Technology Advancing Art: Photo Apps Are The Folk Art Of Our Generation

Editor’s note: This guest post is written by Tom Anderson, the former President, founder and first friend on MySpace. You can now find Tom on FacebookTwitter, and Google+.

Around 2004-2005, puzzled non-tech journalists continually asked me why people were using MySpace — this was before social networking was a common phrase, before moms & dads were using social sites, and before Facebook was open to the public. Back then I would answer something like “MySpace is email with pictures, on steroids.” It was the simplest way for me to try and describe the value to an “outsider” who couldn’t understand the growth of a service they didn’t use. The three keys are, of course, 1) communication, 2) photos, and 3) acceleration of communication & of photo sharing (photo sharing itself being another form of communication). Notice I didn’t mention music. Lot’s of people mistakenly think MySpace grew because of music. I’ll explain that some other time.

Now a few days ago, serial entrepreneur and generally (from what I can tell), all-around-interesting guy Phil Kaplan (@pud) sent me a tweet:!/pud/status/116426168793702400

This started a little exchange (difficult to follow on Twitter, or I’d link to it), which I will summarize. I tweeted to @pud that I strongly disagreed with his idea. I suggested that “photo filters” (apps like Instagram, Path, Camera+ and 100 Cameras In 1) 1)  make “bad” photos look “good” and that they’re helping to increase the popularity of photography. (I’m using bad and good here as shorthand — that’s another discussion, of course.) Moreover, I suggested that what’s going on with these filters is a case of technology advancing art, much like digital recording revolutionized music. Pud commended my point, said that “time will tell,” and noted that he was “in love” with one of his photos he’d taken on Instagram (shown at right).

Technology advancing art. Does that seem like an odd statement?

Think of it this way: before digital photography, you had film, which meant it was quite costly to practice your craft. Every time you took a photograph, you were wasting one piece of film and subtracting more $$ from your pocket. If you were serious about your photography, you were developing your own prints with liquid chemicals in a darkroom. Again, more cost, and also, even more important, more time. Developing in a dark room is extremely time-intensive. (Not to mention travel time to a darkroom if you weren’t lucky enough to have your own.) Finally, using film and a darkroom development process meant that to learn, you either had to have a great memory or you had to be taking notes on each shot. You needed to have an idea of how the light was the day you shot the picture, and how your camera was setup. If you didn’t remember these things, you probably had difficulty getting “better” shots, because you didn’t’ quite know what you were doing the last time you got a good one.

Now take digital photography, the technology that is advancing art:

  • Lower cost, lower barrier to entry
  • Less time, develop photos “instantly” via apps (Instagram/filters)
  • Better advanced tools, develop photos via “photoshop” save/iterate/retry
  • Exif data provides notes on every shot (Fstop, ISO, shutter speed, flash, lens)
  • Auto & “smart” cameras reduce learning curve

Now most of this is obvious, but the point is—apps like Instagram & Path are not fads, and they’re not a gimmick. They are technology that accelerates and simplifies photo “developing” and allows people with little experience and no training to easily make something beautiful.Creating beauty is never a fad, and it’ll never get old. I think these new photo apps are better understood as one step in the revolution that is digital photography right now. More importantly, they’re especially good at leading us “regular folk” to the artful side of photography.

As barriers to entry are reduced, and more and more people snap photos, it’s only natural that more & more people will become interested and from this activity, some of our new & greatest photographers will be born. Take +Trey Ratcliff as an example. Knowing Trey, I’d venture to guess that if it were not for digital photography, he would have never picked up a camera. (Trey’s photographs now hang in the Smithsonian, by the way.) Moreover, Trey helped to pioneer a technique and style of photography (now generally known as HDR) that allows for photos that arguably would not have even been possible without these advances in technology. This is also how technology is advancing art. It’s not just becoming easier to create, it’s actually allowing us to create new variations on an artform that were previously impossible in an analog film world.

Now as for Instagram and “photo filter” apps in general, it’s no surprise to me why these things are so popular. Instagram, the biggest of them all (10 million users in 1 year on only one platform—the iPhone), is tapping into the same elements that made MySpace so important to people in its heyday. (Remember, MySpace came up at a time when digital photography was just getting cheap enough to be ubiquitous among computer users: 2003-2004.) Instagram, like MySpace, is “email with pictures on steroids.” But does Instagram even let you send a message? Yes, by way of a photo and a caption. The point is that Instagram is not just photos—it’s communication between the photo taker and the audience. And even better, since it allows you to easily make your photos beautiful, you’re more likely to take photos, more likely to share photos, and it’s more likely that people will care to look at your photos.

When speaking of MySpace in 2005, my use of “steroids” was meant to refer to the fact that all your friends were in one place, it was “easy,” and when you got a message or comment from your friend and you’d see a little picture, that was more fun, personal and exciting than boring old email… Now today, that’s old news. Instagram’s “steroids” are not just its instant-sharing on-the-go “mobileness” and it’s not just that its filters are virtually pumping up the pace of sharing (because, suddenly, these photos are good enough that they are worth sharing). It’s also because your friends and followers are there giving you the instant feedback that they care about the photos you are sharing with them. You know you’ve got an audience with Instagram. Path’s “steroids” include a feature MySpace users begged for (“who’s viewed your profile”) in the way it shows each person who has visited to look at each picture. That “confirmation” of a message received is another important bit of communication—it’s like a virtual “10-4” which is important in a time when the proliferation of sharing makes you wonder if anyone ever sees the things you share. (For competitors, take note—this is a really important feature to people.)

Now am I saying that snaps of your friends, babies, puppies and (potentially LOL) cats should be called “art”? I’d submit that casual photos of your friends, memorable moments, and the things us “average” folk photograph is the “folk art” of the Internet age. To quote The Bullfinch Guide to Art History, “In contrast to fine art, folk art is primarily utilitarian and decorative rather than purely aesthetic.” Isn’t that what our “everyday” photos are? They have a utility—to preserve a memory, to make a friend laugh, and to show someone else what they’ve missed. They’re not purely aesthetic. You & me take photos as “folk art” like our great, great grandmother made patchwork quilts, or the Native American Iroquois made beaded belt designs that mnemonically chronicled tribal stories and legends. The belts told a story, like your “Facebook” timeline will in a few days. (Did you hear that Facebook is launching photo filters as well? Smart move Zuck!) Why do you think Dave Morin over at Path says, “Every choice we’ve made has been intentional to build a 30-year brand?”Because he knows… this activity is no fad—it’ll be around for the long haul.

So anyway, for you entrepreneurs out there, here’s a wakeup call: you want to ride one of the trends that still has massive room to grow? According to one estimate, 10 percent of all the photos ever taken were photgraphed in just the last year. (Worth the read here) We are just at the beginning of the photo explosion. A company designed to serve different aspects of this trend can still be a great idea, and will be for quite awhile, I suspect.

Post-script: Here’s a photo I took on a recent trip to China, using some of this new “filter” technology. Now I’m definitely an amateur, I only started shooting the week this was taken, and I’m only just beginning to make my baby steps towards something artistic. Personally, I know without the technology that enabled it, I would not have been anywhere near as satisfied with this picture. In fact, I probably wouldn’t have even shared it. Put simply: “yay technology” :-)