I Still Don't 'Get' Instagram
Dec 18 2012
A few weeks back, I wrote an article for this website entitled "I Don't 'Get' Instagram". In case you were too busy taking pictures of your dinner/nails/nearest tall bulding/face to notice, it was essentially an attack on the already-maligned smartphone photo app of the same name and a chance for me to attract plaudits for being a "grandpa", "15-year-old goth" and "pessimistic ass hater". It basically dealt with the fact that Instagram looks like shit and people take photos of shitty stuff with it. But that's a given, right?
What I didn't realise is that, aside from the al fresco dessert crowd most of the vitriol was aimed at, there's a whole other community of people who really love Instagram. And I don't just mean people who use it to take pictures of their mates by The Shard a lot, I'm talking about people who see it as the most exciting tool for modern artistic expression since the elephant turd. Instagram seemed to be a movement boasting not only sympathisers, but acolytes. A lot of them, unsurprisingly, commented on the blog.
I was intrigued by these people. Instagram is obviously not something that's unanimously hated, but I couldn't imagine that anybody would have particularly strong feelings about it in a positive direction. To me, loving Instagram seemed like loving Pret A Manger – surely it's just something that's sort of always there, a constant that nobody really cares too much about. My confusion increased when Instagram declared that it now has the right to sell everyone's photos. In the main, people seemed less pissed off for reasons pertaining to privacy infringement, and more because they weren't going to get paid for their shitty, filtered photos of their feet.
Just after that bombshell hit social media, I heard about an Instagram exhibition going on in a gallery close by. I decided to head down to the "Instagrammer meet up" (with a proper camera) to see what it was all about and if I could be indoctrinated into this very strange, very middle-class cult.
The event took place in one of those spaces off Brick Lane where they usually have street art exhibitions and wholesale trainer sales full of Japanese hipsters with ginger hair. However, inside felt more like an arts and crafts fair in a Sussex town hall or a parents' evening at a New Labour academy school than the douchebag-fest I expected.
As soon as I walked through the door I was welcomed with open arms, despite not being on the invite list. I began to feel like a bit of a wanker, sauntering in with my predetermined opinions on somebody else's hobby. I expected to be confronted with a room full of the worst kind of Silicon Valley cycle warriors and pop-up veal kebab proprietors, but everybody just seemed really nice. I felt like a Nike CEO at a knitting group, or an oil baron visiting a quaint Highlands village he planned to return to one day to bulldoze.
The crowd was mostly made up of Antipodeans who work in non-financial jobs in the city and your standard shiny, happy London tweeters – y'know, the kind of kind-hearted people who volunteer at city farms, get excited about flash mobs and wear festive hats in public at Christmas (there's a novelty reindeer one in the background there, if you look close enough).
Within minutes, I found myself having a name tag draped over my neck and thrust into a photo opp with a lot of people in fleeces. I hadn't even seen any of the pictures yet, but I had been welcomed into their fold like a kind of social media Pocahontas. Apparently this was an Instagram of all the Instagrammers, which is probably the most self-aware thing that's ever happened anywhere.
Now that the first Instagram of the night had been taken (I guess you can see it somewhere online, I'm not sure where), it was time to go check out some of the art on the walls.
Alas, while the photos on display weren't the Broadway Market mojitos and Heron Tower sunsets I'd feared, the content wasn't exactly Hasselblad Masters material, either. I don't want to be a dick here, because I'm sure they mean well, but I'm finding it hard to think of a London scene any more banal than red telephone boxes, some buses and Big Ben.
I'm no Culture Show pundit, but if all art is supposed to be in som way transcendental and transportative, the only place these transported me to was the men's room of a rip-off panini cafe near Victoria station.
Having said that, one intrepid snapper had managed to source out some kind of strange, futuristic tunnel system in our city. Just what are these space-age pathways that lie beneath us? The photos looked alien, clinical, like something from Gattaca or the cyberpunk megastore in Camden Market. They seemed to have stairs that carry you up and down, and adverts for strange, shockingly overpriced theatre productions lining the walls. How had I managed to live in London my entire life without seeing the steel intestines of my city? If anybody knows how to get down there, let me know – I'm sure there'd be a good piece in this if we can fund the requisite digging equipment.
There were more red buses at this exhibition than the Norwood depot and enough phone boxes to fool you into thinking all the photos had been taken at some point before the advent of mobile communication. I wasn't sure if there was perhaps some kind of primitive, intrinsic beauty to these postcard images that my vastly underdeveloped taste wasn't getting, or if Instagram only works on main roads.
A sign of just how far the Instademic has spread – and just how predictable the photo opps are – was that my glamorous assistant had basically an exact replica of one of the exhibited photos on her own phone. I'm not sure where it is – some park where they don't let you get drunk on the grass, presumably.
I understand that art is all about perspective and what have you, but the filter-heavy aesthetic of Instagram seems to strip away individuality from each photo, creating a uniform style. Much like a 21st century Polaroid, I suppose, but without any of the charm.
As my understanding of photography only really extends to "don't forget to wind it on", I thought I'd let somebody who knows a little bit more about this sort of thing have their say. Step forward Mr Jake Lewis, the night's photographer and VICE's own Don McCullin.
"Looking at all the images together like this, you notice a huge repetition. And it's not as if the repeated images are even particularly interesting, they're things you see every day – a London phone box, or a burger – only everything's in black and white, bar the red of the phone box or the logo on the plane wing, or whatever. What you do start to see is examples of the basic principals of photography.
"It's as if acquiring the app is like taking the first couple of months of my GCSE photography course. Users start learning to use the Rule of Thirds and depth of field and that kind of thing, which is why everything looks like a college project. For example, we were told to take pictures of tube walkways in college because they're full of straight lines, which are pleasing to the eye, and you see thousands of photos of tube escalators and platforms on Instagram all the time.
"The thing is, iPhones, iPads and any other smartphone that supports Instagram are bound to be at the pricier end of the spectrum, meaning adults who buy them with their own money are more likely to be office slaves. So Instagram is a new tool of self-expression and individuality that these people can use quickly on their commute, rather than actually buying a camera and getting properly into photography.
That's what drives this thing of seeing exactly the same stuff every single day, changed only with whatever artsy filter they've chosen to use. What I don't think most users understand is that, to create a good image of something millions of people see every day, you have to go the extra mile and approach it from a different angle, rather than just standing in front of it, buying a new £2.99 filter and snapping away."
Back at the event, a kind of Instagram easter egg hunt had been planned, complete with a map of American tourist destinations for you to photograph. These were all places I knew and avoided, but I thought I'd go take some pictures of the kind of thing that was supposed to be representative of the city I live in.
Among the "hidden gems" was this place, Poppies – the kind of fish and chips shop with the audacity (northerners, you might want to cover your eyes here) to serve you mushy peas in a ramekin and a saveloy with actual pork in it. A shocking abuse of Great British tradition if there ever was one, I know, but evidently somewhere that the Instagrammers dug. It must have had something to do with the retro lighting and everything being overpriced.
Then there was The Big Chill Bar, a decidedly un-chilled joint that I'm sure you're familiar with if you own the seersucker shorts, Topshop James Dean T-shirt and criminal record required to be allowed in. It was as if we were using an Australian-produced Lonely Planet guide to Shoreditch from 2007 – the lack of imagination in the exhibition had manifested itself within the scavenger hunt, too.
Soon enough, traipsing around Brick Lane in the cold, taking photos of places that I wouldn't even buy lunch at and avoiding the hordes of rampaging Essex boys became quite tiresome, so we decided to head back into the makeshift gallery for the next part of the night's proceedings: the lectures.
The night's star speaker was a slightly intense Berliner, whose name has managed to escape me in the subsequent days. It seemed our man was a rising star in the Instagram universe, racking up thousands of "Likes" for his monochrome photos of Berlin life. Think Olly Riley if he took pictures of scowling people with umbrellas in wintery parks rather than his own stomach. To be fair, his work was vastly superior to anything else on display, but compared to real photographic art, it still kinda looked like it should be on the walls of an internet cafe somewhere.
He was a peculiar chap, intense and funny in that way that only Germans can really pull off – y'know, like Heidi Klum or Herzog. He regaled us with his tales of being big in the Insta-game and explained to us his "shoelace trick", which – worryingly – is basically pretending to tie your shoelace while taking photos of children who don't want to be photographed. Then, before anyone could arrest him, he left the stage for the next speaker.
This guy – Pierre or Pascal or Pablo, or something. He wasn't exactly Malcolm X when it came to public oration, but he seemed nice enough. He told a story about the time Instagram shut down his account (here's hoping he hadn't been using the shoelace trick too liberally), but then allowed him to run the official fan club afterwards, like some kind of rebel leader appeased with a ministerial position.
To be honest, I had no idea what he was talking about. By this point, I was well out of my depth. Everyone started talking in all sorts of strange jargon and it was like I had vaguely enjoyed the orgy-and-canapes part of the night, but now it was time for the ritual ceremonies and I didn't have a clue what was going on. I just stood around nodding and clapping, trying not to laugh when they got really excited about a picture of a tree in autumn. They were speaking in social media tongues about "maximisation" and the like, and applauding and laughing at pictures that just looked fairly bog-standard to me. I felt like a Sports Science exchange student from a North East polytechnic who'd been sent to study art theory at the Sorbonne.
It was time to get out before I became the kind of person who'd consider the photographic potential of the 43 home, but I think I learned something. I also think I developed a bit more respect for this particular app. I mean, I still don't "get" Instagram or the people who really love it, but I do understand that it makes some people happy. Is there anything actually wrong with taking pictures of pigeons outside Liverpool Street station? I guess not. It might not be Diane Arbus, but I could take some photos out the window on my way to Crete and be Diane Airbus.
It was the community aspect that impressed me most. Much like Warhammer or tennis, I might think it's kinda lame, unoriginal and somewhat of a waste of time, but when you see people getting together and interacting in this disparate, isolating world, it can only really be a good thing.
It's a shame that so much of Instagram is so banal, so touristy, but at least there was none of that boastful bohemianism that you see on so much of Instagram at this event. Because that really is the worst side of it, and these people definitely weren't that. Instagram is a useful tool for capturing the world that we live in and sharing it, it's just a shame that it's a world that has to be so heavily filtered through the people who use it.
Follow Clive on Twitter: @thugclive
More stuff we don't "get":