Ryan McGinley has a dog now, and his name is Dick. The owner is pleased whenever someone loudly calls Dick. The dog roams about Instagram as #dickthedog, and he and his owner have more than 70,000 followers. Beyond the app, Ryan McGinley is known as the photographer who was the youngest artist to have a solo show at The Whitney. In the late 90s, he periodically traveled the country with kids of his age. The iconic photos he took on these road trips captured a generation of young Americans as they weightlessly glided across meadows, tumbled through the air, and buzzed through the night. The images told of adventures, of coincidences, and of sheer possibilities. In social media, McGinley rarely shows his own work. Dick has become the main character frolicking across meadows, climbing rocks, or taking a bath in a river or brook. It is a bit like everywhere else on Instagram, one might very well think. There is the pet, everyday life, and very little photography.
Indeed, there are only a few well-known photographers and artists to be found on Instagram. Ai Weiei is there, of course, and so is Terry Richardson. Olafur Eliasson, Larry Clark, Stephen Shore, and David Shrigley have accounts as well. Not much is happening here. Sometimes they present their own work; sometimes they pose beside a piece of art or put their arm around another, equally well-known artist. Or they simply grin with Marilyn Manson, give thumbs up with Jared Leto, or stick their tongue out with Miley Cirus.
Yet all of them are awesome, if Terry Richardson is to be believed. The artists who are on Instagram leave art and photography on the social network to others. After all, there are enough users: by the end of last year, 300 million people had signed up for the app. Somehow Susan Sontag is still right, even today. Photography is still a pastime as popular as sex or dance, and Sontag’s conclusion – “which means that, like every art form, photography is not practiced by most people as an art”—still holds.
The art historian Wolfgang Ullrich reflected a little while ago on what is happening to photography and images today. Social media, he claimed, are not about the image as such. What matters is when, where, and how a picture can be viewed. The photos no longer even have to be good, at least in a classical sense. There is life in them almost only because of their instantaneousness. If Roland Barthes derived pleasure from the experience of “that is how it was,” from the fact that a moment of the past was present when he held a photo in his hands or leafed through a book, then the message on the bright screen today simply is “that is how it is right now.” As Ullrich points out, the photo is in the process of changing from a medium of documentation and remembrance into one of instant communication. D’accord. But who wants to see all that?
If you have a look around in the virtual galleries, a lot of people apparently do. Users crack the door to their lives wide open, and 20,000, 50,000, and sometimes more than 500,000 other users check out what is on their plates, look into their kitchens, and take a peek into their bedrooms. All photos look the same; well, they almost do. Hashtag #instastyle: a lot of white; lots of vases; lots of flowers; a lot of fruit, lots of Eames chairs; a lot of wood; a lot of beds. Nature morte, everywhere. At least that is the image Instagram itself would like to communicate. On a regular basis, right now it is every two weeks, Instagram’s list of suggested users changes. If you sign up for an account, the service suggests users you might want to follow. For those who are on the list, this means on average 4,000 new followers per day. Instagram typically puts users on the list who engage with the community and not only filter their images according to the proper lifestyle palette, but also cater to things that have already become online clichés: sunsets; symmetry; #strideby (people passing by all sort of things).
In terms of style, there are, on the one hand, a number of technical and formal facts that determine the look of Instagram photos: deep focus; the size of the screen on which the pictures are viewed; and the square format of the images. Almost everything takes place in only two dimensions. The photographers tend to chose a narrow frame, bring everything in close proximity to the picture plane, and depict their subjects from the front, preferably from a central point of view. The composition is static; the image appears frozen. On the other hand, the lifestyle magazine Kinfolk serves as a model for many of the images on Instagram. A quarterly for the modern hipster, the American magazine features little text and many photos, and in recent years has turned into a bible of good taste promoting its own aesthetic. If you want to find out how to properly boil an egg, Kinfolk will not disappoint you. And if you want to know how to best curate your possessions and turn your life into art, Kinfolk will teach you the necessary lesson. Shades of pastel dominate the illustrations; everything is furnished nicely in accordance with a minimalist sensibility, and people always wear the right clothes and drink the right coffee. There has been a lot of grumbling recently about this segment of the population. They have been called “the betterment bourgeois” (Zeit Magazine) since they are always on the lookout for something better, something truly special, and Generation Y has morphed into Generation Radish, because all of a sudden people are interested in preserving jars, home baking, and the cozy togetherness offered by life as a couple. They constantly take pictures, seemingly of everything, and hop ten times around the table in a café until everything is properly arranged for the photo. Probably Kinfolk magazine itself is more often photographed than read. It looks good on the coffee table and shows everyone that you, too, are a romantic of everyday life trying to escape to the countryside.
Yet, there are instagramers who do not fall for this fiction and respond tongue in cheek to overly serious enthusiasm for the Kinfolk aesthetic. Replacing the display of homemade pastries, Berlin-based Irina König arranged cookies from the discounter on her coffee table, exchanged the hip indie magazine with pretty little images from advertisement brochures, and substituted latte art with something that looks like your grandma’s drip coffee infused with too much milk. Since everything on Instagram needs a hashtag, she called her parody #kinfolkmylife, an allusion to the original that was hard to miss. Instead of photographing only coffee straight from above, it is also possible to take a picture of hard liquor in same manner, as @mr_sunset has shown, who carefully composed his shot and coordinated the colors so meticulously that even Wes Anderson could not have done a better job. Knut Mierswe replaced freshly picked flowers from the field with a somewhat sad house plant which, when abandoned on the ledge of a shop window, reminds one of the sterile mises en scènes by Thomas Demand. There is an echo of the series “Common Sense” by the Magnum photographer Martin Parr when @bosch photographs food in a dining hall that seems to have been color coordinated, and @tomskipp takes pictures of those small, colorful plastic spoons made for the consumption of ice cream in a tub.
Usually it is futile to search on Instagram for what Roland Barthes called a “punctum,” the irresistible and irritating aspect of a photograph he analyzed in his book-length essay Camera lucida. The pictures on Instagram just want to please with their symmetries, elicit a like or a heart emoji with their cheerfulness, and provoke comments like “beautiful,” “fantastic,” or “great” in response to their straightforward pictorial language. Occasionally, Barthes’ “punctum” can be found beyond the frame, when the visual vocabulary of a community develops its own dynamic and users begin to play with subjects and hashtags. On Sundays, one image of a car follows after another, and at some point the flood of #asundaycarpic(s) becomes really annoying. Why not post a #nosundaycarpic, no matter the subject, or #asaturdaycarpic, or even #amondaypugpic?
Photography in social networks develops into performance art, as the London-based fashion and street photographer Olly Lang recently pointed out. Frequently, the photographer is no longer the author of an image or a subject, but its interpreter. When an Instagramer from Hamburg travels to Berlin for the weekend and reproduces all the characteristic shots of the city within two days, only adding the typical filters, or when all of the Instagramers of the city photograph the newly opened café within a few days, then the single photograph turns into a cover version with very few variations. An original is no longer even intended.
Translation: Markus Hardtmann
The German version of this text was published in Monopol Magazine, 04/2015. You can also read it online.