Not good enough

Black lab

8 years ago this month, I joined Flickr, but I don’t think I posted anything there until July that year. Was I, even then, hesitating and thinking, ‘is this good enough’?

… somehow creating an environment where people started to believe that their photos were not good enough for Flickr. I mean, really, how did we ever let that happen? I was speechless the first time a friend said that me and for the record: It was never part of the plan. How did we ever let people think that there is one measure of photography? How did we let people imagine that a medium which gave the world both Ansel Adams and Garry Winogrand (a photographer who died with a reported 10, 000 rolls of undeveloped film in his studio and who said that every time you take a picture you are hopefully risking failure) and everyone else in between was about any other than the joy and the discovery of the possible, foofy equipment and technique and measures of “good”-iness be damned?

Since then, the Instagram steamroller has come along and earned its success fair and square by making a thing that is genuinely fun and easy and immediate to use. There’s a lot about the larger project that I find problematic but you can not fault them their ability stripping away all the cruft at the intersection of photography and our Interphones. And all it took to get a whole crowd of people who I know and were intimidated (apparently) by Flickr (of all things) genuinely interested again in the act of photography was, let’s be honest here, a heavy application of 1970’s vaseline-porn filtering to their pictures.

Say what you want about those goofy filters (and I am the last person to call that particular kettle black) but they have been a startlingly good device for getting people to play at taking pictures again.

Aaron Straup Cope (via Paul)

A long time ago, I’d set out on a road that would have led me to being a much more confident photographer, but then necessity bit, along with a determination to be independent, and I sold my expensive Nikon camera bodies to help fund a change of degree course. That was the right thing for then, but it did cauterise part of me.

A little part of what’s been happening to me now, over the last few months, flows from Instagram. It’s got me playing and messing around, fooling with the filters, yes, but, above all, just noticing more — simultaneously loosening up and attending. And along with this goes a pleasure in the social flow — what my mother, 94, said today about Instagram when I showed it to her: ‘It’s so … conversational ’.

A few things written recently about Instagram have stuck in my mind. Dan Catt, My first Instagram Christmas, a nervous step away from Flickr:

… flow, connection, joining in of everyone’s experience, a bit like a pictorial version of twitter. … Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy Flickr. It makes me think about photography, inspires possible projects to play with, upload proper photos taken with my proper camera. But when there’s something happening (often involving the kids, a cat or a visual joke I know my friends will get) I find myself reaching for the iPhone and uploading to Instagram.

Dan Williams on this: ‘Why I never got into flickr: it’s for ‘proper’ photographers only and my friends weren’t on there.’

Tom Insam: ‘I’ve started to quite like the ambient pictures that it gives me’ (describing Carousel, which brings Instagram to the Mac — and have you tried his Flickrgram?). He goes on:

… these models — “shoeboxing” verses Instaagram-style “lifestreaming” — are two entirely different usage models for a photo sharing site. Flickr was built for the streaming case (it’s got a photostream as the main thing you see) but recently the shoeboxing is rather swamping the streaming, and the two models just can’t coexist in the same contacts list - the uploads of the shoeboxers will swamp the incoming streams of people who just want to follow streamers. Instagram, on the other hand, by utterly ignoring the needs of shoeboxers, has been able to build a much better streaming experience.

It reminds me of Twitter, where the same thing has happened.

(Shoeboxing vs lifestreaming … and for Instagram users, an archive-less future? Tom Insam, again: ‘Are they going to realise in a few years that they’ve not built up any meaningful history in this service? When they want a photo they remember taking, and can’t get it, will there be pain? Or will no-one care?’.)

Anyway, I’ve been playing and fooling around. Whilst wondering which dedicated camera I might buy next, I’ve got so much pleasure from using my iPhone, learning more about what it can do well and what it can’t, and why user mistakes and hardware shortcomings might nonetheless be portals to discovery and new ideas. And there are those filters. (And tilt-shift. Haven't used that much.)

Robot face

Another lost toy

Bike and snow

Why did Instagram catch on so? Paul did a great job of snagging some pieces about this (see, eg, Nate Bolt’s ‘Why Instragram is so Popular: Quality, Audience, & Constraints’) and I’m in his debt. Here’s Clive Thompson (Wired, December 2011):

In old analog cameras, many such filter “effects” were a chemical byproduct of the film, so photographers became expert at understanding the unique powers of each. Fujifilm’s Velvia film, with its high saturation and strong contrast, attracts photographers looking to capture the vibrancy of nature, Instagram cofounder Kevin Systrom notes.

But casual photographers rarely developed this type of eye, because they just wanted to point and shoot. What Instagram is doing—along with the myriad other photo apps that have recently emerged—is giving newbies a way to develop deeper visual literacy.

The quirky and the quotidian, domestic and intimate … A sense of place, of the world we’re shaping and being made by … It’s been great fun (each little act one small creative counter-blow to the wearisomeness of routine), and over time it’s seemed like someone has been teaching me, my eye.




Fish plate

Sunrise over St Paul’s

Blue screens of death, Chiswick Flyover, Hammersmith




Boots, gloves, scarf …

The Measure of Love

The enchanted loom

Symphony of Science has recently posted ‘Ode to the Brain!’:


‘Ode to the Brain’ is the ninth episode in the Symphony of Science music video series. Through the powerful words of scientists Carl Sagan, Robert Winston, Vilayanur Ramachandran, Jill Bolte Taylor, Bill Nye, and Oliver Sacks, it covers different aspects [of] the brain including its evolution, neuron networks, folding, and more. The material sampled for this video comes from Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED Talk, Vilayanur Ramachandran’s TED Talk, Bill Nye’s Brain episode, BBC’s ‘The Human Body’, Oliver Sacks’ TED Talk, Discovery Channel’s ‘Human Body: Pushing the Limits’, and more.

Carl Sagan:

What we know is encoded in cells called neurons
And there are something like a hundred trillion neural connections
This intricate and marvelous network of neurons has been called
An enchanted loom

Wikipedia — Enchanted Loom:

The enchanted loom is a famous metaphor for the brain invented by the pioneering neuroscientist Charles S. Sherrington in a passage from his 1942 book Man on his nature, in which he poetically describes his conception of what happens in the cerebral cortex during arousal from sleep:

The great topmost sheet of the mass, that where hardly a light had twinkled or moved, becomes now a sparkling field of rhythmic flashing points with trains of traveling sparks hurrying hither and thither. The brain is waking and with it the mind is returning. It is as if the Milky Way entered upon some cosmic dance. Swiftly the head mass becomes an enchanted loom where millions of flashing shuttles weave a dissolving pattern, always a meaningful pattern though never an abiding one; a shifting harmony of subpatterns.

The “loom” he refers to was undoubtedly meant to be a Jacquard loom, used for weaving fabric into complex patterns. The Jacquard loom, invented in 1801, was the most complex mechanical device of the 19th century. It was controlled by a punch card system that was a forerunner of the system used in computers until the 1970s. With as many as thousands of independently movable shuttles, a Jacquard loom in operation must have appeared very impressive. If Sherrington had written a decade later, however, he might perhaps have chosen the flashing lights on the front panel of a computer as his metaphor instead.

According to the neuroscience historian Stanley Finger, Sherrington probably borrowed the loom metaphor from an earlier writer, the psychologist Fredric Myers, who asked his readers to “picture the human brain as a vast manufactory, in which thousands of looms, of complex and differing patterns, are habitually at work”. Perhaps in part because of its slightly cryptic nature, the “enchanted loom” has been an attractive metaphor for many writers about the brain …

Oliver Sacks:

We see with the eyes
But we see with the brain as well
And seeing with the brain
Is often called imagination

‘Whole orchestras play inside our heads’ (Sagan).