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Instagramers and iPhotographers: Destined for Museums?

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An "iPhotographer" is someone who wholly relies on their smart phone to capture images. Anyone can do it. The age range is from three-years-old to 78-years-old. No training in composition or theory is required. I've seen them do it. Instagram has replaced Photoshop, which replaced the darkroom. The problem with iPhotographers is that they're giving themselves a false sense of photography and what it means to be an artist. An artist has a process, and it's usually the process that is celebrated in museum and gallery shows, sometimes more so than the artist themselves. People are fascinated by my art films, especially the ones that reveal the artist's process. Joe Blow may see a relief sculpture by Craig Kauffman or a resin block by Peter Alexander and say, "so what?" Well if Blow saw these guys constructing their works they would be rendered speechless. The artist's process is what makes them special.

I'm getting a lot of feedback from my friends who have no appreciation for art, but are amazed at what an artist goes through in my documentary films.

iPhotographers have removed process from their images by simply selecting pre-packaged looks and with a few clicks an amateur photo can look like a cool piece of art. The problem with iPhotographers and Instagram is that they're not taken too seriously. People like to show me their cool Instagram photos all the time, but they're always crestfallen when I ask them "that's an Instagram photo isn't it?' If an iPhotographer's process it to have fun then more power to them. There's a reason why it's called 'insta" gram.

When I traveled to Colorado last spring to visit my father, Lou Swenson, a renowned Four-Corners photographer, I sought out an interview with Heather Leavitt Martinez. Martinez is a writer and photographer from Durango who has had a long lasting friendship and kindred spirit with Swenson that goes back at least a decade. As an admirer of my father's work, I wanted to interview her thoughts on him and how his work may have inspired her own career.

However, things took a turn...

Martinez was excited to do the video. I knew she would have much to say about Swenson. I have heard her speak about him in the past at an academic and sophisticated level and not just as a 'fan.' When I met her in Durango at the Open Shutter Gallery on Main Street things took a different turn. Instead of talking about my dad's work and his legacy, my camera was turned on her and this 20-minute film was produced. Not only did she demo a Holgaroid process, but we went into my father's darkroom where she also created a cyantoype.

My father's work follows the line of 'straight photographers' founded by Group f/64 in 1932. Straight photography is characterized as "possessing no qualities of technique, composition or idea, derivative of any other art form."

In other words, what you see is what you get. There are no abstractions in the photograph, manipulations, or strange angles. A 'straight shooter' delivers straight-forward indelible images with no ambiguity in the photograph. If you are to photograph an apple, the image will be an image of an apple -- nothing more, nothing less.

What Martinez represents is quite opposite of the 'straight photography' that my father championed. Her work represents a modernist retro movement of shutterbugs who are using lo-fi affordable plastic cameras to achieve stylistic looks from 1970's film stock. En vogue are light leaks, vignetting, blurs, fish eye, and distortion. Martinez is now one of the photographers holding the torch for the Holga camera movement's comeback among other archaic darkroom techniques.

Unfortunately, with the ubiquitous smart phones, users of all ages have the fleeting and addictive abilities to achieve these results instantly through Instagram and hundreds of other iPhone apps. Unlike Instagram, where a user can make amateurish smart phone photos into a cool piece of retro art, Martinez explains in my film that alternative photography is a process. The process of mixing images and chemicals, forms an alchemy of darkroom techniques. Martinez also makes the process look fun. It was enough fun to make me produce this impromptu film.

Who knows, maybe one day there will be an app that will turn 20 minutes of iPhone footage into a video comparable to my laborious films with a couple easy clicks. With a few more clicks you can include your music, add text, choose fonts and utilize cool transitions. With another click your masterpiece will upload directly to YouTube and Vimeo. Unfortunately, this concept is not far fetched.

Until that day, people like Martinez and Swenson will show that process, craft, and technique is still cool and that it is more than just a couple of clicks and pre-packaged templates or looks. Process involves conception, execution, and anticipation, all necessary steps that make true artists, Artists.

Martinez displays in this film, that there is no substitute for creating a true piece of tangible art, without work or without process.

With that being said.. .I doubt there will be an app for that.

Watch the process film I produced on Heather Martinez here: