The use of Instagram’s effect filters has always attracted criticism, and two recent blog posts highlight this. In ‘Distorting Memories’ Alex Morris suggests that these filters distort our memories of the moments captured in photographs. In ‘Thoughts on Instagram’ Damon Charles argues that the ubiquitous use of these filters cheapens the effect of photographs actually taken in the periods associated with them.
The problem with Alex‘s argument is that it is based on the notion that memories are recollections of reality, and therefore photographs should faithfully capture that reality so as to not distort those memories.
An argument on the nature of “reality” could get messy, so I’m going to avoid it as much as possible, except to say that even if there was something as straightforward as objective reality, then a two-dimensional image would certainly not be a representation of it. As for memory – well, compare the accounts of different witnesses at a crime scene to see just how unreliable it is.
More crucially, neither memory nor photography are concerned with reality, they are concerned with truth.
Memories are stories, ones that we write and re-write continually, fictionalising past events in order to make sense of our lives. In the same way that a dramatised movie based on real events is able to tell us more about the truth of those events than any documentary, so our fictionalised memories speak to us of the truth of our past.
Likewise, though based on real events, photography is not an attempt to capture reality – it is again an attempt to tell the truth of that moment. A “true story” that we can then read to ourselves time and again for years to come, and one which feeds into our memories and the grand narrative of our life.
It stands to reason then that a filtered image, with artificial camera effects applied, is no less capable of telling a story – a truthful story – than an unaugmented one.
For example, there are two images of my own that spring to mind. Neither are remarkable from a technical or artistic point of view, but both are special to me – and crucially much of that specialness results from the filters applied.
The first is of my daughter, taken in our neighbourhood park. Here the Instagram’s filter diffuse glow accentuates the haziness of that summer evening, bringing to mind those mythical, golden summers every childhood is played out in. This, and the effect of the filter simulating the aesthetic of photos taken during own childhood, combine in subtle ways to connect a childhood lost and a childhood lived, adding a poignancy and a strange kind of nostalgia for a recent event.
(This is where I disagree with Damon , as I believe that it is precisely that moment when the “line between that time and contemporary artifice” is blurred that things get interesting, that new meanings emerge – but then I am a card-carrying postmodernist).
The second image is of my son, taken at a First World War memorial in Cardiff. The simulated deterioration of the footage places it in the period the memorial commemorates, and additionally makes the baby’s features unrecognisable. He is my son, yet he could be anyone’s son, any one of the thousands of sons who lost a father in that terrible war. It has a resonance that spans generations, one created entirely from the coincidence of filter and place of filming. The image is of a mundane event – my son crying to be let out of his pram – but the filtered image (in this case a still from a film taken with the ’8mm’ app) transforms it into something else.
Photography is accident – a coincidence of place, time, and light. Until a few years ago other elements were in that mix, such as the mechanical flaws of the camera and the chemical development process. In the digital age, we’ve lost those ingredients but we’ve gained new ones, and yes, Instagram filters are one of them. For every hundred photographs you apply a filter to, ninety-nine will probably not be improved in any way. But every now and again, that coincidence of filter and subject, or filter and composition, stumbles upon something special.