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What the Camera Lets us See

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how the act of taking a picture — I don’t want to call it “photography” since what I’m doing is so much below the standard of art and more a gesture of observation and record-keeping — can engage a person with a subject. This has been on my mind since I encountered the Hipstamatic app (thanks to photographer Scott Mlyn) which puts a moody scrim around a photo. You never know what the picture will look like because the app itself is moody: it changes from snap to snap, so it’s quite unpredictable. It results in a much more voicey photo because the app expresses its voice alongside yours.

The New York Times just published a photo essay by Damon Winter of pictures taken of the war in Afghanistan with the iPhone and Hipstamatic app. In the Intro. they talk about how gear shouldn’t matter — “few people care about what kind of typewriter Hemingway used” — but Winter chose to use his phone for good and interesting reasons, and the photos are gorgeous. If you haven’t seen them check out the Lens blog. Four of them made the front page of the printed paper — above the fold. (Side note: I’m actually quite passionate about typewriters too, and on another occasion will write about manual Smith Coronas and new-fangled IBM Selectrics.)

Anyway, I just love Hipstamatic, so have been shooting with it every day for a couple of weeks now. That in turn unleashed an ambition to mix things up again, so I co-opted Ann’s Leica M-8 and began shooting in black & white. The Leica relies on a split-image focus mechanism, something I’m familiar with from using my dad’s old Leica IIIf, and that itself is a big change. (Hipstamatic, of course, has no focus; my Nikon D80 — which I’ve used for many of the photos on this blog — has an autofocus, which I now think I rely on too much.)

I don’t know what it is about black & white but I’m finding that it makes everything look more elegant.  Maybe it’s because everything in our culture is so loud, bright, and colorful. Black & white is like the mute button, and it encourages us to contemplate from another, quieter, perspective. In its own way — through unpredictable distortion — Hipstamatic also provides another angle to see and observe.

The High Line is a great place to test out these ideas and play around with them. If I were a better photographer the results would be more satisfying, no doubt. But the technology — the old and the new — opens doors for me, which is ultimately what I love about technology.

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