Food at the Fair and Hipstamatic war photos: The controversial aesthetics of information

"What I ate at the MN State Fair" by Brian Danaher
Illustration by Brian Danaher
“What I ate at the MN State Fair” by Brian Danaher

A few items today. Firstly, thanks to the FormFiftyFive blog, I have just learned about Minnesota designer Brian Danaher, whose website I have been perusing, and whose work I like very much. I especially like his “What I ate at the State Fair” series, which is literally just a series of paintings of whatever he ate at our great, and soon to be forthcoming, Minnesota get-together. (Items on a stick: grilled shrimp and pork chop.) Combined altogether, it sort of becomes an infographic of gustatory delight and misery, which is about as good a summary of the State Fair as anything I have every seen. Danaher seems to be scrupulously honest; I would not be able to resist painting a butter head sculpture, so that people would say, oh yeah, butter head sculpture — wait a second, he ate that? 

Speaking of infographics, they are poised right now to either become last year’s graphic design trend or one of the defining art forms of the information age. They’re so common now that people are starting to act annoyed by them, but this is always the case when an art form becomes prevalent enough to seem faddish. My bet is that we’re going to see a lot more of them, both because they are useful and and, when done well, an incredible amount of fun. Infographics have already made the move to separate themselves from the context that spawned them: newspapers, subway maps, technical writing, children’s educational books. Now, an infographic is likely to show up just about anywhere, and, in fact, there is a service about to launch online called Visua.ly that will allow anybody to create their own infographics. 

Another place colonized by information graphics: I have an app for my iPad called, simply, Infographics. It’s nothing but infographics, presented for your entertainment and edification. If you’ve ever wanted to see, say, factoids about how Twitter is used by various American cities, or how to defeat conterfeit money, or how your dad’s music influences your tastes, and you want that information presented visually, well, there’s an app for that.

The most interesting use I have seen of infographics this year, which points, I think, to the fact that the medium has potential for exploring the world in a more abstract way, is the work of Nicholas Felton. For several years, he’s been creating exquisite “annual reports,” filled with obsessive details about his own life: how much music he’s listened to, how many taxis he’s ridden, where he has eaten. This past year, his father died, and rather than produce an annual report about himself, Felton detailed his father’s life based on what the man left behind. It’s an extraordinary work, filled with unexpectedly poignant moments of pure data, such as when he notes his father’s appointment calendar entries:

Last record: October 13, 2010. A doctor’s appointment.

As I mentioned, not everybody likes infographics, and that’s to be expected. This is the information age, and so a lot of our aesthetic arguments are going to be about how information is presented. I participated in a bit of an online dustup a few days ago over what I think is an extraordinarily moving series of images published in Foreign Policy magazine and titled, unfortunately, “The War in Hipstamatic.” The photos are by Teru Kuwayama and Balazs Gardi, who have been embedded with troops in Afghanistan as part of an experiment in reporting that involves making use of social media tools, called Basetrack. Some of this reporting has involved taking photographs on the iPhone, which the photographers have then processed using an inexpensive iPhone app called Hipstamatic. To people of a certain generation, these photos are going to look decidedly retro, as Hipstamatic tries to impersonate the look of toy cameras from the ’60s and thereabouts. But to anybody who sees a lot of amateur smartphone photos — and that’s anybody who has a Facebook account — Hipstamatic is definitely part of the vernacular of our era.

Kuwayama explained his use of the iPhone in an interview, saying ‘Maybe this is counterintuitive, but I wanted to demonstrate that it isn’t about technology, and that journalism (whatever that means anymore) doesn’t require ‘professional’ gear. That said, I’ve been pretty amazed at how well the iPhone works — at least as a camera, I’ve never used it as a phone — but as cameras go, it might be the best piece of gear I’ve ever used.’ He explained that photojournalists have always used ‘off-the-shelf’ technology, and that the iPhone can be revolutionary for photojournalists. My sense is that this is thanks to its portability, its connection to social media, and its ability to immediately produce and transmit photographs. 

Hipstamatic is just one example of a photo-editing app offered for the iPhone, and it’s an appealing one, as it’s fast, its results are dependable, and it’s popular. I use a similar app for the photos I take for this column, called Instagram, which has similar filters, creates a similar toy-camera effect, and has an immediate social component that I like — photos I take are instantaneously shared with friends through the app, and their photos are shared with me, so I see a visual documentation of whatever they are up to at the moment it happens. It’s a bit like Twitter, but with images rather than 140 characters. But, of course, there cannot be new aesthetic experiments without new aesthetic revulsion, and there are those who think that taking photos of war using a smartphone and a cheap app mostly favored by people who take photos of Williamsburg rent parties is disrespectful. 

I emailed Teru Kuwayama to let him know that his use of Hipstamatic is generating this sort of controversy online, and he emailed back to thank me and to say that he’ll probably be writing a blog entry about the subject soon (he calls it the “hipstacontroversy”), rather than have to address the discussion in multiple online forums. I’ll be very curious to hear what he has to say — I do think the use of Hipstamatic, and similar toy-camera filters, will be a fad in journalism. We’ll see a lot of it over the next few years, and then news photographers will start using less obtrusive filters in photos they take on the iPhone — Kuwayama is right that the iPhone is certainly going to be part of the photojournalist’s arsenal, and we’re going to start seeing a lot of professional news photos taken with the device.

But Kuwayama can use Hipstamatic now, as his embedded photos from Afghanistan are a self-described experiment in journalism, and the technology is still so new, and there are still so few really good photo filters, that the distinctive look of a Hipstamatic photo is going to help call attention to the experiment. Most photojournalists are a bit more conservative, and favor photos that have a certain stylistic anonymity to them — too much artifice and they start feeling like they are offering an editorial opinion on their photograph, rather than simply presenting information.

I think this is sort of a pity, though. As long as the information in a photo isn’t misrepresented, a photographer is free to make aesthetic choices — and photographers do all the time, in how they frame a photo, and how they process it. These decisions aren’t as showy as what you get with Hipstamatic, but they’re there anyway. To my eyes, toy-camera filters are an equally legitimate aesthetic choice — but obviously I think so, as I use them. Particularly in this context, which looks to explore the war in Afghanistan through social media, the use of smartphones and cheap filter apps means documenting the war using the same sorts of tools that soldiers themselves use, and that strikes me as especially poignant. 

Additionally, I think the anonymity of most news photos work against them — they are often clean and professionally taken, without a hint of personality, and that has the unfortunate side-effect of making many of them look alike, and all look, to some extent and to my eyes, like a photo op, rather than a spontaneous moment captured by a witness. The use of these filters tosses away the anonymity, and, especially as they are tools for vernacular photography, really give me the sense that I am seeing a real moment captured by somebody who is actually there.

But context is everything. My take on this is probably informed by my interest in vernacular photography. I can see why, to others, these look stunty, or disrespectful; I am sure many of my photos look amateurish or overly precious for people whose sense of toy-camera filters is as a hipster affectation. And perhaps they are — I am nothing if not overly precious.

I’ll probably start adding infographics to my column, once I figure out how to make them. That may annoy some people too. C’est la vie, and c’est l’âge de l’information.

And I just slipped into French for no good reason at all. I’m sure some people find that annoying.

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