Considering the materiality of Instagram
“Photographs have inextricably linked meanings as images and meanings as objects.” This is according to Elizabeth Edwards and Janice Hart, editors of Photographs Objects Histories, who assert that photographs cannot be seen merely as images without considering their materiality.
Having just celebrated its third birthday, Instagram is a toddler in the world of photography, and yet an ancient and venerated elder in the ever-changing world of social media. How is it that something as paradoxical as a digital image, with the appearance of a grainy Polaroid, has captured the imagination of more than 100 million people worldwide?
Instagram’s trick is to make us feel as if we are living in a world where material culture and tactility are still important characteristics of everyday life. The reality is that printed photographs, paper calendars, diaries, letters, and even books, are gradually becoming obsolete, thanks to the tech giants of Silicone Valley. Even Apple’s new iOS 7 has dispensed with its loveably skeuomorphic app design: you can no longer write your notes on yellow lined paper in dodgy ‘handwriting’. But then again, perhaps this is an acknowledgement that technology and analogue methods can coexist, albeit with different functions.
This is where Instagram blurs the boundaries of what is real and what is not. Does an Instagram snap, with a vintage filter, correspond in material terms with a ‘real’ vintage photograph? Are Instagram pictures photographs at all, or are they merely images? According to Edwards & Hart, materiality transforms abstract ‘photography’ into tangible ‘photographs’, which exist as objects in space and time. Instagram subverts this process, ensuring that our images retain the permanence once sought through physical albums, while divorcing any kind of tangible materiality from the pictures, trapped perpetually in the vast web of the internet.
This idea is so conflicting because of the form in which Instagram captures our images. The once transient and ephemeral Polaroid, a product of chance, has been transformed into a lasting and permanent form, subjected to many purposefully deliberated alterations, intended to create the very sense of transience which has been forgotten about. This is accentuated by the square shape of Instagram pictures, forcibly creating a nostalgic image with none of the values of such a form, except its instantaneity.
Mechanical reproduction, for Walter Benjamin, had the beneficial effect of democratising art; Instagram could be said to have done the same for photography. No longer do you need a studio, or an expensive SLR, or knowledge of the dark room. Anybody with a smartphone (that’s more than a billion people worldwide), can download Instagram’s free app and create artful images to their heart’s content. Does this mean that all these people’s pictures have the qualities of great photographs? As I’m writing this, Instagram boasts twenty-seven-million, five-hundred-and-sixty-two-thousand, nine-hundred-and-nine images that proclaim to be #art. In the top five are a ‘selfie’, a goat, a shed, a bed, and a painting of a hand. None of these themes would be out of place in a contemporary gallery.
While Instagram ensures that our pictures will last forever, it revokes the primary objective of the photograph as an object to be handled, stored, and shared. No longer will we take down dusty albums from a shelf and smile at days gone by. No longer will we hear the satisfying click of a shutter. No longer will we run our hands over a printed image, rather a touchscreen. While Instagram makes everybody a photographer, letting us create interesting images and experiment with them, it also defines material photographs as more precious than ever before. As it continues to grow, we have more images than ever before and yet strikingly fewer photographs.