Are art filters tacky?

February 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

Toycamera Analogcolor app and Olympus E-PL2 set to pinhole art filter

Many cameras now come with a built-in set of “art filters”–digital simulations of film-era processes that include such things as sepia toning, soft-focus, black borders around the images, and so on. On-line camera reviewers frequently dismiss these as merely gimmicks that are not worthy of the attention of serious photographers.

I disagree. The history of photography is full of techniques that served to both advance the art and to provide photographers with extraordinary images. And at times, many of these were dismissed as gimmicks. For example:

*The soft-focus lens–By creating images that were not highly detailed, these lenses created sensuous, idealized pictures that enabled photographers to go beyond hard, clear facts and express moods and feelings. Used around the turn of the last century, they were reviled as gimmicks by the next generation of photographers.

*Grainy film–By exposing and developing film more intensely than the manufacturer recommends, photographers can capture pictures at low light levels. This, however, increases the size of the microscopic grains of silver in the film, which creates a “grainy” or blotchy effect in the ultimate print. This was used often by photojournalists and subsequently was exploited by fashion photographers and artists to create a sense of journalistic immediacy in their work. Arguably, this was a gimmick when removed from its original intention.

From the very beginning of photography, it has been possible to make very highly detailed, crisp, clear images, which I take as the baseline from which almost any deviation might be described as a gimmick (look at daguerreotypes:

But photographers have also aggressively departed from this baseline throughout the history of the art. There were the soft-focus lenses; various forms of printing, such as bromoil, that reduced the sharp definition of images (see Vintage Pictorialism’s Facebook site for examples); deliberate double exposures; the use of plastic cameras with their distorting lenses; and so on. In fact, I would argue that even some “straight” photographs have a touch of the gimmick in them. Look (to hold up a real classic) at the perfectly black sky in Ansel Adams’s “Moonrise over Hernandez,”  a sky that was dramatized by Adams’s virtuosity in the darkroom. (

Any of these techniques becomes a gimmick when it is used to cover up a photograph that’s weak in the first place. But when they are used intelligently to create images that are strong and meaningful, then they are valuable aids to the art of photography. Rather than scolding camera makers for including them, we should hope that this new round of possibilities will find master photographers who use them to give us greater pleasure and understanding.

“The enemy of photography is the convention. The salvation of photography comes from the experimenter who dares to call ‘photography’ all the results which can be achieved with photographic means with camera or without.” –Laszlo Moholy-Nagy in The New Vision: Forty Years of Photography at the Institute of Design


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