Leaden with languor and donning our down, we shuffled downstairs. Cracking open the heavy walnut door, I felt the cold biting my fingers and toes. New-fallen snow glittered before me in dull yellow light flooding from dorm room windows, from Blair skylights, from imperious lampposts scattered about the quad; strikingly illuminated for as late as it was. The trees’ sable branches melted curiously into the night sky, visible only by the snow blanketing their outstretched arms, grasping at the stars.
A snowball to the chest.
Now, scratch the vignette above. Suppose instead that I had decided to say that, over intersession, I had a snowball fight with five hallmates in Mathey Quad. Not particularly expressive, now is it?
Over lunch last week, a friend and I were discussing the merits of diverse social media. Naturally, Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter were mentioned, but Instagram quickly became the focus of our discussion. He decried Instagram for its one-sidedness and superficiality, for the careful curation it encourages by way of its built-in filters. He went on to claim the filter renders Instagram an (anti) social media that creates a barrier between people as opposed to connecting them by facilitating the manipulation of peoples’ perceptions of experience. Though I recognize the validity of some of his claims, I disagree with his conclusion. I propose a radical reevaluation of the filter not as a distorted, unrealistic, manipulated half-truth, but as the every-man’s conduit to augmented photographic self-expression.
First, the purpose of a filter is not as a means of achieving a more accurate representation of reality. Any smartphone can do that. Yet something is missing in everyday phone photography: it’s generic; it’s lackluster. To be blunt, it’s plain. For this exact reason mobile photo editing has matured into the field it is today, growing to include—beyond Instagram—a plethora of other apps, such as VSCO Cam, Snapseed or Afterlight.
But what makes the Instagram filter so unique is its position at the convergence of the visual and the social. You can edit hundreds of photos in VSCO Cam, manipulating them in myriad ways, but to what end? What use are they if not shared? If created in isolation, if hidden from the world, then is great art really great art? I think not. Part of what makes art “great” extends beyond its mere existence or the skill employed in its creation to the connection it facilitates between the artist and spectators.
In the context of modern social media, the filter does just that. It allows me to impress upon an image a sense of how I see the world; of my unique perspective; of my subjective experience of the scene portrayed—beyond that present in an unedited image. Thus the filters I choose allow viewers a lens into the my mind, lending my image a personal dimension perhaps palpable only byway of the (regrettably named) “Mayfair,” “Rise” or “Crema” filter.
By establishing this singular relationship between editor and viewer, filters have the potential to catch someone, if only for a moment, encouraging them to pause and reflect on an image otherwise lost in the hundreds that constitute their feed. Uniquely evocative, the filter thereby lends Instagram a distinct niche in today’s saturated (no pun intended) social media landscape.
By transcending what the eye would have perceived in “reality” at the time of the image’s capture, the filter serves a purpose on Instagram similar to that of multi-sensory imagery in writing. As a sort of visual author, the Instagrammer chooses which features to highlight, emphasizing certain interpretations of their image over others, with an explicit purpose in mind—whether to convey a particular emotion, to advance a certain perception or to simply make an image more visually interesting. Ellie Goulding did exactly that when she employed various filtered fan-submitted Instagram photos to represent lyrics in her “Anything Could Happen (Instagram Fan Lyric)” video here.
Sure, the filter may be used as half-assed attempts at garnering likes by puerile 14-year-olds. You’ll hear no objection from me. But to decry the filter for the unrealistic representation it lends images is to overlook its subjective potential. The filter facilitates the alignment of an image with its editor’s interpretation of the image and, regardless of purpose, these deliberate choices are valuable inasmuch as they provide a level of personalization and sentimentality unparalleled by an image’s #nofilter version.
It’s no coincidence “vignette” means both a short, evocative description and an effect applied to photos that blurs their edges, drawing attention to the center of the frame. Both breathe life into the scenes they portray, though by different means. One linguistic, the other visual, the former is demonstrated in this article’s opening description, and the latter in the photo of the snowball fight that forms its backdrop. Like personification, imagery and juxtaposition, shadows, saturation and contrast work together to produce a distinct effect—a tangible feeling behind each filter.
Applied to my photo of the snowball fight, “Lo-Fi” felt at once intimate, spontaneous and organic. The sienna edges, the luminous lighting, the stark color contrast of the inky figures against the pallid snow—all reflect how I experienced and remember the scene. Unfiltered, the image would fall short of that first moment I truly felt at home on Princeton’s campus, that first moment I truly felt I was between the covers of a Fitzgerald novel.