By now, many people have had the experience of taking a picture for a friend, then five minutes later looking at their phone and seeing that picture on the internet. This instantaneous posting phenomenon used to be limited to Facebook. Now it has migrated to Instagram.
For over 50 years photography has been ingrained in American culture. Even though the equipment has changed, from bulky film cameras, to Polaroid, camcorders, and finally digital, the purpose has stayed the same. Families and friends record special moments, immortalizing them in albums, or computers, to revisit later and revel in the nostalgia of good times. Now, because of the accessibility of having high-quality cameras in cell phones, moment capturing is no longer limited to those special occasions. Any moment can be photographed, and instantly exhibited on Instagram. This combination of mobile phone accessibility with instant posting, has led to Instagram’s exploding success, as well as a distinctive aesthetic trend that has heightened our awareness of everyday moments that used to pass unphotographed.
Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger launched Instagram as a smartphone app in 2012. Only about a year earlier, these two young professionals left their tech-industry jobs to develop their own creation. Nine months after launching the app, Instagram had five million users, and had peaked the interest of investors. Even though it wasn’t making any profit yet, offers reached up to $1 billion, Facebook’s initial public offer. In August 2012, Facebook bought Instagram for $750 million, and later that year, after gaining 100 million users, Instagram expanded the smartphone app to a full website.
Systrom described the aim of the site in an interview for The New York Times, saying, “We set out to solve the main problem with taking pictures on a mobile phone, which is that they are often blurry or poorly composed. We fixed that.” What sets Instagram apart from other social media/networking sites is its total emphasis on photos, and more specifically, its automatic filters and cropping function. Instagram has nineteen preprogrammed filters to choose from, ranging from “1977” to “Toaster.” Some of the filters adjust the color palette, making a photo sepia toned, warmer, or cooler in color. Some add a softer blur, some give more contrast, and there is a black and white option. The square crop it applies to photos is designed to resemble Polaroid cameras from the 1960s and 70s, such as the Brownie and Instamatic.
As a website or app, Instagram is a simple idea, but as a form of photography, it is more complicated. Instagram filters make photos look as if they are old, which invokes nostalgia, but they are current. The filters make images look unique and special. Also, because the site is primarily made up of photos (there are comments but they are visually deemphasized in comparison to the photos), users are encouraged to post frequently. Users view their friends’ lives as a steady flow of small, pleasing images.
When I spoke with Nikola Tamindzic, a New York City based photographer, he pointed out that people often don’t like the look of digital photography because it is too real, too much like the way we see. Viewers are often drawn to film, he explained, because it looks special. That specific grainy quality film has, the rougher, more textured look, says “photography.” That quality is also reminiscent of family albums and baby pictures, before the days of cheap accessible digital cameras. Instagram filters give that special film quality back to digital photos, so everyday can be seen as a special occasion. With this ability to make everyday objects look special, has Instagram changed the way young people view, and use, photography?
Not only has the structure of the site encouraged users to take pictures more often, but the editing functions also make photos look more artistic. I asked one user about the photographic value of his Instagram. He said he didn’t think of his posts in those terms at all. Many users though, have conformed to the visible trend in Instagram subject matter, which people typically sum up as puppies, flowers, and food. This easy subject matter has brought a fair amount of criticism upon Instagram users. In an article for The Awl, called “Your Beautiful Pictures Are Stupid,” Choire Sicha went as far as to call Instagram photos “infantile.” “They’re childish and nostalgic,” Sicha wrote, “They’re about sunny days and buzzing bees and reading books on a porch, and about roadtrips and romanticizing urban grime and being oh so gently alienated.” It is true that in terms of standard values of photography, typical Instagram subject matter would be considered obvious and kitschy.
But who cares if the subject matter tends to be a little cutesy? Instagram isn’t claiming to be a platform for up-and-coming amateur photographers; it’s a platform for social networking and sharing. Social media is increasingly part of our daily lives, and the simplicity and visual accessibility of Instagram makes sense. Sometimes, the filters do feel deceivingly artistic because they differ so much from the standard digital look we’ve come to expect.
Systrom described how the goal of Instagram was to correct the bad quality of mobile phone photos, but his company is not responsible for that. Mobile phone companies are. Instagram is really an accessory to the new and improved digital phone camera age, which brings accessibility to photography, a historically technical art form. Tamindzic, who has a Tumblr of his iPhone photos called “Fauxlaroids,” described how liberating this access is as an artist. Tamindzic refers to his Fauxlaroids as “sketches,” images that represent ideas for art but not the finished product. Mobile photos are a way for him to record a time and location to revisit later.
The instant-ness of mobile phone photography also contributes to the quality of spontaneity that surrounds Instagram. There’s an assumption with Instagram that it depicts users’ unedited lives. Primarily the feeling of spontaneity seems to be a part of the meaning the filters create. In an interview with Fader magazine, Systrom described the filters saying, “People look at the filters and they call them ‘vintage’… but we weren’t necessarily aiming for that. What we care about is giving you the tools to take a snapshot from your camera and turn it into the mood you want… It’s a way of expressing your life as it happens.”
The value that Systrom is giving Instagram is an exaggerated and romanticized vision of his site. In an age where there is no shortage of internet platforms for people to publish their every thought, it also may be smart to ask if every time your dog does something cute you have to show the world. But, if Instagram is coercing people to see the little things in life, like a sandwich or cup of coffee, as more beautiful and worth appreciating, that doesn’t sound like such a bad thing.