A little afternoon inspiration!
Just a little impromptu Saturday morning photoshoot with the resident model/man-friend. I have to say, it might handy to have a stud like this on hand every hour of the day.
R E B L O G
Love this shot by my ultra talented friend timothymulcare. He can make the most ordinary of moments feel absolutely magical.
Pictured above: snaps from a day trip to the seaside town of Whitby in North Yorkshire, England, December 2012
Joel woke up at the crack of dawn and had my travel mug filled with piping hot coffee before I could even protest. We scooted our the door into the brisk English winter and made our way through the North Yorkshire Moors.
I don’t know much about the town of Whitby except that it is a picturesque little place by the seaside and, according to Joel, some part of Harry Potter was filmed there, though I’m not sure I can trust him on that one!
We spent the morning tucking into little shops and searching for the most authentic Full English Breakfast. This, I have since learned, is one of Joel’s favorite past times. A traditional full English, for those of you who haven’t been subjected to the pain, includes bacon, sausage, eggs, beans, black pudding, hash browns, tomatoes, mushrooms and fried toast. It’s incredible, I must say, but requires at least a three hour window of time after to deal with the inevitable food coma that follows consumption.
After breakfast, we made our way down to the beach where we splashed around like 5 year olds. We worked off our breakfast with a hike to the small chapel at the very top of town and eventually meandered back down to the car. It was, as I’d hoped, a perfectly relaxing afternoon at the seaside.
New York City
In June of 2012, I returned from the never ending winters of Berlin, Germany to a blisteringly hot summer in South Carolina. It took not two days before I realized that sometime during my short tenure abroad, everyone in South Carolina had somehow gotten an iphone. Blackberries were nowhere to be found, making my once revered Blackberry Bold seem painstakingly outdated and simple. It was not long before I, too, joined the league of hip, young kids with the new iphone 4. I downloaded Instagram in the car ride home from the Verizon store and soon after, the filtering began. Instagram is a free online photo and video sharing service that enables its users to take photos and videos, apply digital filters to them, and share them with an online community. Less than four years after its launch in October 2010, Instagram has 200 million active users, making it one of the fastest growing and most successful social media platforms to date (The Next Web). Instagram has had a profound impact on contemporary culture since its formation, functioning as a platform from which individuals can engage and showcase their creative sensibilities, effectively threatening to bring Art into a realm that is accessible and inviting to the masses. This photo sharing service is particularly unique among other social networks for two core reasons: first, because of its diplomatic user interface, and second, because of its purist focus on promoting the sharing of images and stories with friends. As a result, Instagram has become the most convenient and consistent way in which I personally integrate my artistic practice into my daily life. In this paper, I will to explore the aforementioned qualities and investigate the implications of Instagram on contemporary culture, both in and out of an Art context, specifically with regard to my own practice.
To begin, I initially created an Instagram account to make my iphone pictures look better. I spent little time on Instagram itself and focused primarily on sharing my newly filtered images directly to Facebook, where more people could see them. As time went by, I gained a small following of a few hundred users and slowly became more active on the application. In addition to my friends, I began following brands I was interested in, celebrities I liked, musicians, news outlets, and, most notably, random accounts with photos I was drawn to. Never before had I experienced access to such a wide array of photographs, each carrying with it a story of some kind. Images felt personal and authentic. Void of advertisements and any other distractions, Instagram became a relaxing and simple way for me to experience, to some small degree, what life is like for other people. While I was aware that each post was deliberate and carefully constructed and filtered by its owner, the act of looking felt deeply voyeuristic, as if I was peering into the secret life of another. As my interest grew, I explored different hashtags within the Instagram community and followed several accounts very closely. Eventually, I began to see my own Instagram account not as a simple tool to achieve interesting images, but rather, as a narrative of my life, a story woven together through my photos and videos. Unlike film and digital photography, photographs shot on my Iphone are available to share with friends in real-time. I can snap a picture, edit it on my way to class, and post it before I’ve even taken my seat. The immediacy and accessibility of Instagram have inspired me to explore my creativity, expand my photographic eye, and share my experiences and thoughts more consistently, feats I have found challenging since moving to New York to study Studio Art. In essence, Instagram provides the tools with which I can create my story and an audience with whom I can share it.
Instagram’s user interface lends itself to this type of narrative crafting extremely well. Like most social media accounts, all Instagrams begin the same. While certain users, namely big brands and celebrities, have the resources to rapidly acquire followers and, therefore, gain more power in the Instagram “market,” everyone begins the same way: by signing up. This is particularly compelling with Instagram because of its interface’s standardized formatting. To expand, the act of scrolling through Instagram is a solitary one. While Facebook lends itself to groups huddled around a computer, Instagram does not. Originating as an application for Iphone and remaining primarily a mobile platform today, the expectation is that users will experience and absorb each post individually and alone. We live our lives with phones in hand, checking constantly, even mindlessly, our emails, texts, and notifications. The immediacy and intimacy with which we absorb information from our screens is one that is unique to our time. The Instagram experience taps into this intimacy. As we take our phones in our hands and open the application, we are literally holding a window to someone else’s life, to the images they have selected for us to see, to the stories they have chosen to represent them. How the viewers decides to engage with and absorb these images, depends entirely on that viewer. On this relationship, Ben Long writes for Macworld: “The viewer is your silent creative partner. When they look at your picture, they ‘finish’ the scene inside their head. They take take that abstract thing that is a photograph, and turn it into a reality inside their mind” (Long). The Instagram viewer is deeply empowered. He or she can choose to linger and stare or the viewer can also choose not to stare, not to look at all. The Instagram experience can be rapid. Individuals scroll at lightening speed, plowing through photos as fast as the application can load them. Regardless of the method of looking, though, one can only ever see a single full image on the screen at a time. The result is a diplomatic interface with equalizing framework in which each post possess the same amount of space on the screen and, therefore, the same potential to evoke emotion in its viewers and go viral. Of course, the uploader’s Instagram savvy and desire to have the image be seen play an important role: Did the uploader use hashtags? What filters were utilized? How many followers does the account currently have? Is there a caption? Is this photo even interesting? These questions are deeply important with regard to a post’s measurable success (“likes” and comments). I argue, though, that their answers may not even be relevant, for what makes Instagram so richly intoxicating to the user, is not that posts do go viral, but rather, that they can. It is the possibility that through this diplomatic photo sharing service, a single image has the potential to reach millions of people that drives users to share stories time and time again.
To explore this diplomatic interface further, take Beyonce, for example. Beyonce had no followers when she created her Instagram account just as I had no followers when I created mine. If she can get 11 million followers on Instagram, maybe I can too. That Beyonce is one of the most recognized women in the world, with one of the most diverse and loyal fan bases in the world, with, at minimum, a small army of people on her PR team working tirelessly to ensure that her Instagram account is both on brand and hugely successful, is actually irrelevant. When it comes down to it, Beyonce’s photo pops up on my Instagram newsfeed in the same way that my sister’s photo of her dog does. It’s not bigger, it’s not better, it is exactly the same, and if I choose to, I can scroll right past it, invoking my right as a user to plow through my feed. If I do linger, as I view Beyonce’s picture on that slick iphone in the palm of my hand and feel as if I know her, I inevitably believe, if only for a moment, that she is just another one of my friends. The experience of viewing her photo in such an intimate way elicits this belief that I, too, can one day reach millions with my stories and photos like she has. The questions then remains, are these images even worthy of such careful consideration in the first place?
Rich arguments have been made and heated debates had around the validity of Instagram and other iphone images in the field of Photography. Many fear that applications like Instagram lessen the quality of the field, strip the craft of its technicality, and make it too easy for anyone to snap a beautiful image. This debate is exemplified in the case of Damon Winter, a New York Times staff photographer whose iphone photos depicting war in Afghanistan caused an uproar in 2011 when they were featured on the front page of The New York Times. In a later piece entitled “Through My Eyes, Not Hipstamatic’s,” Winter addresses the arguments made against the validity of iphone photography. Winter used an application called Hipstamatic to take the shots for his piece. Hipstamatic is unique in that each image must be taken from the application itself rather than applying a filter to an existing image, as is the case with Instagram. After an image is snapped, the photographer must wait at least ten seconds while the image is processed (facing a color balance shift, blurring of certain areas, and contrast adjustments). Winter writes, “these are all fairly standard parameters in Photoshop. And they can be done on a color enlarger. The problem people have with an app, I believe, is that a computer program is imposing the parameters, not the photographer.” (Winter). Winter notes here the concern many have with Instagram. These individuals argue that Instagram images cannot possibly be considered valid Photography or Art because they are thoughtless and too easy to create. Winter goes on to explain how the moments he captured with his iphone could only have existed in that realm:
“Using this phone brought me into little details that I would have missed otherwise. The image of the men resting together on a rusted bed frame could never have been made with my regular camera. They would have scattered the moment I raised my 5D with a big 24-70 lens attached…Using the phone is discreet and casual and unintimidating” (Winter). Winter’s articulation of his experience falls in line with the intention of so many Instagram users, and this is to capture the small and ordinary moments of life and present them in an evocative and personal way. If that goal doesn’t fall into the realm of Art, then I don’t know what does. Still, the critics of Instagram, Hipstamatic, and similar applications remain aplenty. Geoff Livingston, a writer and photographer, remarked that “Overall, critics feel that consumer access to cheap imaging technologies makes the general state of photography stale, repetitive, and watered down” (Livington). Chris Ziegler is among those critics. He passionately discounts the implication that Instagram images could ever be considered a valid form of Art and that Instagram users could ever be true photographers:
“If you were an artist, you wouldn’t be using Instagram in the first place. You certainly wouldn’t be using a filter as a crutch. At the end of the day, that’s what Instagram filters are: a crutch, a misguided replacement for a properly composed shot and a decent sensor. The moments that you want to share with your Facebook friends and your Twitter followers should be about the raw realism of your circumstance, not some hand-waving fakery conceived by a small handful of (admittedly very talented) code monkeys in San Francisco” (Ziegler).
While Ziegler’s points are valid in that Instagram provides effects with no context, he fails to realize that first, no photograph has ever achieved this raw realism. Even the sharpest, clearest, most well lit and framed image does not have the capacity to stand in for reality. He ignores, second, that the purpose of Instagram is not to record our history in the most straightforward and realistic way possible, but rather to chronicle our adventures and to enable individuals to share their creativity and their perception of the world through images. Ben Long argues, “the most inviting and emotive Instagram photos tend towards abstraction… [They invite the viewer to] escape to whatever feelings, memories, and experiences the images evoke” (Long). According to Long, Instagram images are most powerful when the viewer must work to interpret. He writes:
“very often, the more abstract an image is, the more power it has for the viewer, because their visual sense must do more work to interpret it. And as the viewer interprets the image, they do so according to their own memories, experiences, and feelings. Therefore, if they have to do more interpretation, they very often come away with a stronger reaction to the image.” (Long).
In essence, the role of Instagram is not to depict an authentic historical reality. The purpose of Instagram is to provide a platform where individuals who may not consider themselves artistic, can explore their creativity, where photographers who may not have a means to share their work can do so freely, where people can come to give their point of view. In truth, the argument circulating around Instagram as a valid form of Photography is redundant and boring. Compelling points can be made for either side of the debate. What is perhaps more compelling and amazing, is that this debate even exists. Instagram has inspired 200 million people to take photos, to engage their eye, and share with the world their point of view. Not every user wishes to engage with the application in this way, but some do, and for those individuals, Instagram is their stage.
It must be noted that the powers of Instagram are not all good. In this world of storytelling and image sharing, self promotion is unavoidable. A community driven by posting beautiful images will inevitably lead to envy. According to Hanna Krasnova of Humboldt University Berlin and co-author of a study exploring Facebook and envy: “Self-promotion triggers more self-promotion, and the world on social media gets further and further from reality” (Krasnova). After all, no one posts pictures of themselves having a bad time. This makes Instagram the absolute worst culprit for inducing jealousy and self-loathing. The risk is that the desire to receive the coveted double-tap, the gesture one makes on Instagram to “like” a photo, will control a user’s depiction or his or her own story. The fear is that the need to document our lives will interfere with the actual living of them. This, I feel, has less to do with Instagram and more to do with the human ethos. We must recognize the limits of Instagram just as we recognize the limits of film and journalism and any other medium for self expression. We must take ownership of our practices and be self aware enough to know when things are taking a turn for the worst. I experience this often. During a two week trip rafting through Grand Canyon, for example, I found myself fixated on the photos. I wanted to ensure that my images depicted my experience in the way I wanted it to be depicted. Too often I found myself plotting what a photo would look like once I returned home and Instagrammed it. These feelings are inevitable but can be combated with awareness, and that is where I feel my artistic practice most genuinely intersects with Instagram. Instagram is an incredible, thought provoking forum that is rapidly changing the way we experience Photography. Driven by the pictures and stories from its users, it presents the various realities of its users in an unbiased and streamlined way, making it one of the great platforms for storytelling in our time. I am faced every day with decisions about what will make it on my account and what will not, about what story I wish to tell this day. Finding a way to live in harmony with my stories and not simply through them, is the challenge.
About 6 months ago, the Englishman and I had a revelation: we weren’t growing. It occurred to us that, bound by the circumstances of our geography, our relationship was at somewhat of a standstill. We traveled across the Atlantic as often as time and money would allow but, it just wasn’t enough. We realized that, romantic as our rendezvous in train stations and airports were, we were stuck in a perpetual game of guest and host, where one of us was always entertaining the other.
This cycle, coupled with the fact that when we did manage to see each other we wanted nothing but to lazily sit on the couch and be together, actually prohibited us from sharing any new experiences together. Constantly in the same places, doing the same things, we were unable to make new memories, and, as a result, our individual lives continued to move forward while our relationship remained trapped.
The normalcy of a “regular” relationship was all we really wanted: late night phone calls and stupid fights over coffee, quick lunch dates and parties with friends, even just a simple kiss “goodbye.” Though we hoped were only a few months away from being together permanently, these simple pleasures still felt painfully out of reach.
All of our emotions came to a head after an impromptu weekend in York, England with Joel and his family. We decided that when we next saw each other, we had to go somewhere new, to have an adventure. Together.
So, naturally, I insisted on Paris.
Joel was skeptical, but I convinced him (wore him down) with my charm and subtlety (rage and aggression). It also didn’t hurt that I bought the plane tickets before he could even say “non.” I spent the weekend leading up to our trip in LA for work and somehow convinced my boss to fly me back to London instead of New York. After 13 hours of flying and a 5 hour layover (ironically) in New York, Joel and I met in London and headed to Paris together. It was perfection.
Now, much to your displeasure, I’m sure, the remainder of this story will not be a play by play of our magical adventure in Paris, though, let me tell you, it is a riveting tale. No, this story, as it’s title might suggest, is about a single night, just one night in Paris.
It was one of our last evenings in the City of Light and Joel and I were at each others throats. Before arriving in Paris, we had signed up for a Fat Tire Bike Tour, a sunset bike ride meets drunken boat cruise. We would have been looking forward to it had we not been bickering all day, but it was payed for, so we went. After literally the most stressful metro ride of my life and a 20 minute sprint through some mysterious network of never ending metro tunnels, we finally made it to the Fat Tire meeting point a mere 25 minutes late, just in time to see the Fat Tire guides who had been waiting for us turn to leave. “WAIT,” I screamed (and I mean screamed), “DON’T LEAVE.” They didn’t. We raced down the stairs and began apologizing profusely. They were unbelievably nice said not to worry. I still have no idea why they waited around for us for so long, but I’m sure glad they did.
Following a hilarious tutorial on sticking it to Parisian taxi drivers, an hour of sunset bike riding, some gelato eating, and our guide Rachel’s quite humorous accounts of French history, we finally made it to the boat cruise. We had not even taken our seats before Rachel and the other guides whipped out the wine and started pouring. We cruised through the Seine at sunset and soaked up Paris in all its glory.
As we got talking to the other members in our group, we learned that, amazingly, every single one of them was originally in a long distance relationship with their current partner: there was the Australian guide who had just moved to Paris to be with his fiancee, the two women who met on Match.com and moved across state lines to be with each other, the Indian couple who spent seven years apart in India before finally moving to the United States where they spent another three years on opposite sides of the country, and, finally, there was Rachel.
Rachel’s story resonated with me most because it is so similar to ours. The details are a bit foggy now but the gist of it goes like this: she met a man in a bar in New York. She left her number on a napkin and he called her. They hit it off, but he was leaving to go back to Ireland. They tried long distance but couldn’t bear to be apart so he went back to New York to live with her. He couldn’t stay because of immigration, so they eventually decided to screw it and get married because they wanted to be together and weren’t going to be torn apart by the system.
As I sat atop this river cruiser in the city of love and light, listening to the love stories of strangers, in the arms of the person I care about most in this world, I was met with a profound sense of hope and joy unlike any I had ever encountered before. Rachel and all of the incredible individuals we met that night instilled in us a tiny piece of hope in a time when we had none. Their stories, each unique and challenging and wonderful, gave us confidence that everything would work out, that what we’ve been trying to do is possible, and that we were not alone.
I got chills as we passed the Eiffel Tower and I listened to the stories of our new friends, glass of wine in my hand, and in that moment, I knew we were growing.