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Instagram vs HDR: cultural observations

In the brief time that I’ve been tumbling, I’ve been exposed to a great number of fantastic HDR creations. These are the highly saturated and high resolution images that make use of a technique called high dynamic-range processing. You can find a sampling here, but I suspect you have seen many already. They are surreal, extravagant, and spectacular in their color and depth dynamics: dream-like and fully saturated. Carefully worked and crafted masterpieces.

At the same time, I’ve been enjoying, like so many others, the off-the cuff photography of instagram. Shot by iPhone, these are in dull contrast to HDR images — being more often a retro revisioning of the faded, filmic, analog and even polaroid imagery of 70s polaroids and snapshots. 

Two kinds of digital images, two cultures of digital picture taking: one computer intensive, of saturated scenes and compositions; the other mobile, ephemeral, and desaturated for quickly-consumed snapshots. 

I think these two styles say something about the devices with which they are captured and created. Digital SLR/desktop vs mobile/iPhone. (For now, this distinction holds.) The rich and intensive processing of the SLR, framed and composed vs the ready-to-hand snapshot of the passing mobile scene. A framed look vs a glancing turn. An image to lose yourself in vs one to flip through. 

And not only is the technical difference implicit in these two kinds of image. The stability and longevity of the image, too, is differentiated. The HDR image is deep and lasting — a composition for the ages. The instagram is mobile and passing, a shot for the browsing. 

It’s interesting that the visual cues that distinguish these two kinds of image seem also to have a cultural reference. HDR refers to its more sophisticated filmic cousin: the world of post-production and special effect, the dream of digital manipulation. Where the instagram refers to the bygone analog snapshot, a moment in daily life, caught in passing and already fading when it is posted and shared. 

Two kinds of image perhaps, and two kinds of dreaming — the saturated dreams of sleep, and the distracted daydreams of the everyday. A richer, enchanted and surreal world magnificence; a passing recollection of nostalgia. Dreams of future, dreams of the past. 

The image, too, looks in both directions.

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