one of his concept albums, he’d have been ignored.

Second: that it will only be effective if you use it occasionally. This is where Instagram comes in. Its filters lend themselves to a casual, off-balance style of composition that is effective when used sparingly but is now endemic on Facebook and Twitter. Sadly, this is making lazy photographers of us all and removing this great style of photography as a tool for occasional impact.

There really are some cracking phone photographers out there – I see things on Google+ that blow me away. But from the second I lay eyes on those photos, the careful and deliberate nature of the composition – and the skill required to see and capture it – is obvious. I’d like to see more of that – especially in my own photography :)

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