About a year ago I got fed up with Facebook.
More precisely, I got fed up with myself: Compulsive that I am, I was logging on five or six times a day, until it became less and less a pleasure and mostly just a mindless time suck. (I never even got started with Twitter after signing up—that just seemed like white noise with punchlines). But if the vast and rapid success of social media tells us anything, it is that billions of us long to connect, in some way, any way, with other people. So I couldn’t just walk away.
Instead, I migrated over to Instagram. Until then, I’d visited only occasionally, because although I've always liked the idea of taking pictures, I've never been very good at it.
So I decided to post a picture a day on Instagram. I would do it for a year, just to see if I could. I did this as a discipline, to get myself in the habit of taking photographs.
For most of my life, I have taken pictures, but only occasionally and without really knowing what I was doing, because I have never had much luck with cameras. Machines and I do not play well together. (For years I painted, and every painting began as a failed photograph that I was trying to salvage.) Digital cameras improved the situation a little—I could see what I had just taken and correct accordingly—but not until I got a smart phone a couple of years ago did things really start to look up.
Because the phone was always with me, I never had an excuse not to take a picture. Very quickly, it became a habit. I took pictures on my commuter train, on the walk to work and on the way home, around the house, at the supermarket, walking the dog (who no longer wants to walk with me because now we stop more than we walk). I have taken more photos in the past year than I have in the rest of my life combined.
Writing about Instagram is like cage-fighting an 800-lb. marshmallow: it’s a squishy business. No generalities hold for the whole thing. It’s 700 million teens, artists, travel junkies, mom and pop stores, moms and pops with kid pics, foodies, fetishists, selfie lovers, historians, people with every possible agenda. Shared pictorial images are the only common denominator, and that’s a classification so broad as to be meaningless.
It’s not surprising, then, that while I could say that Instagram is a welcoming environment full of generous, friendly people, teens and young adults in Great Britain are telling a Royal Society for Public Health survey that among social media apps, Instagram and Snapchat are the “worst for young mental health.” No reason in this broad realm why both assumptions can’t be valid.
So, any observations I have come solely from my own experience. I can’t talk intelligently about Instagram as an entity, but I can at least say what’s happened to me there.
If I had a method, it was something like Garry Winogrand’s famous quote: “I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed.”
If I had a goal, it was no more complicated than “Would you look at that!” (In this regard, I invented what I think would be a great title for an as-yet-to-be-written history of photography: Look At It This Way.) When it comes how I see things—my vision, if you will—I’m just a gawking hick in the big city … and sometimes a city slicker in Hicksville.
For several months, I kept a quote from the late photographer Richard Benson at the top of my Instagram feed: “Go out into the world with the camera and photograph, and find out that the world is smarter than you are.” In other words, don’t complicate things with arty ideas or fancy tricks. Let inspiration come from what you see, not what you think.
This truth led me to a liberating realization: No matter how much you may be influenced by great photographers living or dead, you will never be entirely in their shadow for the simple reason that the world always changes, even when your methods are derivative: that tree, that airplane, that man jumping over a puddle—it’s all happening in a way and in a light and at a particular time of day that’s utterly unique. It has never happened before or will again exactly as it’s happening now.
I can see why people who have devoted their lives to photography would roll their eyes at johnny-come-latelys like me who jump on Instagram and post up a storm. If they think, as I suspect they do, that taking pictures with an iPhone and posting on Instagram has little to do with the discipline of mastering a camera and a darkroom, I completely agree. I am not a photographer the way they are photographers, with the patience and discipline required to master a complex art.
I’m an Instagram photographer. I work in an ephemeral medium where photographs do not exist as real things, as chemicals on paper, but only as digital images that people will look at for a few seconds and then scroll past. And I, apparently, am no more interested in permanence than my audience: In the year I have been at this, I have printed exactly one photograph (and in fact, I didn’t print it, my wife did, just to show me what it would look like—the new Winogrand upgrade, maybe).
The flip side of Instagram’s ephemeral, disposable nature is that it’s less like an art gallery and more like a laboratory: You can experiment in this anything-goes environment, and you get feedback, which in turn inspires you to do the same—I hit that like button a lot, because this is, after all, a sharing medium, so the traffic runs both ways in call-and-response fashion. But here’s the takeaway: Every picture does not have to be a work of art. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
My year and change on Instagram has been like nothing else I’ve experienced with social media, because, just for starters, it’s social. It’s an odd thing, learning about people based not on who they are or what they say but on what they see and how they look at it. Odd in a good way.
I cannot overstate how kind and supportive other Instagrammers have been to me. People whose work is superior to mine have routinely taken the time to give me positive feedback. Along the way, I’ve befriended total strangers (this never happened on Facebook), some of whom I correspond with occasionally, and one who actually looked me up when he came to New York. I keep looking for a downside to all this, but so far I’m not seeing it.
As a result of the hours I’ve logged simply looking at posted images, I’ve intuitively learned something about what makes pictures work. My eye is keener and hungrier because I get to hang out every day with people who know more than I do.
I’ve learned from people who aren’t very good, too. My gripe against my college English department was that they only gave us great books to read. How do you ever develop taste if you don’t read trash, too? You have to learn to recognize the distinction. On Instagram, the good, the bad, and the ugly are all there, side by side.
I have become a more ruthless and less principled person. I have spied upon strangers in the subway and snapped their pictures without asking permission. I once swore I would never post a picture of my dinner. Now I have. I said I would never take a picture of one of those protective covers with which people shroud their cars, because it’s such a cliché. Been there and done that, too.
Where once I looked cross-eyed at people who fill their feeds with endless solipsistic selfies, I’ve done a complete 180 after deciding to view them as the visual equivalent of performance art. I’ve become fascinated by what people think they look like, or what they want me to think they look like.
There is apparently no standard I will not lower, no rule I will not break. OK, one: I will not take pictures of homeless people, not out of any squeamishness but because it just feels creepy and predatory.
I’ve never kept a journal, but that is what my Instagram feed feels like, especially when I sit down at night to edit the day’s pictures: there are so many images—so many stray moments—that I would have forgotten completely had I not taken those pictures and then gone through them at night. I’m no diarist but now I understand why people do it.
How many people are on Instagram because, like me, they’re serious about photography as an end in itself? I would guess somewhere around six figures, given that even photography superstars like Stephen Shore (96K) and Cindy Sherman (122K) have a ways to go to catch Beyoncé (105M). So it’s a niche market, so what? I hope no one signed up for Instagram to become rich or famous.
Who know how long I’ll stick with it. I can remember when Facebook was fun, and then it wasn’t. Maybe any social medium has a built-in shelf life. Instagram is not even a decade old, and I have only used it regularly for a year. Maybe I’ll tire of it, too. But I doubt it. For while it’s true that Facebook owns Instagram, the vibe is different. On Instagram, you’re more a maker and less a consumer, or both at once maybe. Or perhaps it’s a matter of motivation: I never quite knew what to do with myself on Facebook, whereas on Instagram that’s no problem. Even on days when I have to scrounge to post the self-imposed one-picture-a-day, I’m not stressed. There’s always tomorrow.
And in the meantime, there’s always something fun to look at.