As an artist, reading pontifications from tech writers about what constitutes art is about as close as I’ll get to the level of interest and irritation a bull experiences in the flapping of a cape. But, ever since Instagram became a major component of first-world culture, I’ve been increasingly aware of the drivel being passed out (and rarely replied to) by each of the archetypal members of the “conversation”. And ever since yesterday, when Facebook bought Instagram, that conversation has gone from suck to blow.
“Instagram is destroying photography because the photos are yellow, and our kids won’t understand what our world was really like." — people, everywhere
I’ve heard one iteration or another of this comment many times. Whether we’re talking debt, national defense, or Instagram, I find it astonishing how concerned we are with our kids. Many of them aren’t even born yet. If we are any indication, we’re doing just fine dissecting and understanding our parents, and they aren’t even done destroying the world. We, the “You Are Special” generation, could be served by imagining a world in which our kids don’t care so much about all the pictures we took and put on the internets. They probably won’t.
But, to be less abstract (and more serious): even if it were true that Instagram is simply and singularly a place for sepia-toned and badly-composed images to await the eyes of our children (just dying to know more about us), those very images would say plenty. In addition to documenting the world we lived in—from gadget fetish to meme obsession—they would also tell the story of a deeply nostalgic society. So many people are so taken by the associations and aesthetics of filters and effects that alter images to appear like those of another time, made by the mechanisms of other, more tangible machines than the shiny lozenges in our pockets (lozenges upon which, until last week, the hardware disappeared with a Jobsian flourish at the moment we engaged the home button). This desire for authenticity, even in the form of software’s simulacra, says so much about who we are now, and the way our world looks. As for filter-free Instagrams? The most revealing aspect of those images is not the clarity and “honesty” they provide, it’s the oft-tapped and self-righteous footnote they are so often delivered to the world with: #nofilter. Filter or no, we are a people repeatedly revealing our need for authenticity.
Before we acknowledge the art that can be produced with and without filters on Instagram (or anywhere else), we should first address their most practical reason for existence. When Instagram first arrived, the iPhone it was built for didn’t feature the best camera in the world (although it was an amazing camera, when one considers the context). It wasn’t a DSLR, and given the consumer craze for DSLR’s at the time, it was fair (if illogical) for consumers to expect their pictures to be more striking than those of a typical 2010 camera phone. Meantime, other elements of the experience were young too. The phones were less capable, and the apps available for editing photos were less capable too. Pre-packaged, contrast-heavy, and slightly over-saturated filters were a great way to satisfy the desire an average iPhone user had for images that were worthy of their memories and their friends. As the hardware and software improve, and more control and ease of use are afforded to the user, the tool itself will more plainly prove its worth.
From the beginning, out of this large (and constantly growing larger) set of users, there has been a select group of users able to build an acuity for which—if any—filters to use and when, in order to produce individual streams of images suitable for their aims. In addition, they soon enough became aware of the other photo-editing apps available, and some went so far as to use more than one. You can call these people professional photographers, artists, or simply people with taste. In addition to the fine things crafted by the sacred few, there are a great number of 'snapshots' worth seeing, usually from the streams of family and friends, just like there used to be in the days of Kodak and actual socializing. Whichever exemplar you choose, you’ll get in trouble with someone who believes such a distinction of quality or even art is impossible, because Instagram is an app, and your choices are pre-ordained within that app. You'll also get in trouble with those that espouse rather esoteric taste. And, people with bad taste. But these laments are silly. Even on the rarest occasion of their fulfilled potential, are not tubes of oil color mixed and filled by someone (or something) else? Since when was art, or quality, or value determined by such arbitrary (and layered) measures of authenticity?
Instagram is an incredibly open tool for creativity. Are there constraints? Yes. Is it pedestrian? Of course. But to say art can’t be made there is to be the fool who challenges an artist not to make something interesting out of an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper. That analogy alone should give photography purists pause, as they worry not about art, but the purity of their fetish for their preferred form. It would likely frighten them to learn that the technicians who have been perfecting the production of acrylic paint for the last several decades have had one major goal before them: replicating the quality of oil paint. Most people can’t tell the difference between the two, and more importantly—even fewer people care. Those who care really care. But you know what? Collectors and curators alike have been embracing acrylic paint for a while. Instagrams aren’t being confused with instant film (yet), but soon enough, no one will even care about the distinction. Especially so long as interesting and powerful images can be produced with the medium. Increasingly, they can.
Image-making methods tend to experience periods of popularity, but rarely do they go extinct. And never have they simply replaced one another on a linear timeline. Those who worry what is becoming of photography would be more honest to admit they're worried about themselves and their place in the narrative. Painting—a medium that supposedly died in 1964, and again in 1988—is also a medium that has assisted, at times, in my ability to eat food and live indoors. There is room for old things.
Is Instagram largely a giant pot of kitsch and agony and poorly-composed ugly? Yes, it is. And so is the world. Is Instagram a place where beautifully delicate, artful, singular, and profound images can be produced and easily shared? Yes, it is. And it also resembles the world in that such things can be produced by a few, and unlike the world before it, in which image sharing was less personal, less mobile, and less accessible than the square and instant image you are holding in your hand—anywhere. 15 years ago, the white-coated man at the lab could probably tell you how ugly and artless the world was (at least in terms of his user base). Now we all get to peek, and we all get to discover, too. This isn't what I did, this is what I'm doing. It's so instant that there's a word for photos that aren't instant (#latergram). An app, a tiny little free app that can do so much, with so little friction—that’s worth a billion dollars.
Despite Instagram's obvious worth, I wish Facebook wouldn’t have bought it. My reason is exemplified by a story we all share in one form or another, and therein one will find the very set of reasons Facebook had for acquiring Instagram (and the paradox that annoys my sadness). Most of the wistful declarations out there conjure Instagram to be the beloved set of dixie-cup-and-string “phones” we dangled from our tree-houses, astonishingly (and rudely) acquired by the Bell Company, the public utility that keeps growing. There’s something to that. Instagram was built by a few people, people that “followed” us and let us visit their office. And Facebook is, more and more, a public utility. A phonebook, yellow pages and all. But that isn’t really the way the story goes, and those analogies (appropriately) don’t make total sense. What really happened to our romantic little cup-phones? We got older. We matured. The fun could only last so long. And so it goes with these phones.
I don’t mean to say that the fun with Instagram is over. But it’s wise to wonder. A free app that was ad-free and run by a few guys earning nothing but investment? That couldn’t last forever, and there was always an endgame to that thread. I wish it hadn’t been bought for the same reasons that a child doesn’t want to go to bed, or grow up. I wasn’t finished. In that sense, I was (and continue to be) just the sort of user they wanted and needed to produce the valuable product that Instagram now is. Users want an Instagram that remains in the magical stasis of community and independence it so recently occupied. Others want users to be happy for the faceless individuals who made millions off the app (and resultant happiness) that may soon change. Both desires lack a sense of reality. Users were the valuable product even before Facebook entered the picture, and even so, users want a product they value. My hope is that Facebook puts as much thought into Instagram’s future as they did cash. Perhaps I shouldn’t, but I’ll trust that they will. Meantime, I can make things anywhere—who profits is another matter.