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In An Attempt to Cash In On Instagram, Getty Is Turning Photojournalism Lo-Fi

Beyond his awesome body of work, one of my favorite things about acclaimed Brooklyn street photographer "Jamel Shabazz": are old photos of him cruising around with a plethora of camera gear. He wasn't quite Dennis Hopper in...

by Derek Mead
Sep 12 2012, 4:00pm
Above image (cropped) by Justin Sullivan, via Getty’s blog

Beyond his awesome body of work, one of my favorite things about acclaimed Brooklyn street photographer Jamel Shabazz are old photos of him cruising around with a plethora of camera gear. He wasn’t quite Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now, but he’s also far from Henri Cartier-Bresson and his sneaky, tiny black Leica. Unwieldy or not, seeing a dude strut around with a bunch of gear in the 80s meant he was a serious dude. Not just anyone off the street would be rolling around like that.

Flash forward to today, when camera gear is more accessible than ever, no one needs a dark room, and Times Square is perennially filled with hordes of folks with bulky DSLRs trying to get artsy angles of gutter punks. Add in the ever-increasing quality of phone cameras and you’ve got a photography world where anyone, like some guy hanging out an office window, could score the New York Times its most controversial photo of the year.

The democratizing of photography is great for the public and editors alike, because we all get more access and more coverage. At the same time, it’s enough to make the crotchety old bastards on camera forums complain that the already user-unfriendly menus and banks of settings in DSLRs should be more complicated so that amateurs can’t use them. For the real pros out there, it’s a more crowded market, sure, but the fact that a good camera doesn’t necessarily take good great pictures still applies as much as it did in the early days of digital, and the best work is still going to get the most exposure.

Paris and Nicky Hilton by Larry Busacca, via Buzzfeed

That’s why I found a Buzzfeed story on pro photographers licensing Instagram-style photos surprising. It’s part of a push by Getty to go lo-fi that’s currently being rolled out at New York Fashion Week. It’s a small project — according to Buzzfeed, only four photographers are using Instagram, and of Getty’s “20,000 Fashion Week photos so far, just 73 — 0.04 percent — are Instagrams.” Getty’s Instagram interest started with a series of Yankees photographs Getty licensed in much the same way the service can license photos from Flickr. Still, the heavily-processed, blurry and blown-out images from Getty’s staff stand in stark contrast to the unprocessed, clear aesthetic that underpins photojournalism.

For example, Poynter recently looked at how National Geographic Traveler makes sure that submissions to its annual photo contest aren’t over-processed. The goal is to make sure that photographs are true to life, and rewards shooting skill over Photoshop ability. The Traveler contest rules seem to try to limit modern photographers to about how much they’d be able to play with in a darkroom, all in the goal of making sure that the final product is honest. For the viewer, knowing that the winning shots look close to how they came out of the camera makes them all the more stunning, and really does separate the best of the best.

NYFW runway by Larry Busacca, via Buzzfeed

Getty’s Instagram images do show the same crucial combination of skill, creativity, and access that’d you’d expect from the pros covering a big event like NYFW, but the aesthetic is a rebuke the constant march of more megapixels and more clarity in the tech side of the camera world. Traditionally, the most stunning photojournalism, like this recent spread in Aleppo, stands as art. But here it’s photos that have been Instagram to be ‘more’ artsy being used for journalism. The distinction’s not huge — and yes, you should use whatever tool fits for the job to get people what they want — but it’s still there.

The aesthetic is cool, and it is hugely popular, which does help people connect with it. Yet Getty’s Instagrams aren’t available in a feed; they’re still only available for licensing just like any of its other work, so it’s not like Getty’s really diving into the photo social network wholeheartedly. Instead, it smacks of the same reason that You Are Not A Photographer was started, but in reverse: Rather than hard-working photographers complaining that everyone with a fancy camera thinks great photos are easy, here Getty’s saying “Look, we took photos just like the ones you share, but we’re getting paid for it.” Now, honestly, I couldn’t give a shit less what someone takes pictures with, and neither should you. It’s all about the end product, and no amount of money thrown at fancy gear is going to make up for a lack of skill. But seeing Getty go lo-fi trendhopping just feels weird.

Follow Derek Mead on Twitter: @derektmead.