A Semi-Philosophical Reflection on InstaGram & Hipstamatic

Posted by on Jun 21, 2013 in Social Media | 2 comments

Two of my favorite apps for iOS are InstaGram and Hipstamatic. For those who don’t know them they are photo apps that output similarly formatted, square images that hearken back to a more analogue, pre-digital era. Think of the photos your parents and grandparents took with their Kodachromes and then had developed at the local camera store (remember those?) or pharmacy.

InstaGram provides you with a bunch of filters and effects that you can apply to images, and then you share them via your phone to the InstaGram site. When it initially launched, and before FaceBook bought them, InstaGram was an iOS-only app (there is now an Android version of the app). You could view images on your lap/desktop but you could neither post, nor edit images, nor interact with the photographer — comment or like. Everything of import happened on your phone — shoot the picture, apply filters, post to your InstaGram stream (like Twitter), follow other users, (like Twitter), like and comment on their photos — you can now view, comment and like images at instagram.com if logged in.

Hipstamatic is a bit different — it is still iOS only — but it does not have a site where you like and comment and view others’ photos. It is a standalone app. Unlike InstaGram in which you post-process the photo, Hipstamatic gives you the opportunity to mix and match films and lenses, and once you take the shot you see what you get. Shake your phone with Hipstamatic open and your lens/film combo changes — lending a really wonderful, random quality to your images — just like the ones you used to take on the Kodachrome and have processed downtown.

Both apps integrate across social channels (e.g.: you can post Hipstamatic to InstaGram; IG to Twitter (link share only); both to FB) and they are powerful, easy to use tools that allow you take some lovely photos and to share slices of your life with the world. The old chestnut “A picture is worth a thousand words” turns out to be true. I was not an early adopter of either — I’ve been using IG for about 18 months and Hipstamatic for 7 or so. I initially I thought that the apps were just ironic-hipster-poser-toys — A “hey look at me, I’m using my iPhone to take old school photos like my parents did in the 70s…” sort of thing. I started reading up on the app when a friend of mine shared a lovely shot, and I started to understand. The photo sites were full of people extolling and disparaging the apps. Some trained photogs were really mad that IG enabled creation of effects that took years to master in the darkroom. It was interesting and I decided to take the plunge and am glad that I did — and so commences the semi-philosophical musings.

When I first started using IG, I took some really boring shots, and applied tilt shift to them — they were still boring. I did however start to follow some interesting folks: a tug boat boat captain in Baltimore, a design maven in Australia and one in Newburyport (MA), an avid traveller from NZ, an axe restorer/mountain man in NH, an old sign fanatic in PA, a killer photo-editor from Vancouver, as well as friends & family in and around Boston and all over. Their images show their lives and their interests and sometimes verge on the poetic. Early in my IG days I came across a photo set of a man dying from cancer — his wife chronicled his decline, and actually photographed him in the moments after he died — it may sound voyeuristic, macabre, and inappropriate, but it was one of the most moving things I’ve ever seen.

I realized I needed to step up my game and here lies what I believe is the central beauty of Instagram and Hipstamatic: by using them you are forced to notice the details in life because it’s the details wherein lie life’s beauty. I think that I engage more closely with the world around me because I use these apps. I consider and appreciate what I see. I do not try to turn everything into an IG/Hipstamatic shot — sometimes it’s nice to live life unencumbered by the need to share pixels — but I do approach the world differently, see it differently and look for the details.

As far as output goes, I’ve overcome my initial bias against the irony inherent in sharing analogue-looking photos on powerful handheld computers and stored in the cloud. I think that the analogue-ness of the images while certainly part of the surface appeal (it’s fun to create something moody and Joel Peter Witkin-esque — good luck, I know no one who can approach that, the guy is a master), entices on a different level. It enables us to mitigate the stark reality of multi megapixel cameras and all of their hard edged vividness. We can soften and humanize our photos and give them a sense of history even though they were taken in a moment on a device that enables 24/7 access to the world.

Another aspect of these apps, more so Hipstamatic than IG, is the randomness that comes with using them. If you walk around for a day with Hipstamatic open and shoot at random and do nothing to save your film/lens settings you will get a wide variety of shots, in B&W, color etc that you did not expect. Couple that with the limitations of shooting on a phone (I am iPhone only, some shoot on nicer cameras and edit in IG) there is no telling what you may get. That element of surprise is welcome and lovely. In another life I used to study art history (I have a fancy piece of paper somewhere that says I did) and in particular I focused on Marcel Duchamp. A tenet of his art was the utilization of chance, and randomness in the creative process and permitting it to seep into the final works — becoming a co-author if you will of the piece (there is a level of irony inherent in that, but I won’t go there, now). Not much is overly random in our world, and when we say “random” it’s typically meant in an ironic fashion, not in a literal fashion, but there is some literal randomness built into these apps and the results are delightful.

Another delightful aspect of the photo sharing world is the connections you make with real people. Yes, we can make connections via Twitter, LinkedIn, FaceBook etc. There is, however, something deeper about sharing an image from your life — it’s more intimate, more revealing, and if set up nicely far lovelier than a string of text amidst other strings of text. Different realities within our world open up to us that we may never see or experience otherwise.

A final musing is an ironic one — anyone who grew up in the 70s & 80s remembers the family summer vacation slide show. Typically approached with groans and watched amidst nodding-off uncles. Now we carry a worldwide slide show in our pocket and gladly scroll through picture after picture. Those 70s slide shows were just ahead of their time, and perhaps unfairly maligned.

These app are wonderful windows into the wider world. There are lots of boring shots of fingernails and latte-leafs, but there are moments of poetic beauty in the mundane, and not so mundane moments that people share. InstaGram just announced the addition of video to the app and while this was done to compete with Vine (which I’ve started playing around with, and have seen some great uses of) I’m not sure how I feel about it. Still images, without movement, without sound sometimes are enough. They can say more than words, wether written or recorded. InstaGram video is another tool, it will be interesting to see how it evolves, but in the meantime, grab your phone, share your world.


  1. Hey Ted, Very poetic interpretation of our passion for Instagram and Hipstamatic. I also have just begun using recently these two apps. And like yourself have fallen in love with not only recording those little details in life but also sharing them with friends around the world. I have been teaching photography especially how to shoot in manual mode on a DLSR at the local university. But last month I created a class that is all about photographing with mobile devices such as iPhone, iPad, and Android.
    I will forward this article to my students for them to consider entering the world of Insta Graham and Hipstamatic. Thank you for such a lovely article.

    • Carlos:
      Thanks for your comment. I think it’s cool that you are teaching a class utilizing mobile devices. They are potent apps, and fascinating tools. As one of my IG friends and I commented on IG — they are also limited — and in that limitation comes some interesting opportunities for creative expression. Thanks again for your comment.


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