A work of art is the unique result of a unique temperament. —Oscar Wilde
The photographs above are not art. The photographs below are not art. We’ve covered this topic before and those who are long-time readers know exactly where I’m going. Adding a bunch of filters to a photograph to make it “look cool” is not art; it has never been, it never will be. All we have here are heavily and spontaneously manipulated photographs. The whole batch took no more than an hour to process from RAW files. I spend more time processing a single portrait.
So, what has set off this latest artistic angst that has me gnashing my teeth? The use of online filters by people who I expect to know better. When the average pedestrian Instagram user applies some stupid filter to their picture, I typically roll my eyes and chalk it up to a certain level of ignorance; they don’t know better. I don’t say anything about horrendously filtered online photographs for the same reason I don’t correct everyone’s grammar: it’s socially rude, even though both are likely to have me banging my head on my desk.
Yet, what I’ve noticed over the past week or so it the frequent use of a new online filter that gives images a sort of stained glass effect. The filter divides the image into a vertical mosaic, blurring out details but keeping just enough information so that one can infer the basic contents of the photograph. Some impressive math work is behind the filter, to be sure, but it still does not make a photograph a work of art.
You Should Know Better
Here’s what has me irked: the filter is being used by professionals who should know better. I’ve seen the filter applied by photographers whose portfolios are impressive. I’ve seen the filter used by designers whose normal work is quite amazing. I’ve even seen one graphic artist who applied the filter to one of his works and then tried to sell it as unique.
Why would a professional engage in such cheap and lazy effects when their other work is of such high quality? How does a professional, especially those whose artistic opinions I normally trust, find such corner-cutting applications acceptable? Is this a sign that we are losing our footing in understanding the difference between art and digital doodling?
Artistic integrity has always been a bit of an oxymoron, but when I see professionals resorting to a free online filter and then presenting the resulting image as though it has any artistic merit is extremely disappointing. I expect, fans and patrons of one’s work expect, an artist to present original work, not something that is duplicated at the touch of a single button. I fully expect artistic professionals to have better judgement.
Filters As Entertainment
Mind you, in the right hands and administered correctly, there can be an appropriate use of filters. Graphic and digital professionals understand how to manipulate filters in conjunction with other processing and artistic techniques. Filters are generally applied only to a specific portion of an image to generate a specific effect. Dozens of layers and masks blend a touch of one filter here with another effect somewhere else until the whole work comes together as a single piece. I have absolutely no problem with carefully considered and detailed use of filters in this way.
Art, however, is not a global application of a single effect. Art is something conceptualized by its creator, even when it doesn’t turn out exactly as one envisioned. There is purpose, there is intent, and there is reasoning behind every brush stroke, every method, and every experiment. The value of art is in the individuality of the work, even if there are others created in similar fashion. That each piece was given its own concept, was separately planned and carefully created is what separates art from cheap wallpaper,
Globally applied filters are fun at a pedestrian level, perhaps, but they serve no purpose other than as entertainment. A dog’s snout placed over the image of a toddler might be amusing. Rainbow-colored vomit coming from your mother-in-law’s mouth might generate a chuckle or two. Everyone likes to be entertained, but no one in their right mind would confuse such mindless pastimes with art.
Let Me Entertain You
To illustrate my point, I took a collection of images from the archives that share some commonality. They were all shot in the same place, under the same conditions, with the same concept and intent. The models were even posed similarly. When we processed the images for their original intent, I painstakingly worked with each one to achieve a careful nuance and style consistent with the project. What we did here, though, was exactly the opposite. There was no plan. There was no conceptualizing. There certainly wasn’t any over-arching purpose. Instead, I took the approach of, “Hey, what happens when we apply this filter?”
Each image has at least five global filters applied. We partially masked some of the filters so as to make comparison and contrast between them a bit more evident and also to keep the images from becoming boring, which was a real and present danger. We didn’t worry about details, we didn’t correct any problems the filters might have caused. We just pushed buttons and giggled. Well, okay, not really giggled all that much. Actually, we just rolled out eyes and drank more coffee.
The results are, perhaps, mildly entertaining. Sure, the images are different and some people might even find them rather cool because they’re not the normal photograph. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion and I’m not going to bother defending them if you don’t like them. I’ve nothing invested more than a few minutes of time.
Playing with filters is just that: playing. These are not works of art. You can do this at home. You certainly won’t find these in my portfolio. I expect to not see anything like them in others’ portfolios, either.