Who’s Your Dada?

This isn't just another stupid Instagram rant


Let me say this right at the outset. This is not another high and mighty rant against cell phone cameras, Instagram, “art” filters, Lightroom presets, etc. You’re not about to read another gripe about everything that photography has become in the twenty-first century, even though I was afraid that’s what it would sound like when I started writing this.

I actually thought I had this all figured out. I actually thought I knew how I felt about all that low rent, push button nonsense that shows up on my Facebook news feed every few seconds (whoops, that slipped out — sorry).

To illustrate the worn-out parable I like to use to explain why my nose is always in such an elevated orientation whenever I talk about Instagram, I even recruited two of my students, Sarah and Jackie, to dress up in their finest worn out jeans for me. I wanted to create my own edgy little filter effect, complete with a 4×5 Ektachrome film edge so that you would all think that I am a fine art purist who never crops my work. I’m not, but I do like to tell stories, so here goes…

sears-catalog-1958-spring_0469Those of us of a certain age remember what blue jeans used to be like. Worn right off the rack, they appeared to be made of some sort of ballistic cotton that could stop a small-caliber rifle round, and were so stiff that we couldn’t bend our knees in them for the first few weeks. We bought them six inches too long because, of course, they would shrink when first washed and because they would last so long that we would “grow into them”.

But we loved our jeans. We mourned their loss when, years later, time and Tide inevitably reduced them to a series of holes held together by mere threads.

Nowadays, of course, we usually don’t just buy jeans, we buy “fashion jeans”. We buy them distressed, weathered, acid-washed, stone washed, sandblasted, belt-sanded and otherwise intentionally worn the hell out.

Jeans used to be a journey, not a destination; a promise, not a product. In the way they shrank, faded, and eventually ripped and disintegrated, they reflected the accumulation of our life’s adventures, our authentic experience.

But like so much else in our post-modern smorgasbord of infinite choice and empty meaning, fashion jeans have traded the journey for the destination, the promise for the product. We want our jeans, and perhaps by extension ourselves, to look like they’ve been somewhere without the inconvenience of actually having to go there. We want them to look that way NOW and at whatever cost. With our fashion jeans, we are buying our own back story.

That’s how I have always regarded the manufactured character of Instagram and its kissin’ cousins. Authenticity seems to have become aspirational instead of just a state of being that exists for no other reason than that it can’t exist any other way. Sound familiar?

I usually get my head handed to me every time I go down this road, so don’t bother telling me I’m an idiot. As I’m about to show you, I have someone in-house who reminds me of that on a regular basis.

A couple of weeks ago, my significant other and I climbed Mount Washington in New Hampshire. Jenny is a highly accomplished designer as well as a very talented amateur photographer. All the way up those 6,288 feet, she shot pictures with her iPhone and posted them to Facebook. It was fun, because it was almost as if our friends were making the hike with us (without the inconvenience of having to break a sweat, come to think of it…) But I shot my RAW files with a high quality point and shoot camera, a Canon G11, and processed them later.

Mount Washington Cog Railroad

After nearly five hours of steady uphill trudgery, we reached the rocky summit in a driving microburst of rain and hail. Luckily, the highest mountain in the Northeastern US is a popular tourist trap as well as a rugged backcountry destination. We found facilities and a number of exit strategies to get off the mountain safely. Ninety dollars scored us the last two downbound spots on the most unique option, the kitschy Mount Washington Cog Railway.

Driving back to our hotel about an hour later, Jenny shot a picture through the windshield of the car as rain pelted the glass. She pushed and poked at it for a few minutes on the screen of her iPhone, then held it up for me to behold.


“Check this out” she announced.

“Is that Instagram?” I asked carefully, fearful of what I was about to step in.

“It is. Kinda looks like I shot it with a Holga, doesn’t it?”

“Well, it sort of looks like that, soft and vignetted at the edges… I guess one question I would ask myself is, ‘do I want to make my digital images LOOK like they were shot with a Holga, or do I want the experience of actually SHOOTING with a Holga?’ For me, it’s always been the latter.”

monte_xmasThen I gave her the little speech on the subject that I’ve repeated so many times. I should have known better.

“I’ve always tried to make the point with my students that a Holga is the ultimate ‘point and pray’ camera. It delivers no guarantees but lots of surprises, exactly the opposite of what should be coming out of your digital camera or your phone. A Holga image looks the way it does because it just can’t look any other way.”

“Now, to my pea brain at least, that is a whole lot different than taking an extremely high quality digital image (which, incidentally, also looks the way it does because of the tool that made it) and running it through a software filter designed to make it look like something it isn’t. Pictures shot with a real Holga and with a Holga filter in Instagram both have character, maybe even similar character, but from a process standpoint (and process is really what this all comes down to) one is what it is and the other is what it isn’t. Or it is what it wants to be, not what it has to be…”

images“You’re an idiot” she said. “And I’m not one of your students, so don’t even start. That’s a cool shot. It’s two-thousand-freaking-thirteen, old man. Who cares how I made it?”

“It is a cool shot…” I conceded.

“Oh, please. Just drive.” We rode in silence the rest of the way to the hotel, which gave me some time to really think about the whole thing.

And suddenly, I saw her point. She’s right. It’s two-thousand-freaking-thirteen. Who cares how we make our pictures nowadays?

The problem is, this old man remembers a time (and it wasn’t all that long ago) when being a photographer meant being both an artist and a craftsperson as well as a technician. We didn’t have Facebook or Flickr or Instagram, so if we wanted to show or share our work we made tangible things called prints. Any “style” we lent to our work resulted from the premeditated effect of light and chemistry on a sensitized surface.

Many thought that what some of us made was a representation of truth, many others disagreed, but few could argue with the fact that what we made was true. It reflected the nature of our tools, our materials, our process, our level of commitment and our intellect (or lack thereof). Can we say the same about being a photographer in the digital age?

At the risk of sounding like a hypocrite as well as an idiot, I believe the answer is “YES”.  All one has to do is to look carefully at the parallels between any number of turning points throughout the history of photography and the truly remarkable work that is being produced today using both traditional and cutting edge techniques and technologies, including cell phones and Instagram.

For instance, in the early decades of the twentieth century, avant-garde artist and photographer Man Ray and other proponents of the anarchic art movement Dada were willing to throw out any convention as a rejection of war, conservative politics, capitalism, art elitists, and just about everything else. In doing so, they managed to prove that anything is art and nothing is art, while at the same time unintentionally instigating big new aesthetic shifts.

Seen in that light, could all those porkpie-hatted hipsters be on to something, pointing their iPhones and Instagram filters at anything and everything and their middle fingers at those of us who went through our own cool fads like leisure suits, disco, Bee Gees tattoos and Polaroid transfers? I mean, Dada led to the Surrealists, for crying out loud, and disco led to the Sex Pistols! Who knows where the eventual rejection of hipsterism might lead us?


Faking It, the astonishingly enlightening survey of pre-Photoshop image manipulation published last year in conjunction with the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s same-named exhibition (sponsored by Adobe, interestingly), puts the topic into historical context and the notion of photographic “purity” to rest, maybe even once and for all. In the words of one reviewer, “the old adage ‘the camera does not lie’ is one of photography’s great fictions”.

We’ve always said that it doesn’t matter what kind of camera one uses to make a photograph. We’ve always said that there’s no such thing as an unmanipulated photograph. Was Ansel Adams, previsualizing his photographs with multiple spot meter readings (only to then dodge and burn the living daylights out of them in the darkroom) really all that different than his friend Jerry Uelsmann postvisualizing his with multiple enlargers?


A quick look at Jerry’s work while flipping through the pages of Faking It makes today’s Photoshop gimmickry look more like a logical evolutionary step forward, and less like the revolutionary lurch into a no-holds-barred future we used to think it was. The book even presents Adams’ iconic Moonrise Over Hernandez, NM both in its raw and “performed” state, proving once again that even one of the widely perceived purest of purists always pulled out all the stops to execute his vision.

Folks will come down on either side of this debate over whether too many photographers, amateurs, artists and pros alike, try on different pushbutton prepackaged effects the same way they might try on different pairs of intentionally worn out jeans. “Does this filter make my butt look cross-processed? It doesn’t? How about this one?” To me, though, the whole thing feels more like fashion than photography, and that’s a fickle footrace I’ve always chosen to watch from the sidelines.

But even though Instagram and its offshoots have blurred the line between brilliance and BS like it’s never been gaussian blurred before, great photography across all genres has never been greater than it is right now. Great photography has always been a very, very small subset of the total volume of work produced. Everything else has always been just that– everything else.

But those Instagram pictures sure do look cool, don’t they?

I should go now. My new jeans are in the dryer.

  • malixe

    I’ve made the argument elsewhere that there are two kinds of photographers today– the ones that think the process is as important as the result, and the ones who think the result is the only important thing. While I frequently do enjoy the process, I put myself squarely in the latter camp. I started out in a traditional darkroom, and I remember the red lights, the acrid smell of stop bath, and watching a blank sheet of photo paper slide into the developer tray and slowly start to turn into something magical. It was great, and I have fond memories of the experience, but I don’t miss it that much. I found I could get pretty close to the same rush watching a finished print churning its way out of my inkjet printer, or getting compliments and ratings after I post it to 500PX or elsewhere.

    Ultimately, I and I think most people, really don’t *care* that you grind your own photo chemicals with a mortar and pestle, develop your prints in only the purest mountain stream water and design and polish your own camera lenses. Whatever, if that’s what makes you happy then it’s what you should do, certainly. But I’m interested in what you can show me as a result. I’ve gotten so many folks that see me out with a camera somewhere and want to stop and talk to me about ‘what camera’, ‘what lens’, ‘what technology’ and tell me all about theirs. It’s a geek thing, generally a boy thing, and I’ll make a little time for it because I enjoy it too— but the only thing I’m really interested in ultimately is, “What’s in your portfolio?” “What do you have hanging on your wall?” Because if that’s not interesting or exciting or visually appealing in some way, who really gives a *$%!@ how you got it?

  • shootwhatyoulike

    Good article. Anyone who argues that taking the difficult road to the same outcome is the better option is a fool. Both roads are valid, but thinking you deserve more credibility for choosing the difficult process is missing the point. And anyone who says they just can’t get the same look from digital hasn’t learnt to use their software properly. The value in anything ‘handmade’ is in the process, and generally has no benefit for the consumer, there is only a personal gain if you enjoy the challenge of the complex journey, but there is also personal gain to be found in embracing new ways of doing old things.

  • photovivie

    I really enjoyed to read this article! Even it’s hard for me to read an article with this length in english!

    Thank you for this great article!

  • armorfoto

    You’re welcome- thanks for reading!

  • pgb0517

    I work some of my shots, especially people shots, to death in Photoshop to help me learn what would make them better so the next time I get behind the camera, I’m that much closer to getting it the way I like it on the sensor. I want to get better at lighting and color so I don’t have to rely on Photoshop so much.

  • Nate Parker

    Wicked good one- and I’m right there with ya on the jeans thing! What’s up with that!

  • Burnin Biomass

    While I’m not a fan of a lot of filters, to me its the image you get period, not how you got it. If how you got the image is important for the viewer to know, you are adding performance art to your image (not saying that’s always wrong, just a little different).


    Use whatever tools you have access to, light is both particles & waves – is one more valid, or artistic than the other?


    Also very much agree with & enjoyed shootwhatyoulike’s reply.

  • ennuipoet

    I know you are married and everything, but I still think I love you :) I seriously wish I’d written this!

  • Jon Woodbury

    Sometimes, I’m a process person but not even to an end. I own dozens of cameras that I really love to shoot, but the 50 undeveloped rolls of film on my desk will attest that the result obviously isn’t the point. When I want a certain experience, I pull out one of my myriad cameras and shoot it for fun. When I want results, my Galaxy S4 and 5D mk III get there in possibly the most efficient way in the history of photography. Both processes are incredibly satisfying. Both are artistic. I have tried mixing the two mindsets with very little success. Either I’m working and it’s results time, or I’m in hobby mode and the process is the end in and of itself. I often bring the hobby cameras to “work” only to get to the end of the shoot and realize I’d forgotten about them completely. I have also taken my 5D3 on vacation and realized I had shot the entire time with a Minolta 110 SLR. Is there a psychologist in the house? Is this multiple personality disorder? Do I have to resent myself?

  • Jon Woodbury

    Truth-be-told, I’d bet that less than 30% of the most ardent film fanatics could even tell the difference between two random frames, one shot on film, the other digital and processed with VSCO. I could be wrong but I’m not convinced that I could distinguish between them.

  • armorfoto

    Now that’s an unexpected response! Thank you! I’m glad you like what I wrote, and I’m happy you get it. Judging from most of the comments here, it seems that folks are reading a different essay than I wrote. But, I suppose that’s actually the point of the whole thing.

  • San Diego Portrait

    Interesting perspectives.

  • Richard Weiner

    So, it is the result and not the process that counts? I have no disagreement with that. But sometimes it’s good to have your hands fully into the process if for no other reason than the satisfaction of accomplishing what you wanted after travelling through the various possibilities of screwing up and not being able to undo or backspace. However I would like to get a tintype look to an image without the heartache of the long learning curve or the dangerous chemicals I would have to expose myself to. So applying an app that gets me there is fine by me. Still there is the urge to get my hands in the solutions and tempt fate. Then I think better of that! :-)

  • Thomas Lawn

    This is only true if the only film you’re experienced with is expeired Neopan 1600 pushed to 6400. Or whatever they did to Portra 400 NC to make it look anything less than the beautiful, smooth, subtle film it is. VSCO looks like someone who maybe took a film class at a community college back in the early 2000’s is trying to make prints in their bathroom. Which, given who is making the VSCO presets and the price of rent in Brooklyn, is totally possible.

  • pxlcruncher

    Very nice article. Says everything I’ve ever thought about Instagram.

  • Rolento Ong

    said pretty much what i wanted to say all these years…i still shoot film for my very personal project and did an exhibition 2 years ago from 6×6 negs printing to 1metre x 1 metre canvas prints. this is probably why people still shoot films i think; when you do not just want your work to be shown on a screen but on a huge wall where people can scrutinize it with their eyes 5cm away and 5 metres away. this is probably the only time people starts to ask “how did you do it”, and the process begins to interest them. but then, there is always digital backs now too so…

  • Tony

    I think the key distinction between an artist-produced image and a snapshot is the viewer’s relationship to the producer. I’ll expect an artist to have thought through the process, shot and chosen initial images that’ll work with the process and then laboured over each image. I would then expect most of those final images to be good and worth spending time over. Most stuff pushed through Instagram has inappropriate filters applied to simple images; they’d have looked better left alone. I like ’cool images’ as much as the next person but I’ll go to an artist if I want a whole set of them, whether she has laboured away in a darkroom, on a computer or even out in the field with her Instagram-enabled iPhone.

  • nope

    There’s still an exciting art and a process available to us, it just doesn’t involve anything to do with photos that look like they were made 40 years ago – regardless of whether you use a Holga or an Instagram filter to make them. Art itself is always being pushed forward by the tools, and the tools are always being pushed forward by the art. Why are we arguing over images that are embedded in a mid 20th century aesthetic anyway? When we have 20 or 30 million pixels (or more) to play with? Come on.

  • David Becker

    I think the fashion conclusion is dead-on. A lot of the appeal of those Instagram filters is novelty — you saw that look very seldom in the pre-Instagram days, so it looks edgy and says something about you as the arty iconclast. Apply it to every third photo you see on the interwebs, however, and it gets boring and makes you rethink the value of fidelity. As sure as preppie followed punk, I bet some return to “straight photography” is on the way.

  • Michael D

    I’d be more tolerant of your idea of what photography should be if you hadn’t started right out attacking my idea of what photography should be (having the picture in your mind sufficiently well that you didn’t have to later try to crop a real picture out of the meaningless mess you initially shot.)

  • armorfoto

    interesting take on what I wrote- I think if you read it again, you’ll find that we’re pretty much on the same page.

  • armorfoto

    I agree completely- that’s not what we’re arguing. Much of Instagram and push button filtering of digital files is about making photography self-referential- we’re trying to make digital images look like they were shot 20, 30, 40 years ago using simulations of trendy processes that were in fashion then. I’m completely on your side of the debate- digital is a new thing, with its own tools and aesthetics, and I’ve never understood why we keep wanting it to look like something it’s not.

  • armorfoto

    I think what so many folks are missing are the concept of intention and commitment, not so much fidelity, or straight photography, or 40 year old aesthetics. Obviously, I agree with the fashion analogy, but art and fashion have always been linked to one extent or another.

  • Shootwhatyoulike

    HAHAHA, what a ridiculous concept. Yes it is nice to get the shot in camera, no crop, exposure change, or other fiddling needed. And any one who has shot for a long time will find they crop less often and less dramatically over time. But to say never cropping is better, even if you accidentally framed too wide ‘in the moment’, is stupid. Should a tailor refuse to take in your newly measured suit because he is a fashion purist, and you should have to wear a baggy suit as his ‘happy accident’. I certainly hope you aren’t shooting weddings and refusing to crop shots at the clients request? how painful for them.

    There is nothing wrong with cropping or not cropping in your personal work, but to be intolerant of people who crop, or use instagram, is a sure sign that you need to open your mind and accept(or be more tolerant of) other peoples ways of doing things.

  • dwbl

    Ironically: jeans, in the dryer? Talk about process. Oh wait, was that a joke? Good one.

    Very good write up though, well written, and concedes where it should.