Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Much ado about Instagram, part 1

Ever since Facebook spent 1 billion to acquire Instagram, it seems everyone must do a post on it. I'm pretty sure that if you have a photoblog and don't do an Instagram post, then you are automatically chosen to represent your district in the reaping. Since my archery skills aren't what they were at my 12th birthday party, I'm afraid I'm going to have to do a post.

First, a disclaimer: I have actually never used Instagram, so my knowledge of it comes from reading, from Pinterest, and from Shep, who cuts my hair.

So, what is Instagram? kidding. sort of.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but it's two things: 1. a free app to make your crappy cell phone photos look vintagey and 2. a visually-based social network

A lot of people I have read tend to focus only on the first part, and here's the gist of what they say:
Instagram gives digital photos the look of analog photos, often exaggerating flaws such as lens aberrations, fading, and color casts because either:
a ) We live in a soulless digital world, walking among the decades-old ruins we inherited from poststructuralist theorists, eviscerated of every last shred of analog "authenticity." Those tortured, yellowed pixels are the visual manifestation of our 21st century mal du siècle
b )  We "filter" our lives, so Instagram helps us enact some sort of "meta-commentary" by adopting a set of aesthetic commonplaces for various declensions of nostalgia. According to the Atlantic, for example, the Nashville filter is for "ironic nostalgia," the 1977 filter is for "in-your-face nostalgia" and the Lord Kelvin filter is for "actual nostalgia."
OR simply, 
c ) Cell phone photos are by nature ugly, and Instagram helps them look cool. 
One of the problems with choice "a" is that it tends to ignore the long history of nostalgia. We didn't suddenly get nostalgic when computers were invented. Trust me, I'm restraining myself from giving the entire history of nostalgia here. I spent 5 years putting together an exhibit called "Nostalgia & Technology" and I'm writing a book on the topic that deals with everything from sewing machines to cell phones (if you're inclined to read academic stuff, feel free to check out my article in the Journal of Popular Culture. It's fairly readable, considering the genre.) But where was I? Oh yeah, the problem of assuming that we suddenly got nostalgic. Did anyone out there see Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris? (If you didn't, you should, it's very charming). Was I the only one who was not shocked to learn that someone in the roaring twenties might think that the belle époque was better (and so on, into the past)? We love past-ness. Choice "a" only gets interesting when you get into specifics—you know, compare/contrast with all of the other historical examples of nostalgia.

Choice "b" ventures even more into academic territory, and I have to admit that I would love to read someone who has really developed that "take" on it. In her Buzzfeed article (my favorite so far), Amanda Petrusich starts to go there. When people get into "meta" this and "meta" that, there's always the danger of completely losing your audience, or coming across as pretentious, or looking like a grad student who just deciphered Frederic Jameson's obscurantist prose for the first time.

Choice "c" is what most people, including Instagram (co)founder Kevin Systrom. In part 2 (next time), I'll get into some of the things I learned from watching the 46 minute interview on Youtube. Until then, check out Stuff Instagramers Say:

Monday, April 23, 2012

Upgrade your camera strap

Definitely NOT me sporting the Black Rapid RS-sport 2

I don't know why it took me so long to use something other than the dumb strap that came with my camera. And why on earth can't Canon be bothered to ship something more comfortable with a $2700 camera body? Well, I finally thought about  upgrading my camera strap (and by "thought about," I mean, obsessively researched reviews, forums, youtube videos, everything)  and decided that the Black Rapid was the best choice for me. I got one for Christmas, but didn't take the time to make the switch until my trip to Boston recently. Well, at the risk of sounding like some kind of infomercial, I have to say that IT WAS AMAZING! I had no idea that I could walk around all day with a 5D Mark II and a massive 70-200mm lens and not end up with a sore neck. I'm not going to go through my entire decision process and every little feature, but here are some of the main reasons I chose it and love it:
  • No matter how comfy the material, anything hanging from your neck is going to take its toll. This gets the camera off your neck.
  • I'm not a nature photographer, and I refuse to walk around Paris looking like I work for Field and Stream. This camera strap (I'll get to that under-the-arm thing in a minute) looks either like you're carrying a messenger bag or you're packing heat—both acceptable looks for a big city in my book.
  • I do street photography, so I love the "rapid" part of this strap. You can grab the camera, quickly slide it up to take a photo, and then slide it back down to your side until you need it again. It is a lot more discreet to have your camera at your side (or just behind your arm works great) than to have it protruding like a freshly hatched alien in the middle of your chest.
  • These nifty little clip thingies make it easy to control where you want the camera to hang. Have you ever leaned forward with your camera around your neck and had it lurch forward like it's going to hit something? Well, with this strap, you decide where you want the camera to be and it stays there. You can quickly adjust it (like in 1 second), so sometimes I'd make it hang just behind my arm, other times in front. Sometimes I'd want it locked in place, and others, I want it to be free.
  • Don't ask me how, but it seems to balance the weight in a way that make you almost forget that the camera is there.  I walked around all day with it on, and I just couldn't believe easy it was.
  • It's secure. The strap screws into your tripod mount, so you don't have two straps coming up the sides of your camera. And yes, it stays there. It does not get loose (I'm plenty paranoid, so I monitored it closely). Also, that underarm strap on the RS-sport gives extra security. Nobody can grab your camera and run unless they want to drag your entire body along with them.
Possible concerns?
  • Is that underarm strap comfortable? Yes, because you can adjust it how you want. I like the extra security of the underarm part, and I think it makes everything even more stable. There are other Black Rapid models and they don't all have that strap, so it just depends on your needs. My wife says she wouldn't want the underarm strap, so she'd probably prefer something like the popular RS-7 or maybe the women's strap.
  • What if you're not wearing just a t-shirt? In Boston, I had a cardigan on (unbuttoned) over it and it hid most of the strap. I could do the same thing with a jacket.
  • It screws into the tripod mount? But I need my tripod mount! That was almost a deal breaker for me, but then I remembered that I rarely use a tripod. It turns out the Black Rapid makes  a fastener (for $17.95) that works with Manfrotto quick release plates that eliminates the problem of switching, but I haven't tried it.
There are other similar straps out there (like the one Photojojo sells for $44 as opposed to my RS-sport 2 for $69) but all the research I did led me back to Black Rapid. They're the original, and they focus just on camera straps. They even have a harness for two cameras that looks like you just dropped out of the sky (you wouldn't catch me dead in it, but then, I hate back packs). The bulkier models have add-ons for carrying memory cards, cell phones, nuclear launch codes, whatever.  

Well, that was more than I planned on writing, but I guess happy customers = free advertising. Finally, let me end with a Youtube video about the RS-7—the most popular one, I think. It's wider than the sport and it doesn't have the underarm strap that I like.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Not-Instagram photos from Boston

As a photoblogger, I feel like I should have immediately jumped on the media circus train about Facebook's billion dollar deal (or $1.23 billion) to acquire Instagram. I've never used Instagram, so I'm not even sure how it works as far as the social network part goes, but like most people, I am well acquainted with that faux-vintage Instagram look. More often than not, serious photographers roll their eyes at it (one comment I read called it "kitsch at the push of a button"), but when I was going through some of my Boston photos late last night, I decided to cook up my own Instagram-inspired recipe which will no doubt horrify purists. So, for tonight, here are some scenes from the little bit of time I was able to wander around Boston. Next time, some thoughts on Instagram's place in the history of snapshot photography.

Shameless self-promo: see anything you've got to have? buy it here.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012


Boston 2012, Marc Olivier

Just as everyone was arriving for the Boston marathon, I was on my way to the airport. Too bad. I was there to deliver a paper at a conference, but luckily, I was also able to take some photos. A real post is on its way.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Google and Art Photography: 9 Artists You Should Know

Google (usually street view) photography projects have been around for a few years, but I have tended to ignore google-based conceptual projects or dismiss them as gimmicky trends. However, when I made the syllabus for my photo class this semester, I added on a "trends" day devoted to Google (both satellite and street view). Had I paid more attention each time a Google project was mentioned in my various RSS feeds, I would have many more examples, but here are a few from the last few years that are worth a look:

1. "Arecibo" project by David Thomas Smith
 In brief: He uses thousands of Google map images to create visually compelling composites that intertwine with the Arecibo message.
Neolithic Age: 
East Africa - Some of the Earliest Utilisation of Fire.
see the full project on his site.

2. Jon Rafam of
In brief: "9-eyes" is named after the 9-lens Google camera. He finds (or shall I say "curates"?) Google Street View images that often have a surreal or uncanny quality. If you haven't already seen his site, check it out—it's pretty amazing. Here are a few of his finds:

3.  James Dive's "God's eye view"
 In brief: Using composites from Google + a lot of complex image 3D modeling and image manipulation to represent biblical scenes as they would be seen from space.
Parting of the Red Sea (via and article about Dive on the Dailymail)
4. Aaron Hobson's "Street View"
In brief: Hobson finds images that will make you think "No way that comes from Google Street View!" Yes, he does some minor retouching (no more than 5 minutes worth, he says) and the results are amazing. Here are three of many more that you can find on his site:

5. Doug Rickard's A New American Picture.
In brief: Google Street View photos of impoverished Detroit, Oakland, and Memphis.

I remember when Rickard's book made it the best-of 2010 lists from photo-eye, but with a limited edition of only 250 copies, there was no hope of getting my hands on one.

6. Mishka Henner's "No Man's Land" (among other Google-related projects)
In brief: GSV photos of roadside prostitutes in rural Italy (and Spain in part 2).

The project has done very well, but I also have to mention another—"Dutch Landscapes" in which Henna uses Google satellite images that have been censored for security purposes with often colorful and always interesting polygons (as opposed to other countries that have opted for a boring blur to mask locations from prying eyes).

NATO Storage Annex, Coevorden

Noordwijk aan Zee

Those are just two of Henner's many interesting projects you might want to look at.

7. Michael Wolf's "A Series of Unfortunate Events" (and other projects)
In brief: Google Street View images that he has photographed (as opposed to doing screen grabs) and cropped.

No, they are not all as sinister looking as the two above, and there are many more GSV-related projects as well. One of my favorites from a 2009 Paris project looks like something Doisneau might have taken:

8. Jenny Odell's "Satellite Collections" and other projects.
In brief: Odell rips objects from their original Google context and creates collections of everything from nuclear cooling towers to stadiums.

104 Airplanes

97 Nuclear Cooling Towers
 She has other projects you should check out as well. One of my favorites is "Travel by Approximation: A Virtual Road Trip" she took (over the course of two virtual months) by photoshopping herself into GSV images and researching on TripAdvisor, Yelp, Youtube, etc. She has made a Blurb book that looks like a lot of fun, although the $152.00 price tag is a bit high for me.

9. Clement Valla's "Postcards from Google Earth"
In brief: Valla exploits the serendipitous errors produced by computer programs applied to Google Earth photos.

These aren't the only creative minds doing interesting things with Google photos, but it's enough to give you an idea of the variety of Google photography projects out there. At first I thought that this type of work was passing trend, but now I think that it might well be the tip of the iceberg.