What is hipster photography?

Image from Hipster Mockumentary ‘Dalston Superstars’, Vice Magazine

I thought it would be helpful to delineate a type of photography I hesitatingly call ‘hipster photography’. Here I am not necessarily referring to photographs which depict hipsters such as the work of The Sartorialist Scott Schumann. Schumann’s photographs might be better described as fashion photography which, more than often, happens to depict hipsters. Nor am I interested in defining what a hipster is and how he or she looks like. Rather, I am interested in a new genre of photography which is apparently produced, promoted and disseminated by trend conscious people who are in contemporary visual culture referred to as hipsters. The difference between a photography of hipsters and a photography by hipsters might be subtle, yet in the context of this article it is nevertheless important to distinguish. The purpose of this article is not to denigrate hipster photography, but it is to deconstruct its visual signifiers which, in sum, have a distinct social, cultural and even economic function.

Hipster photograph found by searching Google Images with keywords ‘Hipster’ and ‘Photography’

In the very first instance, hipster photography depicts a curiously carefree world where people generally look happy joined by other people who look happy. This carefreeness explored in the image often appears slightly over the top and stands in contrast to the serious facial expressions more commonly associated with so-called art photography (in the work of Thomas Ruff for instance). As a way of reinforcing a carefree world, hipster photography usually also depicts good-looking people. Most commonly these would be of Caucasian origin yet other races also feature. As such, this is presumably a fairly democratic world where beautiful people of any colour, race or sex can be depicted in a photograph as long as they are also young. Youth and beauty. Two words so commonly brought together in the aesthetic appreciation of an image – or more precisely – an advertising image. Hipster photography thus lends itself amazingly well to the advertisement of a product: fashion, perfume, accessories or even cars.

Hipster Photography appropriated for commercial photography. Photograph by Mike Henry. All copyrights belong to the artist.

Fashion photography bordering on hipster photography

This happy carefree world is usually accentuated by an element of nudity. The more nude the subject the more carefree the world that they live in. Hipster photography does not depict uptight suits, metaphorically strangled by the clothing that they wear, but rather, it shows people who are, as the viewer presumes, genuinely free. The nakedness of the subject thus also informs the subject’s lack of class identifiers. The beauty of hipster photography is that, to an extent, it can range from a Lumpenproletariat to the upper class. Hipster photography does well in exceeding these class boundaries. I must emphasise that here I am not referring to any actual socio-economic circumstances, but instead, I am speaking about an impression gained through the viewing of a photograph. Hipster photography looks as if class boundaries are exceeded by a common understanding of what is cool.

hipster headdress
Consumption alluded to in hipster photography

Apart from the more common signifiers of coolness, such as tattoos, quirky haircuts, American Apparel type clothing, thick black framed glasses, geeky watches and so forth, hipster photography often incorporates a visual element in which the main subject consumes something. This form of consumption can range from cigarettes, alcohol or drugs, to an apple, chewing gum or a milk shake. This consumption in a sense emphasises that the subject is a living thing that needs nourishment or stimulation in order to carry on being cool. It reads as the fuel for coolness. Interestingly, the subject’s consumption further supports the case that hipster photography is often appropriated to advertise a product thus further provoking more consumption of perhaps a different product. Although hipsters depicts a carefree world, in general they carefully pick or curate the consumable objects they wish to be surrounded by.

Hipster photography and the curation of fashion/accessories/objects

Most commonly hipster photography depicts a group of people. The individual’s coolness thus bounces of the coolness of his or her fellow subjects. The important part here is that the people are cool together, usually focusing on a group of people who are of a similar age perhaps in the early to late twenties. This element of togetherness not only emphasises the apparently democratic dimension of hipster photography, but it also questions presumptions about heterogeneous relationships. As such, hipster photography purposefully alludes to a metrosexual and polyamorous world.

Metrosexuality and hipster photography appropriated by advertising photography

Even though I am not referring to any specific photographer or image (the photographs above are just random visual examples), most people reading this article will probably have a pretty good idea about what genre photography I am talking about. To a large degree, many images produced via the image sharing platform Instagram or shared on the micro-blog Tumblr might fit that mould. It could even be argued that the emergence of hipster photography is the very reason why Instagram and Tumblr became so popular in the first place. The question is not how social media gave rise to hipster photography, but how hipster photography gave rise to social media.

Image capturing the production of hipster photography

The emergence of hipster photography via Instagram, Tumblr and numerous other platforms points to a crucial characteristic that must be considered in this context. One of the key elements in hipster photography is the fact that it is shared with others. These are not private photographs that are personal keepsakes hidden on the bottom of a shoebox. They are loud images that say ‘look at me’. It is not enough to just photograph something, but that photograph must be shared in order to justify its existence and indeed the existence of the person taking the photograph. In short, hipster photography is an existential exercise, a performance, even a ritual that marks out a tiny territory – an identity – in a world filled with images.

Article by @MarcoBohr

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16 thoughts on “What is hipster photography?

  1. Thematically, the images here are little different from the popular photography by and about young people from any time starting from the mid 1960’s when high quality 35mm cameras and lenses became popular. These offered the possibility of high quality images under varying conditions that allowed for spontaneity or the appearance of spontaneity. Common visual themes then also included generally attractive people, clothes and accessories, a relationship to popular music (choose the music or fashion trend of the times), consumption of food, drink, and drugs, contemporary standards of youthful sexuality, and the interlinking of all the above. These images all share intent to drive desire for greater participation in the current youth culture. All of this was, and is, enabled by at least some levels of privilege which gives access to high quality image making devices and the means to distribute them. So, from the 1960’s to roughly just after 2000 you needed a good camera and access to a personal or commercial lab. The hard part in the pre- social web social sharing days was getting images out there; the privilege for distribution was more precious.

    What has changed is the photographer’s relationship to image production and display technology (meaning both old and new display tech such as prints or on-screen), distribution, and the image itself. These are all now seamless with the problem of distribution in large part solved. While I wouldn’t take the argument, it could be said that images are cheaper as a result. Maybe (hesitatingly?) there is a distinct hipster genre and, while I don’t know what it is, I would suggest a deeper look beyond current youth fashion trends in popular photography and commercial art that seeks to cash in on it. But then, again, if “hipster photography” is only a self-portrait of a subset of contemporary youth culture, then there is nothing really aesthetically new here beyond the consumables and the advanced distribution capability. Nothing new doesn’t make it bad or have no value. On the contrary, some images will endure as vital records or just great photos on their own. They just won’t be breaking any new ground.

  2. Great article, although I’m in doubt about the relation between social media and hipster photography. It sounds like the typical type of “what was the first: the chicken or the egg?” question.

    • There’s no doubt that if it weren’t for hipsters Instagram and Tumblr would be really different, in fact mainstream people like you and me (not us but similar to us) have adopted a lot of things from hipster iconography and they are using it for their photos in Instagram. The rise in popularity of these two is without doubt thanks to the hipster’s love for retro things and their love to share too.

  3. What a lame excuse for a photography genre. The first 3 shown here are merely snap shots. I can’t stand ‘hipsters’ …. or instagram.

    • I don’t get what people don’t like about them, for most of the part they are a pretty graphic influenced sub culture which doesn’t adds any problem to society (unlike 70´s punk or 90’s heavy metal sub cultures which were a bit violent -not all but many-) I think hipsters are the new hippies not in the sense of ideals of course but in the sense of their relaxed and free spirit attitudes.

      Sure they are not part of the “standard” but who is it? didn’t you were a grundge guy? or a jockey? or a nerd? etc.

      If they aren’t harming no one, nor they are breaking any law and they are happy why would anyone be mad at them?

      • They are super annoying is all. So many of them pretend to be artists, when really the majority are just graphic designers.

  4. This theme, the description of “hipster photography” could be easily inverted and used in the pejorative sense
    when defining this trend with little adjustment. It has become so ubiquitous that giving it a moniker threatens to reify
    a genre finely enough that adherents will swarm towards it and those who’ve become allergic to it can run away.
    For this I must give thanks. Although there’s little imaginative to the distinction, I think you should be rewarded.
    It may save many of us time. Henceforth, all blogs which use either the celebrity version or drab day to day version of wanna be self presentation will be isolated from other genres.

    I must dispute any suggestion that this genre epitomizes spontaneity in any way, shape or form. The depiction of party ennui, or group sex, or art world openings, or photographs from moving vehicles in no wise guarantees the capture of spontaneous imagery. That faith has been greatly disabused, and really even those with no faith in any existence of an avant-guard knew a long time ago that “spontaneity” in photography is merely another genre; the genre of “spontaneous photographs” is a planned recreation.

    We await a visionary character to explode on the hipster photography scene shortly and rescue it from the egregious entropy in which it has so long been held in thrall.

  5. A couple of things. First, the distinction of work of and by a group respectively is not necessarily subtle. Photographs of children, and by children, would not be expected to be the same in form or content (although the latter may include the former). In your case, it rather hinges on whether these people define themselves as hipsters, otherwise the distinction is entirely yours (and anecdotally, hipster is not a term people seem often to apply to themselves, but rather is used to disparage others).

    Second, I don’t see how you can fruitfully seek to describe a type of photograph while refusing to define its key attribute. No wonder the analysis here is in such general terms (happiness, beauty, youth, consumption, sharing). If hipster photography is a valid category, then one must be explicit about what a hipster is. Otherwise, your conclusions are so bland as to be of no descriptive value.

  6. You sound like the cranky old conservative denouncing rock and roll as a terrible fad.

    While I disdain hipsters, their crap photography is no different than the crap photography of ANY subculture. The relative in which you describe “hipster” photography can be applied to soccer mom photography, hip-hop photography, photography by tech geeks, and on and on.

    It sounds like you are trying to marginalize the hipster “culture” because you don’t understand it. Or maybe you were shunned by the hipster culture you so wanted to join and this is your way of striking back?

    Google hip-hop party pictures or frat party pictures or “insert subcultre here” party pictures and you will see the same types of photos with a different demographic.

  7. Judging by the images posted above, hipster photographs are made by combining in equal measures the 2 a.m. aesthetic of Terry Richardson, the pagan insouciance of skateboard magazines, and the impregnable snobbery of the Palm Beach Daily News.

  8. Sorry but this is beyond ridiculous. You’re trying to propose a new genre called ‘hipster photography’ while all you’re doing is merely describing the good old fashioned (commercial) genre of ‘lifestyle photography’ while trying to identify the currently prevailing myths of the hipster lifestyle. That in itself is not as easy as one might think, though, as is exemplified by your failure to do so. Your photographic examples show people who wouldn’t run in the same circles at all and even when used generously the term ‘hipster’ could hardly be applied to half of them (pejoratively or otherwise).

  9. While some seem irritated by the idea there’s no denying that this retro love that hipsters have is trascending to other sub cultures and even in the mainstream too, check out the fashion editorials these days and they borrow heavily from the retro look used in the photos hipster do (be it old film, instagram filter, etc.) their iconography is moving to the mainstream too, 5 or 6 years ago nobody would have used Ray Ban’s wayfarer frame for their reading glasses (or any other thick reading glasses frame) roll back to this day and they are ready available with other styles of retro big and thick eyewear frames.

    Not only that you see big brands like Bershka, Mango, Zara, H&M designing clothes that are like the one they usually wear from high waisted shorts to “Oh no granny bought me this horrible jersey sweater for x-mas” (although real hipsters buy their stuff from thrift stores not from mainstream clothing stores) brands are resurrecting old line watches too like the Casio with the F-91W and their gold and silver color versions too if you were a child in the 80’s you remember this watch (although again real hipsters buy them used too).

    So there is an iconography and a set of elements used and wore by them that are trascending to the mainstream culture and as such, trying to define why is so appealing is needad and it may be thanks on how they portray themselves and what are they portraying about themselves.

    We may or may not like this subculture, that’s totally and absolutely subjective in terms of valoration, however there’s no denying that their photos, iconography, clothes they wear, life style is being portrayed in an specific way that allows everything to permeate to the non hipster community, it may be valued more or less as an art form but definitly it is a valid style that as said before you now find in many of today’s fashion editorials and this says a lot about it, you and me maybe don’t use it but others are surely doing it.

  10. Really? Half of these photographs are commissions, which means that someone got models to “dress like hipsters” and got a photographer to click the shutter. Others are vernacular photos of teenagers at parties. If there is ANY such thing as hipster photography, it would be of garbage on the street. Duh.

  11. Everyone in the comments is arguing about how it’s not “hipster photography”

    Let’s be honest people, anyone with a social media account can tell you…

    This is hipster photography. The examples aren’t the best, but they’re pretty accurate.

    Face it, you’re hipsters if you’re denying this. It’s okay to be a hipster.

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