Some meandering trail of web surfing brought me back to Flickr today, and I wondered whether anyone else is bugged by the square thumbnails – see my post from 5 June – or whether a distaste for machine-cropped 1:1 aspect ratios is just my private obsession.
I found a much more poetic diatribe by Glenn McDonald. He says he prefers an extreme horizontal 3:1 ratio, although I found little evidence of that in his (quite beautiful and well-narrated) galleries. But his explanation of what is happening with Flickr is bang on:
Cropping 4:3s and 3:4s to 1:1 symmetrically is technically trivial, and although it's aesthetically unreliable in the abstract, the vast majority of amateur photographs are center-weighted, so it usually turns out OK. Actually, the vast majority of amateur photographs are also probably framed too widely, so a little universal symmetrical cropping almost certainly improves more Flickr pictures than it damages.
He goes on to describe how ubiquitous square thumbnails in galleries will shape our own perceptions of what we want, leading ultimately to square-format cameras, and tools that make it even harder to process non-square scenes. One day, even 4:3 will seem ‘extreme’.
This self-reinforcing dependent vogue for square photography is, I think, a machine gain and a human loss. Worse, it's a sparkly machine-gain that humans are lining up to lose.
He concludes with a rousing appeal to designers and developers to make our tools less sparkly – keep the flaws conspicuous, and we'll be more likely to address them.
We make our tools in the easiest shapes, and then we accommodate their limitations, and then we hone them to perfect their limits, and then we forget that this is not how we wanted to live.