The sunset is a part of the day with the most incredible and perhaps unnatural colors. Yet they are natural, because nature itself and the optical laws — equally natural — produce them. Yet if you search for hashtags like #sunset or #sunsetlovers on Instagram, you might discover that the sunset color palette covers millions of colors, with a predilection for vanilla and pink. That pecualiar shade of pink that I call “unicorn pink”, of course.
This blaze of lysergic and unreal colors could be blamed on the abuse of filters or drugs that would crush a horse but instead I think that the explanation unfortunately is simpler and more depressing: we no longer know how to see.
The difference between looking and seeing is apparently a subtle one but it is actually substantial: the first action is almost passive (it’s close to “realizing something”, or registering a change in the visual field) while the second is much more active. Seeing takes effort and the ability to investigate details, it takes curiosity and critical spirit, attention and desire and ability to build other visual objects beyond those that are seen (and photographed).
It is curious that in a visual society like the contemporary one we do not really know how to see. The images are produced at a dizzying pace, exchanged, viewed, swallowed, neglected, forgotten, recycled and soon replaced by others. Nowadays an average human being sees in a day a quantity of images that one of his counterparts from 100 years ago saw in a whole life. It is natural that the brain (which in the meantime has not increased by as many times neither in volume nor in calculation capacity) does not make it. The only thing left to do is to simplify, eliminate the details, reset the depth.
In times of 3D images and virtual and immersive reality the only depth that the images we see every day lack is the conceptual one.
The compositions that you see most frequently (and which, just as frequently, are copied) have a basic and very poor compositional quality: central subjects, bright colors or trendy palette. Their interchangeability is the only quality they have, if we can speak of quality. Just browse through the most popular Instagram posts to see that it’s rare to distinguish one photographer from another. Ok, Instagram has nothing to do with photography, but we’re still talking about a visual social network, so it’s safe to talk about image quality.
The most popular images on Instagram are beautiful. Superpolished. Hyperpost-produced. And also very boring and unreal. Like a pink or vanilla sunset, which no one has ever seen. The color palettes are the same and are seasonal. One time it's cold and dark colors and next time it’s sunny colors and the day after tomorrow the desaturated ones.
The problem, however, is not photographic post-production, which then came to light a moment after the photograph itself.
A non-post-produced photograph is in itself a post-production of reality.
The problem is rather that the photos are post-produced all the same way. Whether they are those of the child or of a landscape, the filters used are not interpretative tools of the imagined reality (even if derived from the phenomenal one) but just a way to access the assembly of producers of images that are all equal, uniform, standard and boring beyond all limits.
My unsolicited opinion on post-production is that it is simply an interpretative tool.
The post-production is meant to reveal a veil of meaning out of the image that was not recorded by the camera sensor in the first place.
The sensor records everything, while post-production enhances certain details and overshadows others, creating a visual hierarchy and an order within the image.
If post-productions are all the same, regardless of the subject and the type of photo, it is clear that there is a conceptual error in the photo itself that is no longer an intellectual creation structured according to a hierarchical composition but an approved and useless product.
The most obvious demonstration of this assumption is travel photography. It is not even necessary to talk about of the quality of the average production of what is usually published (which, given the dizzying numbers, is trivial and insignificant). Just ask yourself a seemingly innocuous question: how many travel photos that you see around really tell something about the country or the place where they were taken? How many instead do only depict postcard locations (with psychotropic colors, of course) or their own authors? If I should base my opinion on the ground of what I normally see on Instagram I have to admit that very few photographers have intrigued me about the place they portray in their photos. I instead keep on seeing always the same images, similar to millions of others, that don’t add anything to human and geographical knowledge.
Most travel photos, and especially the most popular ones, are made to arouse superficial amazement and a subtle gratification of the personal aesthetic sense. For a few moments, because then we move on to something else.
Travel photography at the time of Instagram is essentially useless.
And, once again, we return to our modern and endemic inability to see. Things and reality are no longer seen but just observed. And then post-produced in order to desperately resemble the mood of the time.
By doing so we lost the perception of time that is linked to the ability to stop and listen to the place, then trying to tell it in images.
By now the race is on the verge of the most aesthetically pleasing shot. Like millions of others but oh, no effort whatsoever.
Let’s make another, last effort. Let’s remove every filter from many travel photos. Let’s evaluate them for their composition quality, as they have been recorded by the camera sensor. The compositional poverty is even more evident from the almost total incapacity to dominate the constitutive elements of the image, solved in a hasty manner according to the most frequent current compositional rules (once again: central subjects, various stylistic elements, boredom). The result is that no personality of the author emerges and, more seriously, no point of view. Which in the case of photography is a vaguely central theme. But just vaguely.
Nor is contemporary photography anymore a listless recording of reality but a continual reiteration of other people’s points of view re-proposed without understanding its original intention but only the aesthetic patina.
Photography is a two-dimensional art with an incredible conceptual depth. We are losing — or have completely lost — this depth.
And it is a mortal sin.