Instagram is changing the world of photography.
If you haven’t used the Internet since 2009, the iPhone app that Facebook bought for $1 billion dollars applies artsy, interesting filters to your cellphone images to create instant art. So instead of settling for that boring image of a tree you took, you can have an image of a tree with vintage colors, a vignette and fake lens flare—all with the single tap of a finger.
Boom. You now have art.
Not only that, but you get to upload your art to the social media platform of your choice—Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram itself—so your friends and strangers can vote on how awesome your image is.
Pretty great, huh? Now let me say something controversial:
I will admit—I’m a college-level photography student, I use Instagram recreationally and I was quickly charmed by its accessible allure. As a consequence of my generation’s nostalgia, I like old, flawed images to a degree I can’t quite explain. I understand the success of the app entirely, and still find amazement in how it can improve a lackluster cellphone image to my tastes.
So what’s my issue?
People have called Instagram a democratizing force, empowering anyone to be creative. I have a problem with this—I don’t think it works. Throwing a filter over an otherwise everyday image is not creative, it’s borderline lazy. A hypersaturated picture of your breakfast cereal is still a picture of your breakfast.
Art, or at least good art, is not just about looks—you need content.
If art is about personal expression, what are you expressing with a bowl of cereal? The narcissism of social media has a significant role in this behavior. Whether you tweet it or Instagram it, no one really cares what you had for breakfast. And given this social media aspect, is art also supposed to be a popularity contest where the “likes” determine the image’s success?
To call Instagram a creative process is a stretch. The trial and error process of choosing the right filter reserves only the smallest degree of creativity. Where a Holga leaves uncertainty and randomness to the process (not to mention the pain of developing it), Instagram leaves a finite 17 effects for its 40 million users to play with. To the artists out there, don’t worry too much—the MoMA won’t be holding an Instagram retrospective of any cellphone photographer anytime soon.
Hypothetically, if McDonald’s likes the hipster-styled shot you took of their drive through sign, they can use it in an ad campaign without your consent or benefit. And if I like the cute dog picture you took, I can print it on a t-shirt and sell it for my own profit? What good artist isn’t into that?
Settle down now, you can still use Instagram and not feel bad about it.
Maybe Instagramers aren’t always striving for art, and are just documenting their lives. I use it and the guilt is mild. Still, if we’re talking about family-album memory photography here, will your grandkids lose perceive of your youth, as photographed through fake filters from before you were born?
A troubling aspect of Instagram is that most of the youngsters using it don’t even understand the analog technology its filters imitate, and Instagram isn’t alone. There is something so weird and disconnected about an app that shoots a virtual Polaroid, feeds it out onto the screen and then makes you shake it for a minute to make the image to appear.
In high school and college, I have been lucky enough to experiment with polaroids, toy cameras, alternative processes and the darkroom. But most people younger than me have never even shot a roll of 35mm film—I wonder how their experience with these filters is different from mine.
For quote-unquote “photographers” like myself, Instagram can be seen as a threat—but that doesn’t mean it is bad.
Technology always progresses, and there were plenty of film purists who were/are upset with the way digital photography makes quality imagemaking so much more approachable to the masses.
The effects Instagram creates are limiting and void of intrinsic meaning, but aesthetically strong. If applied with proper intention, great things can happen—making Instagram a potential tool for artists, not an art maker in itself. The real challenge for imagemakers of the future will be to escape the doomed to become cliché look of these currently hip stylings.
For photographers and art makers the challenge is the same, but with a new presence—be original, creative and create meaning.
The more complex threat is the cultural interpretation of what art is and isn’t. Just like Grandma says above, “Don’t think you are a photographer, just because you use Instagram,” just like using paint-by-number doesn’t make you a painter. On the positive side, maybe the reach of Instagram will inspire a generation to take these tools to the next level.
If I have any plea to the Instagram community it is this: use it mindfully, not mindlessly.
For more opinions on the significance of Instagram:
(Thanks to Adán De La Garza)
Ryan Pinkard is an editorial intern at Elephant Journal. He is a wanderlust backpack journalist in training, and a student at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Find his writing and his images from around the world at ryanpinkard.com. Follow his reviews and exploits on music at milkdrinkscat.tumblr.com.