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Four Pictures Of Instagram

Last night and this morning I saw three music writers write on Instagram. I was going to reblog Perpetua, but I couldn’t upload photographs to the reblog, so this new post should suffice.

Amanda Petrusich says,

These days, instead of eschewing technology, we’re using it to deny itself — it’s figuring out a wash that makes fresh jeans look old, it’s pre-weathered furniture, it’s a GarageBand setting that makes your brand new guitar sound more like an electrified relic. Nostalgia has become institutionalized to the point that an expertly captured and reproduced image — a technically perfect picture — is what feels hokey, and not a faux-yellowed, heavily filtered one. Yikes?

Matthew Perpetua links to the above and adds,

This is why: I just can’t see the difference between these automatic filters and effects pedals for guitars and other instruments. Effects pedals - particularly digital effects pedals – do more or less the same thing, and simulate analog sounds that could be achieved in homemade ways, like with the flanger effect. I am very pro-effects pedals in music, and don’t think anyone is wrong to use these shortcuts. The really good artists usually get creative with the pedals anyway, combining them in interesting ways or modifying them to get a precise signature sound.

Then, Mark Richardson says,

Very good points here. But I imagine a guitar pedal that made your guitar sound like a 78 recording of Django Reinhardt. And imagine if most “guitar music” started sounding like Django Reinhardt because we collectively agreed that there is something special and warm about that old-timey sound so we wanted as much of it in our lives as possible. I think that’s the danger of Instagram. Not saying it can’t be used in creative ways too. 

I have an opinion as well! A few…

This is the first of the thinky essays I’ve read about Instragram (lately), even though I know there’ve been a few. Something about artists (or at least art critics) writing about art appeals to me more than technologists writing about it. I’m an amateur musician and an amateur photographer and an amateur photography critic and an amateur music critic. This is what I think.

First, to address the most interesting-to-me, though probably least important issue, the best analogy between Instagram filters and music is not old film stock to guitar pedals. I mean, those two things are alike, but Instagram itself is, to me, most like streaming music services like Rdio and Spotify. Huh?

  • Instagram is just used by many, many more people than guitar pedals are. It’s used by many, many more people than even Garage Band, Fruity Loops, Ableton, and Logic combined (I’m straight guessing.) Look, no one is buying Digi-Tech for $1 billion. Or they could be, but I have a lot of musician friends and they’re still vastly outnumbered by Instagram-using friends, lovers, and acquaintances.
  • Instagram simulates mastery. Streaming music services similarly simulate mastery (of taste, of ownership, of access).
  • People are much more apt to share their listening habits now because of Spotify and Rdio, and those discrete, shared listening habits are aesthetic nuggets akin to Instagram pix.

OK, so that was my major contribution to the above discussion. Moving on: I sort of loathe Instagram. Or, at least, the thinking behind thinking about it.

Instagram does not infect me with retromania. I’ve never seen an Instagram photo that made me think of old family photos. I have had boxes and boxes of undeveloped film from high school trips abroad moulder and eventually meet a landfill. I was just never that plugged into the film ecosystem, and I’m 28. Maybe I’m an aberration, but I’d guess that people who are younger than I are also not that cognizant of the film tradition.

Shitty faded photos are just shitty faded photos — they don’t signify old except in the most shameless and desperate manner.

Any good modern lens is corrected for maximum definition at the larger stops. Using a small stop only increases depth.

Ansel Adams (apparently) said that in 1937. Almost 100 years ago, and only 50 years after modern photography’s invention, the process had been basically perfected. A good photographer could take tack sharp and gorgeous photos using what to modern eyes would appear to be a ripped-out hunk of someone’s parent’s out-dated living room set.

My favorite photographer of all-time, Stephen Shore, has work that’s decidedly of a time, but not because of its visual appearance.

His work looks like his work — for reasons other than his distinct (and endlessly aped and iterated) visual style — because of the subject matter depicted. Car models, gas prices, fashion trends, hair cuts.

Like Adams, Shore shot with something a lot larger than an iPhone camera, which is how he resolves so much detail and sharpness. But like Adams, his epoch hasn’t abrogated his technical skill nor his aesthetic. Shore’s are images you could create today, fairly easily.

I don’t object by any means to Instagram — or to streaming audio apps — because they tend to democratize aesthetic appreciation. But I definitely fear, like Richardson, that this democratization will actually result in a flattening of aesthetic possibility. Because, as I tried to show quite briefly, old does not equal red balance out of whack.

I have to disagree pretty strongly with the idea that “expertly captured and reproduced image — a technically perfect picture — is what feels hokey”. You need only do a minor amount of looking to find The Big Picture, In Focus, Raw File, and tons of other super-high-quality curated photography galleries that do not use Instagram-inflected images. And as The Lively Morgue shows, not all old photographs look anything like what you see on Instagram. So maybe what we’re talking about here is the infinitely larger pool of poorly-preserved, poorly-created amateur photographs. You know, the ones you and your friends and me and my friends are all taking and putting on Instagram. We’re not talking about a sea change in professional photography or the photograph qua Image.

Instagram filters, like Photoshop, guitar pedals, etc., obviously, are just tools or force multipliers. I don’t think that guitar fuzz or red filters should signify nostalgia because that diminishes our fond memories of the past and reduces the potential of the present. It’s a sickness, really. It’s a sickness that’s infested guitar rock, and it’s a sickness that’s threatening to infest the common concept of photography. A few photojournalists are usually cited as carrying the standard for Instagram as “authentic” or “normatively O.K.”, which is the wrong conversation to be having. When you’re a professional at work, you use the tools that work for you. I’ve never seen someone lugging around a Canon 5d Mk II on vacation justify their loutish behavior by citing the latest photograph on the cover of the New York Times. That’s an appeal to authority that doesn’t translate.

There’s a whole history of photography both democratic and high that looks nothing like anything in Instagram. And there are many shoe boxes full of photos that do. How do you resolve that aporia? I don’t really know. But I do get an ill feeling when I think about even my use and over-use of Instagram to compensate for poor lighting, blurry exposures, bad framing, etc. It’s like using one mistake to cover for another mistake, and then having other mistake your mistake^2 for being something real and good. And then mistaking yourself for the same.

A lot of times I think Instagram filters are just how we’ve convinced ourselves to put up with looking at each other’s inane snapshots. I guess that’s fine, since blogging is how we’ve convinced ourselves to put up with reading each other’s inane thoughts. Maybe that’s the best analogy.


  1. canada-news reblogged this from markrichardson
  2. justamynotamypond reblogged this from bmichael
  3. popcornnoises reblogged this from bmichael and added:
    Go read this whole thing. It’s great. Two cents of mine: Instagram is gradually becoming the social network that I check...
  4. mlarson reblogged this from bmichael
  5. lochnesss reblogged this from bmichael
  6. theoreticalgirl reblogged this from bmichael and added:
    Bmichael makes the best points here (mostly because he bothered to do his homework). As someone who has spent an...
  7. markrichardson reblogged this from bmichael and added:
    Getting a layer deeper into Instagram here, def. worth a read.
  8. siberia reblogged this from bmichael
  9. theblueprint said: the music analogy is a good one, but in a different way: like punk, instagram users largely don’t give a fuck about “the art”: they just want to participate. and instagram, like punk, is a kind of cultural shorthand that allows people to do just that
  10. bmichael posted this

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