On Death and Resurrection in the Time of Instagram

Breaking News from Carmel, California:

Ansel Adams’ corpse has risen from it’s grave today and strangled an Instagram model to death during a photoshoot for a green tea extract company somewhere outside Malibu. Sources say the remains of the legendary photographic laureate climbed from their final resting place this afternoon in response to an obscure, yet to be verified incantation found carved on a cave wall in the high country of Yosemite: 

“All those who affront the purity of photography must reap the whirlwind and despair”.

According to Bethsheba Roundtree of Fresno, CA, who was the first to discover the bizarre verse while vacationing in the Valley, “I thought it was some kind of graffiti from one of them hippies until I read it off to Vernon (her husband). Then the ground started to shake and made me drop my snow cone and Vernon’s pacemaker starting acting up so we got back to the camper as quick as we could. Now they’ve got it all taped off and I can’t get back in to find my flip-flop.” 

This report comes in the wake of the massive wave of unexplained disappearances of popular social media analog photography aficionados who’s work had recently been called into question for “not really being film”.

More on this story as it develops.

>A FPNA* report<

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Strange Times

A question is posed. Whether this question is consciously acknowledged by the mainstream photographic community (if there is such a thing) the reality lingers that there is indeed a certain fraction within the greater whole of popular photography that, for one demented reason or another, has found it beneficial to replicate, fake, bamboozle, hoodwink, and otherwise pull the wool over the eyes of those whole truly do aspire to perpetuate the weird and slimy adoration of film and non-digital photographic practices.

This will be a brief and brutal postulation of the reasons why.

We’ve reached a weird sort of dimension when it comes to the idea of what photography is, what it’s worth, and why any of us should give a damn. Does the way we make a photograph matter? Does the camera matter? The lens?

According to some recent revelations, apparently it does. And this is not some pretentious gallery in some stuffy art district we’re talking about here where one might be forgiven in thinking that “the method matters”. In those situations, there is, for better or worse, a certain greasy pedigree which must be lived up to in order for the “work” to be considered “the work” and not just pictures. Prices to match. But all that’s beside the point.

The strangeness I’m referring to is so meaningless at face value that one struggles to even wrap their minds around the idea that someone might go through the trouble of doing it at all.

My attention first peaked when I happened to notice some images of a photographer I used to follow on Instagram. Beautiful photographs, in both film and digital mediums. Lots of photos of them making pictures with film cameras. Tens of thousands of followers. Recognized throughout the photographic community as a credible and competent professional. In other words, looked up to by many. Then, like a bolt blasted down from the Gods, my eyes snagged on something that felt “off”…”spurious”… possibly even “askew”.

Some might go as far as to call it “a bit fucky”.

Many of the “film photos”, which appear as full-frame scans complete with frame borders included (you know the kind) seemed to have repeating, identical frame numbers.

What was this? Was I wrong?

After looking through the photographer’s feed, who will remain nameless for reasons I can’t determine…but let’s just call him Crett Burry, I noticed more and more repeating frames housing many different photos. There were even double exposures, stated as captured on film, which were also sporting these same duplicated borders.

Well hell, someone is not being totally transparent about their photographs on social media. Woopdido. Shocking, I know. So what, right? 99.99987% of the time this sort of sad occurrence would slide right under my shoes without a care. Believe it or not, as much as this random bit of lofty-minded prose might cause the gentle reader to believe that I’m some sort of whistleblower or weeping photographic martyr, I honestly couldn’t give two damns what other people do. But then…oh reader…but then…

…I began going through the comments on some of the said photos, glowing and extolling comments from Instagrammers praising the film work. Saying things about how they wished their film photographs could look this good, how they know they could never reach this level of perfection. Asking questions about the processes used, the cameras and the lens…AND GETTING ANSWERS. Now, here’s where the waters get truly muddy.

Was I right that these so-called film images could possibly be, well, not? Was this something I was wrong about? Had my perceptions been dulled through years of…nevermind. These are all valid concerns then as they continue to be now.

To validate my suspicions, I broached several other fellow film photographers who I respect, and whose technical opinions, especially when taken as a whole, is as good as Gospel. I showed them the images in question. Asking them each only if they noticed anything “odd”. Without fail, virtually all of them immediately pointed out the repeating frame numbers. Some go as far as to question certain technical points about a few of the images which I hadn’t even noticed. To my surprise, a few of them even relayed instances of other photographers, some quite-well known, in whose feeds they happened to notice certain “irregularities”.

So, it turned out I wasn’t actually crazy. Well, let’s not go that far, but at the very least I was now assured that what I thought I was seeing truly was an anomaly.

I kept thinking about myself. That’s right. Me. Not myself in the present tense but the younger me, the more handsome me, the me who I saw in many of the commenters on these brilliant photos which now, could at least be questioned in their veracity as the product of a film stock. The near-hopeless enthusiasm they expressed as they graded their own film photography to be less important because it didn’t meet what they saw as the true potential of the medium.

This was wrong.

I care nothing about Crett Burry. Him, his work, what cameras he uses or doesn’t use.

I. Do. Not. Care.

And that goes for any other photographer for that matter. “You do you” is a mantra sung throughout my halls. Hell, I’m even somewhat of a militantly unpretentious film addict. I happen to believe there is no true “film look”, especially in the realm of digital scanning and printing of negatives (and positives). There are just too many variables, too many ways to change things. This is even true if you happen to be one of those damn dirty darkroom printers, too. Time, temperature, stock ages of film and paper, viewing light…chemical exhaustion, it all changes how the final cake is baked.

It’s crucial for me to communicate this aspect of my gripe accurately, dear reader, because it’s important for me to know, that you know, that I know you know, that the issue here is not one person’s opinion of how things should be done. No no, my reasons lie in taking a firm stance against the gross indifference of creative profiteering.

Photography has no inherent worth until we place that worth upon it via emotional attachment and motivation. In the same vein, a feeling of inadequateness stirs in the mind of aspiring picture makers when they view work from other photographers they respect without realizing that work has potentially been presented falsely. It’s the photographic equivalent of the Barbie Doll. It portrays an unrealistic idea of what can be achieved through film photography, or at least does not truthfully represent the full measure of it’s merit to those who feel they’re not good enough because their own film work doesn’t look like this or that.

Wait. Where was I? Ah yes, reality.

A Point Missed

What’s to be done? Well, not much, at least not in the grand scheme. But for me, in this singular situation, I took the bucket right to the source.

Let the person speak for themselves. Who knows, even after all this I might still be wrong about the entire thing. Give the man a chance to confirm if what I had noticed was correct and, if I was correct, offer any thoughts as to why he chooses to present his work in this way.

So, I sent a message to him on Instagram. I received an immediate, courteous and polite response.

Spoiler alert…I wasn’t wrong.

The person confirmed that the frames were indeed added to the images in Photoshop from, as he states, his own templates which he has scanned previously. His explanation was that this is done to achieve the “…sharpest scanned image but still have the frames.”

After a bit of discussion, I brought up the possibility that…let’s just call it what it is…the possibility that the images could have been made with a digital camera, not a film camera, and had the frames added just as easily.

I was then assured that the photos were indeed made on the film stocks indicated by the template frames which were placed on the images in Photoshop.

Finally, I mentioned the possible implications involving how other, potentially aspiring film photographers could envision his works as an impossibly unattainable goal when taken out of context, to which I received the following response:

“I explained why I do it and why it isn’t a big deal. It’s not my responsibility to represent anything any particular way – I’m just taking pictures and posting them on Instagram.”

And you know what, he’s right.

It’s not his responsibility to represent his work in any way other than how he chooses. Honestly, a nice guy. His answers left me a bit confused, but still a nice guy nonetheless. He received an awkward question and he answered it, which is all that can be expected from anyone.

Resurrection

The issue has never been about dictating how photographers should present their photographs. This is social media, Instagram no less; the scrollable cesspool where creative expression goes to die. Instead, it’s a question of ethicacy, which in a perfect world, should transcend any and all platforms. Answering questions about how a film photograph was made yet somehow omitting the fact that it has, at the very least, been presented with a virtual film frame border does not breed a well lit personage for anyone. And after learning that this is far from an isolated occurrence leaves me even more depressed and confused about the landscape we are cultivating for the future of photography.

Has it ever been enough to make a photograph which people enjoyed to look at on a wall, on a screen, in a book? Or has there always been an undercurrent of propriety and right direction that should be taken to reach an ultimate end? No matter the answer, there is admittedly an odd breeze blowing through the digital trees of today. So-called “antiquated” photographic practices being leveraged to lend…to lend what? Credibility? Technical admiration? I sit and wonder about these things.

Is photography dead? Have we killed it? These are heavy questions to consider as we hurtle through space on this big rock. It seems as if every generation of camera artists have faced similar existential circumstances. The realists hated the pictorialists. Color film was seen as “unprofessional”. Digital cameras were for children. Your digital camera HAD to be full-frame.

Now, gentle reader, here we are talking about whether it matters if a digitized non-digital image is being passed off as a film photo on a commercialized picture sharing application.

And the future was looking so bright.

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*This is, of course, a complete work of fiction.

**Fake Photography News Association

Author: Adam Welch-Photographist

Photomaker, author, adventurer, educator, and self-professed bacon addict. You can usually find me on some distant trail making photographs or at my computer writing about all the elegant madness that is photography.  Pick up a copy of my new photo book of wild pony portraits, Faces of Grayson.

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