Bill Barol on the Hipstamatic

(The following essay was written by my pal, writer Bill Barol. Look for more from him on Boing Boing in the future! — Mark)

Even if the Hipstamatic were just another iPhone app it'd be worth your two bucks. What's not to like? The Hipstamatic 110 (the next-gen 150 is in review at the App Store) is a great little photo app that attempts to replicate the experience of shooting with a cut-rate '80s snapshot camera, right down to the leatherette "skin" and the big clunky shutter button. But the app isn't aping just any cheap camera; it's the reincarnation of the mysterious, beloved Hipstamatic 100, and right there is where the story takes a turn.

The original Hipstamatic was the invention of two Wisconsin brothers, Bruce and Winston Dorbowski. In the winter of 1982 they came up with what their big brother Richard later called "a million dollar idea for bringing photographic art to the masses cheaply" — a camera inspired by the popular Kodak Instamatic (and probably by the Russian Lomo) but made entirely of plastic, right down to the lens. The brothers set up a fabricating shop in a tiny cabin on the banks of the Wisconsin River and got to work. Over the next 18 months they produced just 157 cameras, at $8.25 retail apiece. In the summer of 1984 they were on their way home from signing the lease on a new production facility when they were killed by a drunk driver. Nine years later the family lost most of the brothers' photos and work archives in a fire, and the Hipstamatic slipped into the half-light of photo history.

The story would have ended there, except for Richard Dorbowski.

In the summer of 2007 he decided to set up a web site memorializing his younger brothers. The site languished for two years, until two Web developers from Minnesota contacted Dorbowski about reviving the Hipstamatic for the iPhone. Their studio, Synthetic Infatuation, released Hipstamatic 110 just before Christmas last year. It's now in the Top 5 of iPhone photo apps. And it's an absolute blast. The clever interface is wholly successful at mimicking the experience of shooting with a Hipstamatic 100, even allowing a user to change "lenses" as he could with the original, or swap out "films" (which are really just cleverly-repackaged sets of digital effects). Best of all, the developers have so far resisted some users' requests that Hipstamatic have the capability to reprocess images shot in the iPhone camera app, keeping true to the "Grab it in real time and take your chances" aesthetic of the original camera. This hasn't prevented a community of iPhone shooters from getting some inventive and beautiful results. Their photographs are odd, skewed, sometimes murky, and have a great found-image quality. Which seems like exactly what the brothers would have wanted. According to Richard Dorbowski, writing on his blog in a post that manages to capture, snapshot-like, a complicated picture of love, grief, and passing time:

"My brother Bruce once said, 'It doesn't matter if the photos aren't perfect — as long as people are capturing memories I will be happy.' At the time I didn't agree, but now in my fifties I finally understand what he was talking about."

Hipstamatic web site | Hisptamatic iPhone app | Hipstamatic Flickr Pool