Desert Companion

How-to: Notes from an Insta-guru

In my hands, Instagram is to photography what doodling is to art: a lesser form, but one that’s faster, looser, more experimental — and way more fun. Somewhere, I have a fancy digital SLR, and it’s great at producing images of things that look exactly like those things. But Instagram made me realize that I don’t want to be a photographer, with all the boringly acquired expertise that entails. I just want to zap some weird images into this world, and Instagram, with its filters and simple picture-tweaking tools, both forgives my technical impatience and urges me to keep trying new tricks.

Of course, most Instagrammers use the app to impart a mildly arty look to snaps of their daily mundanities — friends, kids, pets, an endless buffet of food shots. I’ve done that, too — sometimes you just gotta show off that plate of barbecue. But if I want ordinary sights, I’ll look at life itself. From the eight megapixels of my cell cam, I want a heightened reality, a playful surreality and, if I’m lucky, perhaps an image I haven’t seen before.

[HEAR MORE: Hear more Brenda Priddy discusses “car spy photography” on KNPR's State of Nevada.]

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I’m not an artist, but I can try to think like one: What’s a good subject? What’s good composition? Symmetry. Maybe asymmetry. Balance. (1) A building and a tree aren’t equal in mass, but here they take up roughly similar amounts of the picture plane. More important, the composition is the subject, embodied in the emotional balance between the somber architecture and the stark, wintry branches, the mood deepened by Instagram’s “Brannan” filter. That’s not exactly what the scene looked like, but it’s definitely what I saw. Same principles apply when you get close (2). The surprise perspective, the resonant mood, reframing the familiar to emphasize a meaning, in this case nostalgia for my long-gone youth.

Why merely document when you can idealize? Thanks to cloud-filtered sunlight, Instagram’s “Jefe” filter and the contrast function, a tumbledown shack in rural Utah (3) acquires the kind of hyperreal, art-directed look that actual life so rarely provides.

One of the app’s signature functions is selective focus. I recently snapped my granddaughter surrounded by the buildings of Salt Lake City (4); with just her in focus, the photo takes on an ephemeral, dreamy aspect, as if she’s a fairy-tale figure popping out of an urban diorama.

Once you’ve tweaked a shot, you can save and re-import it into Instagram for more treatment. It’s hard to imagine a more ordinary picture than storage units in Henderson (5). But I liked the down-the-middle, light-dark composition, so I cycled it through Instagram a few times, upping the contrast and applying the “Jefe” filter with each round. Now the doors on the left glow an unnatural orange from their pool of impenetrable shadow; on the right, the pavement looks apocalyptically ravaged, ready for a Mad Max moment.

But you can always get crazier. Apart from Instagram, my cell-cam has built-in shooting modes, including “negative.” When I used that to shoot a luau fire (6), I got this wondrous picture of black flame. Which Instagram’s filters pushed even further from easy recognition, at last giving me the quiet satisfaction of creating an image I’d never seen before.


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