Snapshot comeback.
So, one thing I've been doing, of late, is taking some pictures with my phone. It's nice to have a camera always around with you, although to be honest the quality leaves something to be desired.

Pictured: quality
Pictured: quality

Ok, so it's not quite that bad. But it, and a conversation with a coworker, leaves me to wonder — what is the aesthetic role of the cheap, low-quality cameras found on cell phones? Can they be used artistically? Which is not to say, "can good pictures be taken with them?" — the answer is yes, as it was with old Land cameras and, for that matter, with the original Brownie.

Rather, the question is something closer to, "can the camera itself serve as an artistic tool." At first blush, we might be inclined to say "no," because they are cheap and commodified.

On the other hand, there is a certain quaint charm to what I will take the easy way out and call lomography — the use of cheap, low-quality optics and cameras to produce art. Variously over- or under-saturated, sometimes blurry, with a high depth of field and full of chromatic aberration and glare, these pictures — taken with old Soviet or Chinese equipment, purchased for pennies — represent a warm, if slightly anachronistic, view of photography.

This can be replicated with software, to some effect. One of the more popular iPhone applications these days, "Hipstamatic," replicates the feel of a short run of lo-fi cameras, producing the kind of grainy, red-hued, off-contrast snapshots we'd expect from family vacations in the 1960s. And admittedly, if the shots are free of modern elements like cars, there is no real way of telling the difference.

Or, pictures can be retouched in Photoshop, as I've done. This, however, I find slightly insincere — an attempt to ape the cheap, simple, and accessible through a combination of expensive cameras and complicated image editing tools. Although the effect is the same, how you get there seems needlessly ornate. It also adds another lens to the camera itself, divorcing it yet one step further from its genuine output.

What are the implications? We've been able to take the beautiful, crisp, high-contrast photos we think of as a National Geographic highlight for some time, at least theoretically. Your parents didn't because they didn't have the money for a medium-format Rollei. They used the Land because it was what they had available, not because it made an artistic statement.

Today, we see the pictures taken with those cameras as warm, and the unpredictability of the analogue form as charming, even quaint. I wonder, offhand, if digital photography has rendered this moot — if the unrepentant, perhaps even slightly banal uniformity it represents may keep them from acquiring the same mystique. After all, people search for old Russian equipment; who puts out an add for a working Razr camera?

Also, is it telling that, while the iPhone has bred the Hipstamatic app, the current discussion in N900 photography is whether or not the camera can be compelled to make automatic HDR pictures?

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