It’s not that Instagram has changed photography in the way the invention of photography changed painting in the 19th century. It’s more radical than that.
The photo-sharing network has actually become photography. Launched in 2010 as a free mobile app, Instagram now has over 500 million users a month and is estimated to be worth over $30 billion.
It gives the world’s two billion smartphone users access to a global marketplace of imagery. Photography is no longer the province of professionals. Nor are family snaps consigned to neglected memorial albums. After nearly 200 years, photography is realising its potential. If you wanted an example of disruptive technology, here it is. We’re all photographers and curators now.
And it’s a competitive market. Sure, there is a lot of cute whimsy and look-at-me narcissism on Instagram, but there are witty observations, touching tropes, visual puns, arresting reportage and cleverly framed compositions as well. Artistic standards are being forced up daily and selfies of tipsy teens forced out. Instagram has become a vibrant, collaborative and instant museum of real life.
A new book of Instagram photographs, chosen by Jim Stoddart, art director for Penguin Press, is a beguiling compendium of some of the best shots uploaded, juxtaposing many different visual stories in many different styles.
A girl swimming in a pool on a high-rise hotel in Bangkok, more grey than exotic, is an image of elegance and absurdity. No mass-produced commercial postcard could ever be so eloquent.
A boy doing muscular poses on a partially flooded tennis court mocks the brittle glamour of pro tennis: the rusting chicken-wire, the coarse grass and the crumbling tarmac. He seems unaffected by the squalid decay.
A stooped old man dominates the frame while his city swells and swirls about him. It is not New York, but the picture has the poignant charm of Saul Leiter, the man who made Manhattan look like Montmartre. Or an undressed woman lies on a sunlit bed in a composition that apes an Edward Hopper painting.
And if you have read Truman Capote’s sultry accounts of the weirdness of the Deep South, the picture of a porch bunny will resonate. But this girl is not a product of incest or deprivation: she is glamorous, well-groomed and showing a lot of tanned and toned leg. And, dissonantly, she holds a rifle that says; “Come hither, but not too much.”
A tented seating area, an azure plunge pool and distracted people evoke Slim Aarons and his dementedly stylish iconography of the vapid rich. In vivid contrast, a drifting boy, a girl, a dog and a patinated truck suggest a short story waiting to be written.
Photography is no longer the province of professionals. We’re all photographers and curators now
Another photo, of a badly customised Mercedes-Benz, is heartbreaking. This car wants to be an edgy Chicano lowrider, cruising Havana’s Malecón esplanade, but, tragically, we are in Hounslow.
Or on Broad Street Subway in New York a picture of a group all dressed, freakishly, in white has the sense of intruding on something ineffable. As Martin Parr’s photographs suggest, following Oscar Wilde, the strangest mysteries are the visible, not the invisible ones. It is hard to believe this picture was not posed, but impossible to understand why it should have been. These ambiguities have the quality of art.
Photography is always intrusive. It always exploits its subject. The question is always if such exploitation is morally or artistically justifiable. You ask this when you see, in another image in Stoddart’s book, an immigrant boy on a Macedonian railway platform: he has a plastic bag over his head. Both in particular and in general you wonder, with creepy horror, what happens next. That question also has the quality of art.
Tribal people thought that the cameras of the 19th century explorers captured their souls so were thus a source of wonder and fear. You find wonder and fear on Instagram, but also beauty and poignancy, humour and horror. It is a museum-without-walls where we can all be exhibitors.