As if Instagram needed another photographer

October 27th, 2013

iPhone pictures by Robbie McClaran

So it finally happened. In spite of my many questions, dismissals and teasing my friends, I joined Instagram. Until fairly recently I did not even have a “smart” phone but when my beloved Nokia flip finally crossed over to the other side, it seemed silly to continue to avoid the inevitable. Then last week my friends John & Jane Harris opened their new brewery and pub, Ecliptic. On the Ecliptic website they have an instagram feed and since I had taken a cute picture of John and Jane at the opening, I joined instagram to get the picture onto the Eclptic gallery.

In recent years I’ve been somewhat outspoken in my comments questioning the trend of using cell phones to make images. Proponents make the claims “it’s not about the camera” and the “iphone is just another tool”, etc.. But my response has always been, it’s just not a very good tool by the fact the images are pretty small and need to be seriously processed. Besides, I prefer to use an instrument rather than a tool.

Don’t get me wrong. I get the idea of using a small portable digital camera to make pictures of the every day moments we would let pass by if we only worked with large format film cameras. Back in 2005 I bought a little Canon S70 point and shoot for exactly this purpose and produced a body of work I called “Miscellaneous”. I launched a photoblog of the same name and I shared the images via email with friends, regular blog posts and Smugmug. I even made some into prints and have not given up on the idea of a book.

But I’ve always had some concerns about digital images. For one, the early cameras just did not make terribly good pictures. Not bad in a cool way, like Diana, just sort of meh.

More importantly I have concerns over the intangible qualities of a digital image. Unless it’s printed, and how many ever get printed, there is no physical object. It exists as only a fragile collection of electronic data that must be stored, backed up on a constantly changing array of computer hard drives that may or may not function 10 – 25 – 100 years from now.

Cell phone pictures seem ever more ephemeral. I have concerns that the proliferation of cell phone pictures has cheapened the medium I have devoted my life and career to. If every insignificant item becomes subject to documentation what is left to discovery and magic. See Erik Kessel’s 2011 installation, “24 hours of Flickr” here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-15756616

Robert Frank was quoted a few years ago, before Instagram, “There are too many images. Too many cameras now. We’re all being watched. It gets sillier and sillier. As if all action is meaningful. Nothing is really all that special. It’s just life. If all moments are recorded, then nothing is beautiful and maybe photography isn’t an art anymore. Maybe it never was.”

Since the beginning, I’ve strived to produce a body of work that has meaning and expresses my view of the world around me. I want to create finely crafted work. I want my work to last and for the stories it tells be available for future viewers.

There is also the question of ownership and control over one’s work. Instagram, being owned by Facebook, has some seriously messed up user terms. I’m not much inclined to make pictures only to have them show up unattributed somewhere in some ad for whatever widget is Mark Zuckerberg is shilling.

Without question, Instagram has changed the way the world communicates. More photographs were taken last year than in all previous years in the history of photography, most of them on cell phones. Instagram offers the chance for a visual storyteller to reach an audience far beyond the reach of an exhibition, a book or even a website / blog post. So there is that.

And there are some serious players working on Instagram. My friend Max Gerber has been producing an amazing portrait series (read Max’s blog post on instagram here: http://www.msgphoto.com/latestshot/2012/08/01/1073-words-about-iphone-photography-and-54-instagram-portraits/) and Fred Joe, who introduced me to the idea of working with a small digital point and shoot, has moved onto Instagram. Mark Peterson’s recent “Politics in B&W” is remarkable and Kathy Ryan’s “Office Romance” series is stunning.

Last week I began work on a new personal project using my antique 8 x 10 camera. In gathering materials I learned that my all time favorite film, Tri-X is only available as a specialty item, must be special ordered and has doubled in cost.

While scouting for locations, I used my phone to make a few pictures that would have slotted in nicely with the “Miscellaneous” project, so I shared them in my brand new instagram feed.

Then it happened. When I began writing this blog post Saturday morning I had only a few posts and zero followers. In fact I thought how clever it would be to use this as the opportunity to invite you to be my first Instagram follower. But then suddenly I had 3 followers. I went back to see that I also had a few “likes” and comments. I started thinking what other pictures I could post. The attention is seductive, the “likes” are energizing. I found myself checking back to see if anyone else made a comment or “liked a picture. Now, at this writing I’m up to fourteen followers who want to see what kind of pictures I will make and share next.

So to all of you who I have argued with over the merits of using a phone to make pictures, yes you Jan and Max and Freddy, well you can say “I told you so” or whatever. Having never been accused of being an early adapter, I remain a skeptic, not entirely convinced and certainly less than a convert. My personal work will continue to be produced on film and I’ll  follow through with my new 8 x 10 project, if the gods allow. But I am curious to see what happens next. I will not make any promises beyond no pictures of cats, as my dog Bella forbids it.

Kathy Ryan has over 20,000 followers, Lady Gaga has over 2 million. I’ve already got 14. This thing could be something. Follow me and lets see.