How Instagram is changing photography

  • Photo by Meghan Ralston
By
From the November 29, 2012 edition

For better or for worse, the smart phone photo-taking application is the newest thing to democratize the art of image making and change the way professional photographers work

Instagram is the new Polaroid. It may be the new Facebook. And we’d bet our Valencia filter that it’s the latest medium of lowercase “a” art.

Consider this: Last week on Thanksgiving Day, more than 10 million photos with holiday themes in the captions were posted to the smart phone app; that’s 266 photos about Thanksgiving uploaded every second.

It’s the social media du jour for teenagers, said Columbus College of Art and Design marketing and communications director Robin Hepler. Instagram has climbed to the top of the social media pyramid in CCAD’s efforts to recruit students.

Professional art institutions aren’t ignoring the app’s popularity either. The Columbus Museum of Art currently has a small show of Instagram photographs. CMA asked Instagrammers to take images that best represented eight words, such as curiosity and joy.

The museum’s photography curator Catherine Evans narrowed down the 30-something selections from 900 submissions. What makes an Instagram photo good, she said, is similar to what makes a photo by any other tool artistically appealing.

“What’s the picture that you haven’t seen a million times already?” Evans said.

That standard has many photographers unafraid to party like it’s 1977. (Last filter joke. Promise.)

Duncan Snyder, CCAD’s photography chair, is a self-professed Instagram addict. It has changed his art.

“I was never really comfortable with reportage photography,” said Duncan, who used to prefer landscapes. “I was trying to look very intensely at something — go out and wait for the right light, wait for that exquisite moment. Instagram is 180 degrees from that. It has made me more flexible, open. That’s the freeing thing about these technologies. It throws preciousness out the window and puts you in that visceral place. It’s a different kind of risk.”

And a different kind of challenge.

“I have to flex my photographic muscles knowing that my mom can do the same thing I can do,” Snyder laughed.

The issue of image-making accessibility to the smart phone-wielding public is something professional photographer Adam Lowe is cautiously optimistic about. Instagram has helped him stay innovative, and images of those he follows have provided ideas of places to photograph clients. It’s when people want him to mimic Instagram styles verbatim that things get tricky.

“Art does not work that way. If you hire someone for their photography work, you are hiring them as an artist to create a set of images in their own style,” Lowe said. “It very much confuses people on what art is and how it is produced. On the other hand, a client can see your work through Instagram, love it and hire you on the spot.”

A high-resolution and smattering of sepia a professional photographer does not make.

Or does it?

That’s the question local filmmaker Andy Newman considers in “Portrait: A Documentary on Instagram and Photography.” The film presents the stories of two Seattle-based photographers, one a professional digital photographer and one an Instagram user with more than 173,000 followers. The film quietly, beautifully lets you decide whether both are artists.

Newman said, “There are always going to be new platforms and new ways to do things.”

A la the Polaroid picture!

“The Polaroid [one step] camera was one of those things that made photography available to new groups of people and it just blew everyone’s minds,” Snyder said. “Instagram is Polaroid on steroids.”

Water cooler-talk tip: That 1977 Instagram filter’s white rectangle border is meant to mimic the Polaroid’s signature style. The one-stepper came out in 1977.

“It’s interesting how we’re looking to the past and looking for the aesthetic of those photographs,” said Leonardo Carrizo, a multi and social media journalism lecturer at Ohio State University. “We can’t physically feel the images anymore… but the look is really popular right now. That’s a very unique fact that perhaps has more to do with social behavior but has something to do with that nostalgia to touch a photograph. I do miss holding a photo, being able to frame it.”

Perhaps, probably sooner rather than later, Instagram and the iPhone will be something whose absence we bemoan. In the meantime, more artsy attempts at turkey pictures and amateurs in the museums await.