Several years ago, I began experimenting with an ancient Samsung mobile phone camera. The ridiculously cheap lens and complete absence of functionality produced quirky lo-fi – short for low fidelity, typically taken with poor-quality equipment – images that delighted me in a way SLR photography had not for years.
In just a few years and with an irresistible inevitability, mobile phone photography has gone from fringe to mainstream. Photo apps have stormed the kingdom of photography and dethroned the SLR.
About a decade ago, a camera was a minor feature on your phone. Today, Apple markets itself through giant reproductions of images taken with its iPhone 6.
But in late 2009, before the first photo had ever been posted on Instagram, an app designed to look like an old-fashioned camera went on sale on the Apple Store. The name appealed to a generation that wanted to be cool and sought something easy to use. Hipstamatic had arrived.
For the wired generation, it was love at first sight. Within a couple of years, more than four million people had downloaded the app. Hipstamatic groups sprouted around the globe. Exclusive Hipsta competitions and exhibitions were established. And for the first time, professional photographers admitted to using an app on assignment.
With its interchangeable lenses, assorted films, oddball flash guns and brightly coloured cases, Hipstamatic introduced an artist’s sensibility to photographic gear. The eccentricity of analogue toy cameras had been updated for the digital era. Hipstamatic’s mission seemed to be to make so-called ugly images beautiful. Light leaks, frayed and torn borders, overexposure and problematic focus were, it seemed, just what the times required.
Today, Instagram may monopolise the social media space for retro/lo-fi photography but Hipstamatic remains the photographer’s choice when it comes to apps. A lot of Hipstamatic’s appeal lies not just in the retro feel of the camera and the ever-growing volume of films and lenses but in its aesthetic.
Hipstamatic has style. Each lens looks as if it has been lovingly handcrafted by an expert artisan. Every film is unique and comes packaged in its own box. Both have a back story, often inspired by professional photographers that the developers particularly admire.
The app has an India connection too. Although all of Hipstamatic’s founders are design professionals, it’s the Creative Director Aravind Kaimal whose vision is most visible on Hipstamatic.
Kaimal was born in Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of the South Indian state of Kerala, and spent his childhood drawing. Tintin, the hero of a comic series by Belgian cartoonist George Remi, and his dog Snowy, served as the inspiration for much of his art at the time.
At the age of 17, Kamal landed in the US and went to art school in Chicago. At his first job, he crossed paths with graphic designer Lucas Buick, who, years later, asked for Kaimal’s help in designing a new photo app, tentatively named Hipstamatic. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Was your family artistic or photographic in any way?
My parents appreciate any form of art, but we never had photographers in my family. I loved cameras ever since I can remember, mostly because it was the coolest looking gadget in the house with all the intricate buttons. But I didn’t realise it was all about understanding "how to paint with light" until I took photography classes in college.
You came to the US to study. Was photography part of that?
Yes, I went to Columbia College Chicago. My goal was to become a designer or an illustrator. Photography was a part of the curriculum. All of us at Hipstamatic went to art school, we all had to take darkroom and photography classes.
Your art has been described as “cognitively influenced by the chaos and simplicity of the two cultures [you] grew up in.” Could you explain what that means?
My motherland [India] is chaotic – at least, that’s one of the first things that come to my mind. But it is not a dysfunctional culture. Underneath the chaos, there is a 5,000-year-old civilisation that has done a great amount of research and development on consciousness in its simplest form. The top layer is uncomfortable with silence and that is reflected in the everyday life and art.
Everything is larger than life. Clothing is colorful, food has to be overloaded with spices (I am not complaining), traditional art and architecture is full of ornate patterns and sculptures with no part of the canvas left blank. Street walls covered in melodramatic movie posters and extravagant processions or weddings all reflect the aspirations of a country that wants to pull itself out of poverty. This had a huge influence on me growing up.
After leaving India, I was able to look at it from a third-person’s perspective. As an American, I find myself searching for the same things as people in India. But the way things are expressed here [in the US] in a young and developed nation of 350 million is more subtle. People are constantly trying to express in the most unique way possible. It pushes you to think differently. That leaves me two huge reservoirs to tap into for inspiration and ideas.
Have you been involved with Hipstamatic from Day One?
Lucas Buick and Ryan Dorshorst [the co-founders] conceived the idea in 2009. Luke approached me to with some sketches, wondering if I could help him. I have collaborated with the boys on several projects before and I was in love with their new idea. I rendered the [original] camera shell User Interface and some assets. We had to hit the ground running as we were racing against time.
What exactly is your role as creative director? Are you the one who comes up with the new filters each month?
The idea for each effect [film, flash or lens] is a collaborative process. As the creative director, I make sure we, as a team, are in love with anything that we put out. Sometimes we partner with photographers and I try to incorporate their inputs. Also, we make a lot for filters that can be considered as a tribute to the different styles and techniques in photography itself. To put the process into a pipeline, I design the effect and our co-founder Ryan uses his magic to bring it to life.
One of the most appealing aspects of Hipstamatic for me is the love that seems to have gone into the design and naming of the lenses, the films and even the boxes that carry them. They really are miniature masterpieces!
Thank you. I am glad there are users out there who can appreciate the little things. I try to match the packaging design with the look and feel of the effect. As a designer, I really enjoy this process.
There is a lens named after your father, Kaimal Mark II, and another called Ray Mark II. The backstories of both are linked to India and its cinema. The description of the Kaimal lens talks of Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan and the second is named after iconic filmmaker Satyajit Ray. Is Indian cinema a big influence on your artistic sensibility?
I was a big fan of Amitabh Bachchan growing up – it was his larger-than-life persona [that drew me to him]. Ray, on the other hand, was a realist, and I used to fall asleep when my dad would make me watch his movies. It was not until I turned 30 that I started understanding them. The film grading process of commercial Indian cinema definitely came in handy with those effects. The Kaimal lens effect was designed by Lucas and he did look at retro Bollywood movies for inspiration.
Hipstamatic has been championed by many professional photographers. Several lenses, combos and films are named after them. Have photographers like Ben Lowy and Chris Hornbecker been Hipstamatic users before they were memorialised in the effects?
Yes, they where all Hipstamatic users even before they decided to work with us. Mario Estrada, our director of fun [vice president – special projects], is in-charge of setting up the relationship and collecting feedback. We closely work with them and try to incorporate all their inputs.
Hipstamatic got a lot of flack from its fans last year when Version 300 was introduced. Was that difficult for the team? Given the passion of the Hipsta community around the world, is there a desire to engage with that community on issues like design and features?
Yes, absolutely. We are here because of our core users. Listening to them is our number one priority. We have weekly team meetings to discuss and prioritise requests and reports. I believe this week we went back to 5 stars [their rating on Apple Store] because we listened to our passionate community.
Version 300 of the app gives users a more complex range of photographic options, such as adjustable exposure and frame size. Is this a move away from a lo-fi approach to a more full photographic experience? Is Hipstamatic trying to reach a new type of user?
We realise our core users are passionate photographers, the new tools were based on the large amount of requests we got.
How do you see Hipstamatic developing over the next year or two?
We want to keep photography alive. As always, we will focus on tools that can inspire people to explore the world and be storytellers.
Do you have an especially loved lens and film combination?
Tintype is my favorite combo. We were able to replicate the nuances of this long-lost craft.
Do you see a future for SLRs and photography produced by traditional means? Or do you think it is inevitable that photography is essentially now an art of the cell phone?
Capturing still images will always be there but the medium will keep evolving. Passion drives photographers, whether you have a cell phone or a SLR. Some people are born with an eye for capturing the beauty of the simplest things.
How has Hipstamatic, in particular, and mobile phone photography apps in general, changed photography?
Cell-phone photography is aspiring to be sharp, clean and high-resolution, which makes a great canvas to start with. We create tools that add warmth, depth, focal point and all the randomness.
Do you follow the work of any photographers from India? What about among the Hipstamatic community?
Anita Khemka and Pablo Bartholomew are the names that immediately come to my mind from India. But I have an endless list of photographers from the Hipsta community that I look up to, naming one person wouldn’t be fair. It’s really hard to be a juror and pick someone to be Number One in Eric Rozen’s annual Hipstamatic Awards.
What makes a good picture?
Anything that evokes an emotion is a good picture.