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Getting the focus right

Digital images have no individuality. Thus Instagram’s ownership claim is logical, writes Jonathan Jones.

india Updated: Dec 20, 2012 22:23 IST

The social media photography-sharing site Instagram has been forced to deny that it plans to sell people’s snaps, after a change in its terms of use provoked some users to close their accounts. As these typically anodyne pictures illustrate, it is hard to see what people feel is so personal or precious about the images they upload to Instagram — that was my sink, those are my clouds, that’s my view from the plane window. Not only does Instagram share pictures, it offers filters and a Polaroid-style formatting to make them look special — the catch being that every picture looks special in the same way. Since the site shapes the pictures, is it not, indeed, their co-author? But even that is to understate the death of the author in modern photography.

It is increasingly hard to understand not just why anyone would feel possessive of a picture they choose to put online, but why anyone can be bothered taking photographs at all in a culture that has changed lay photography from a private, often emotive pleasure and ritual shared with friends and family to a twitchy mass addiction shared with … everyone in the world.

I speak as a recovered digital photography addict. I more or less stopped taking photographs at all once I realised I was subscribing to a cheap self-deception about the originality, beauty and meaning of my tens of thousands of pictures.

When did my photophobia begin? I have a decent camera. It has a close-up focus that can capture perfectly crisp images of a flower petal or a bee up close. So I think the moment it all went wrong was on a visit to Kew Gardens. There I was, having fun snapping water lilies, when I realised that about a hundred people were doing the same thing.

On Instagram every passing moment has a pseudo-Baudelarian beauty. Random shots of ordinary things are touched up for instant allure. It is so easy with these technologies to believe you are Baudelaire’s “painter of modern life”, the ironic flâneur capturing the passing life of the modern world, or a latter-day Atget, but really you are the servant of a computerised eye. Instagram’s apparent claim of ownership of every image on its site would actually be a logical next step, for the reality is that no individuality exists in the creation of digital images.

My camera gathers dust. The act of picking it up fills me with embarrassment. Taking a picture feels like signing up to some mad collective self-delusion that we are all artists with an eye for beauty, when the tragicomic truth is that the sheer plenitude and repetition of modern amateur photography makes beauty glib. If Instagram did deny that its users are the authors of their robotic images, it would only be stating the obvious. The Guardian