Point and Shoot Nostalgia: iPhone Photo Apps for the Contemporary Retro Traveler

In the history of contemporary art photography, the transition from film to digital in the 1990s inspired a creative counter wave of explorations in increasingly archaic photographic equipment and techniques - daguerreotypes, tintypes, the wet collodion process, cyanotypes, the camera obscura, and so forth. Even in amateur photography, as digital cameras produced clean and perfect shots, allowing untrained photographers to mimic the work of professionals, some people longed for the look of imperfect analog photographs - images blurred around the edges, scratched, off-color, or odd.

Early in the 1990s, a visionary group of Austrian students devoted themselves to saving a mass-produced Soviet camera from the 1980s, the Lomo LC-A, that made such images. The subsequent Lomography craze, along with its playful set of instructions to disobey conventional rules, introduced the values of art photography to a larger public. The resulting film prints, still requiring lab development, often looked much cooler and less predictable than the best stuff from an expensive digital SLR camera. And what about those old Polaroid and Instamatic cameras from the past? Yes, they, too, have their fans.

The look, and in some cases even the feel, of popular lo-tech analog cameras, is now available for the iPhone, thanks to several clever, fun and useful apps. Many of the best apps greatly improve the iPhone's built-in camera, automatically improving the clarity or available light even without adding special filters or lenses. Some specialize in a particular look while others feature a range of styles.

How do these iPhone apps apply to the streets of New York? While I haven't yet jettisoned my point and shoot Panasonic Lumix, I'm enjoying the playfulness of the iPhone apps while out on my strolls through the city. I enjoy the ease of taking an image, the accessibility of creative choices on the spot and the convenience of sharing the image on Twitter or Facebook. Beyond these qualities, however, I'm enjoying the results of this odd mashup of new technology and vintage aesthetics. Depending on my mood and the choice of filters, I can make a moment on the New York street look like it's from 1885 or 1962. With the ability to make a subject more blue or more red, more sharp or more faded in the iPhone, I must look harder with my own nearsighted vision, corrected through blue-tinted solarized progressive lenses, to understand what image is inscribed on my retina for later memories. Just lately, however, Washington Square Park has looked a little more romantic to me, Broadway a bit more Parisian, and the East Village just a little bit green.

Settings on this versatile app encourage matching the scene with an appropriate filter. The lovely Helga and LOLO filters mimic lomography, with the latter paying homage to the Lomo LC-A. Other filters simulate black and white, Polaroid, 1962, and 1974. The "Cinema" setting (above), with its appropriate aspect ratio of 16:9 and silver screen effects, is particularly intriguing.

Celebrating the look of vintage toy cameras, the app's proportioned design, with the simulated camera filling the iPhone's screen on its horizontal axis, makes using the app intuitive and easy. Interchangeable lenses, flashes, and films provide some variety, with additional features available for purchase. One of the most intriguing photography apps in the iTunes apps store.

The Best Camera
The motto of this tripartite company (app, book, and community) founded by Chase Jarvis is "The Best Camera is The One That's With You." Filters include Candy, Jewel, Paris (below), Slate, Fade, Warm, Cool, and more, plus functions to make the image square or give it a frame.

I've just acquired two apps that I'm still exploring but like very much:

Inspired by the 1963 cartridge-based square 126 film format, mostly associated with the late, great Kodak Instamatic, Format126 includes several inspiring settings such as PolaColor for the old Polaroid look, LOFI (for dreamy colorful toy camera looks), and particularly good black and white settings.

Low-tech photography with this app includes an impressive range of effects. Medium format and retro effects and choices in 35mm film (even slide film!) make this app versatile and fun.

In addition to the apps that simulate analog photography, others allow specific looks. The popular Color Splash, one of the top-selling non game apps (CNBC), involves turning images to grayscale and then adding color for highlights. Pano for iPhone stitches together a sequence of images for a panorama. Several apps focus on black and white images. Many apps appropriate different kinds of image software.

For additional reading on this burgeoning field and to see some wonderful examples, consult the blogs iPhoneography (the author is one of the creators of the app Format126) and Life in LoFi: iphoneography.

One master of iPhone photo apps is a friend of mine living in Wisconsin and who goes by the online name of xenia elizabeth. See her Flickr photostream (xenia elizabeth) here for beautiful examples of low-tech iPhoneography.

Images by Walking Off the Big Apple. From top to bottom: Washington Square Park in the snow (CameraBag with Helga setting); MacDougal Street (CameraBag with Cinema setting); Washington Square Park pathway in the melting snow (CameraBag with LOLO filter) E. 9th Street near 2nd Avenue (Hipstamatic); near Grace Church, Broadway and 11th (The Best Camera, Paris setting). More images may be found in this set at Flickr WOTBA.

Related posts:
The Lomo-Leica Walk
How to Take Better Pictures with the iPhone 3G Camera
The more recent posts, Postcards from a Walk on St. Mark's Place and W. 8th Street and The Many Lives of Second Avenue, are illustrated with pix taken with the Lo-Mob app.


Terry B, Blue Kitchen said...

Fascinating post, Teri. I have to laugh at all of this, though, because camera makers--even cellphone camera makers--work so hard to get rid of imperfections and flaws that these apps strive to emulate. I remember poring over lens reviews back in the day, seeing how well the battle for the perfect lens was going.

Personally, I've shot a boatload of film, in an amazing variety of cameras, good, bad and ugly. Now that I've switched to digital, I'll be just as happy if I never shoot another frame of film in my life. I have a minuscule collection of vintage cameras, including a few I shot with. I love to look at them, but never need to use them again.

Teri Tynes said...

Thanks, Terry.
Like you I have a collection of film cameras, mostly ones I liked and couldn't throw away.
I'm getting a big kick out of experimenting with these camera phone apps, but's too funny to make images that look like faded photos from the past.