Saturday, October 16, 2010

That Retro Look

Both iPhone photography (or iPhoneography, as some are calling it) and many photo editing apps for the iPhone seem to have a distinct retro leaning.

Maybe it's because the relatively low megabyte images of the various iPhone models often have a soft, low-contrast look that is reminiscent of early generations of cameras and films. Maybe it's because we have now been thrust so far into the digital photography era that many of us have developed a bit of fond nostalgia about the old days of slow film, poor color and hours spent in a damp darkroom saturated with exotic chemical smells.

[Right: Still Life in The Dining Room]

The photos being turned out by many iPhone photographers really recall retro photography, everything from Civil War documentary images to black-and-white polaroids and purple-faded Anscochrome slides. I was attracted by this genre when I tried out the app called Hipstamatic and got over-exposed, vignetted, reddish images with deteriorated edges.

Hipstamatic goes all the way with retro appeal, turning your iPhone (or iPod Touch, of course), into a reasonable facsimile of the legendary Hipstamatic 100 camera. According to the legend, this low cost, all-plastic, 'people's camera' was designed and manufactured by two brothers in Wisconsin using their own home-made molds for the plastic parts. The camera, it has been said, was a view-finder model with interchangeable plastic lenses, and each sported a distinctive, yellow shutter-release button. Only 157 were ever produced, the tale continues, before the brothers died in a tragic automobile accident. The original price - $8.25. (A nice legend. But some suggest this may be only a 'just-so' story, fabricated to enhance the appeal of the app.)

Whatever its origins, the Hipstamatic app has become one of the most popular in use among iPhone photographers, so the retro movement is a strong one.

What are the best subjects for retro iPhoneography? Personally, I have found that low-tech, retro objects that don't scream "contemporary" work best. Old diners, chrome plated automobiles, hand-painted signs, heritage buildings - they all make great retro images. In fact my first choice for my iPhone images is actual heritage objects, antiques if you will, or just old stuff.

But what I have found as well is that almost any contemporary object photographed using retro techniques takes on the patina of age and begins to look ancient. This seems to me a lot like the museum technique of placing any old grungy object in a glass case under dramatic lighting. The result is a glowing 'artifact,' a value-laden story teller about a distant and forgotten age. The same is true for me about Hipstamatic photographs - it's all in the presentation.

You can see a series of my retro treatments of contemporary scenes HERE.

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