Rants and raves, San Miguel de Allende, Writings

Sending a photo through artsy filters unearths emotions missed in the original — but is it art?

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This is what you get when you step out your front door around 7 a.m. in San Miguel de Allende. Not every day but when it happens you whisper a little prayer of thanks to the photography gods. (Then curse the limitations of your sad and old iPhone.) But taking the photo is just the beginning of what you can do.

I am not a photographer. I am a guy with a used iPhone who takes pictures.

I emphasize “used” because the newest phones seem to be veering awfully close to mimicking the abilities of a decent camera.

Mine is not in that class.

Even if I had a new phone with the latest camera technology, or even if I owned a halfway decent camera, I would never call myself a photographer.

Above are all versions of the same image, sent through a sampling of the Prisma app filters. (Go ahead, click on each and enlarge.) Each one plays with the mood of the original image and begs you to think about it in a different way.

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Photographers are people who think critically about the images they capture.

Photographers think critically before they take the photo. They calculate light, shadow, background, foreground, balance, purpose, pose, framing, and a host of other things of which I have no idea because it is all in their heads.

Then they do the whole thing all over again with the captured image until they have a photograph that means something.

Sometimes amateurs like me get lucky. For example on many mornings I know I can step out my front door around 7 a.m. and at least one and usually several hot air balloons will be floating over San Miguel de Allende as the sun is rising.

A cabbage could take that photo for the win. (I took this one, above, last week when three balloons — and a bird — were all nicely aligned over the city. I then went and overproduced it in editing, a rookie mistake — but I like how it came out.)

In a 40-year career with newspapers, I was blessed to work with many excellent photographers, including Jerry Rife who is the premier street photographer here in San Miguel de Allende. I learned a lot from them about composition, passion, technical excellence.

The very best of the best also knew how to get the right photo to match the story — a harder thing to do than you might imagine.

Ten of my newspaper years were spent on one of the early online news websites. Early enough that we often ranked among the top five news sites in the U.S.

Two anecdotes from that time showed me how photography was going to change dramatically.

The first occurred shortly after we were all issued cell phones with photo capability, a real novelty. When the call came in that a bus had overturned on I-5, our videographer rushed to the scene. Before filming, he snapped off a few images on his camera and sent them back to us.

Before ambulances had arrived, we had photos up on the website with enough basic information to tell the story. Photos. Instantly. The TV evening news was still four hours away. The next day’s newspaper would not be put to bed for another six hours and it would be 12-14 hours before people could read about the accident in print.

It was already ancient history to us.

Suddenly every online producer became a photographer, whether they could shoot a picture or not. The democratization of photography had begun. And like actual democracy, it wasn’t pretty at times. But it was fast.

A few print photographers got the instantaneousness of online news and began feeding us breaking news pictures — even though the stodgy old newspaper had a fiercely protective “print-first” mentality.

The second revelation came as snow fell surprisingly close to downtown San Diego. I posted a note on the home page, encouraging readers to send us their snow photos for a gallery. More democratization of photography and the beginning of citizen-sourced news.

The first photos that arrived were from the top of a ski slope in the French Alps, where a San Diego couple was on holiday.

It hit me: We were both a local and a global news platform. (And that I needed to be very specific when requesting things online.) This became significant when 9/11 happened and when the first of the great California wildfires swept through Southern California.

Since then, cellphone technology has advanced dramatically. Even professional photographers sometimes take preliminary snaps with their phones to gauge lighting, impact, content, and the like.

Photo editing software has made enormous leaps in capability. And this is probably as significant leap as the original invention of photography.

The co-opting of realism by the invention of photography surely helped birth the rise in abstract art, cubism, expressionism, and impressionism.  At some point, art ceded realism to the photographers and the world went from “That photograph looks like a painting” to “That painting looks like a photograph.”

So here is the question: If thousands of people are all capable of taking virtually the same photograph, what sets yours apart?

I suppose we could start with this: Don’t make it a selfie.

And this: Don’t rush your picture on to social media. Perfect it first. Fix the shadows. Crop it. Improve the focal point of the content. Balance the color. Lighten it a bit. Darken it. Sharpen it a bit. There are many resources available on your phone to make your picture better.

Use them. Play with them.

With a little effort, you can have an excellent photograph. Just like everyone else’s.

Hey, the Parroquia is the Parroquia is the Parroquia is the Parroquia.

But what if that were just the beginning?

Like the abstractionists and expressionists who went after emotion over information, a photo image can be the jumping-off point to explore the emotions that are buried inside the image.

Which brings me to Prisma. This app has around 300 different “filters” that you can run your image through and make it come out the other end looking like a Picasso, or a Munch, or a Matisse, or a Mondrian, or a dozen other iconic styles.

There are many more filters that defy easy categorization. They just do really weird things to your photograph.

I approached Prisma as a gimmick at first. It was fun to play but sometimes a filter just hit the right note and a mundane photo suddenly became something more. Suddenly, feelings and information not apparent in the original, bubble up to the surface.

There are other apps that offer similar capabilities, LunaPic, for example. I’ve only just begun to explore LunaPic but it seems to lean toward more graphic capabilities — as well as providing some iconic artist filters. (I’ve posted a small selection of LunaPic images above.) LunaPic also has a whole array of editing tools that you might find in Photoshop or other image-tweaking software.

Here are a couple of examples of this same image processed through LunaPic filters.

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Now is a good time to say that, while the outcome sometimes has an artistic air, IT IS NOT ART. No way is pushing a button to apply a filter to a photo the same thing as picking up a brush and paint and approaching a blank canvas with a vision and a prayer.

That said, what fun!

I’ve been playing with a couple of recent San Miguel photographs that I took — one is of pigeons in flight in front of San Antonio Church and the other is of a little boy asleep on a doorstep in Centro. (And a third, of the balloons over the city at sunrise.)

I liked my originals well enough. But I have to say that some of the filtered shots that change up colors and focus also change up the mood. They definitely move the image from neutral, to an emotionally charged picture.

Well, here, you can look at them and judge for yourself. In each of the galleries posted here, the first photo is the original, followed by a few examples of Prisma filters. (Prisma is free, by the way, but does offer a pay-to-play premium version.)

Here is my little fellow asleep on the step in Centro:

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And here are the pigeons in flight in front of San Antonio church:

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In a way, this is like watching the sunlight track across the sandstone face of a desert mesa. The colors change with the passing of the hours and the angle of the sun — and the mesa is reborn again and again.

Since the first crude photographs were taken by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in 1826 or 1827 in France, the means, the method, and the meaning of photography, photographers and photographs, have undergone constant evolution.

Today, there are filters that can make your pristine smartphone image look as crude as something shot on a Brownie Instamatic in the 1950s or mimic Kodak’s black-and-white Tri-X 35mm analog film (with two speeds).

Think about that.

Maybe it is nostalgia. Maybe it is a need to separate our stuff from the stuff of two billion-plus other smartphone picture takers. Maybe realism (or reality) just isn’t what it used to be.

I am pleased to say that I have no conclusion because the democratization of photography is like a play that is still being written.

Who knows? Someday, some smartphone user who makes wise choices in the filter buttons that he or she pushes will get a gallery show of their own and images they took that were altered on the backs of app programmers elsewhere will be proclaimed “ART”!

Because art isn’t only what you make, but what you make of it.


One thought on “Sending a photo through artsy filters unearths emotions missed in the original — but is it art?

  1. Pingback: Sending a photo through artsy filters unearths emotions missed in the original — but is it art? « Bound for Belize

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