Social Media and Photography — Instagram

By Mark McGuire

On the Monday 24 June 2019 meeting of the Dunedin Photographic Society, I gave a talk on the subject of Social Media and Photography (you can see the slides here). Rather than repeating the whole talk, which covered a lot of ground, I thought I would create a few posts focussing on specific issues and practitioners that I mentioned. In this post, I will look at Instagram.

Over the last decade or so, social media has dramatically increased the number of photographs that we see each day and the way that we experience them. Writing in the Guardian on 14 October 2018, Sean O’Hagen asks “What next for photography in the age of Instagram?“. He highlights the number of photos uploaded daily to Facebook (350m) and Instagram (95m) and the fact that the total number of images shared on these two platforms exceeds 290bn. Although many might worry that this flood of (mostly) missable images would have reduced our ability and willingness to look at images closely and to appreciate them critically, he points to signs that interest in traditional photography has, in fact, increased. He cites recent appointments at the Tate, the new Photography Centre at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and new photography galleries opened by the Swedish organisation, Fotografiska, in Stockholm, New York, London and Tallinn. He also points to rise in interest in photobooks (see Hoxton Mini Press in London and the Photobook / NZ Festivals). O’Hagen also discusses how many established photographers have integrated social media into their practice. For example, Stephen Shore discovered that Instagram was “A new means of distribution and a new means of communication open possibilities that didn’t exist before.”

“I also found in Instagram the kind of playfulness that I liked in the books—that I could try an idea for a day and explore it. But also, in Instagram, I’m fascinated by the visual communities that develop. I find it very satisfying that they’re a group of people who look at each other’s work every day, and they’re all over the world. And when I do meet people that I look at regularly on Instagram, I have a feeling that we’re friends, that I know them well.”

Stephen Shore, like many professional photographers, uses Instagram as one of the many ways he reaches his audience. He maintains control over the presentation of his work. His website includes a link to his Instagram account, which he uses to share work that suits the platform.

Cindy Sherman on Instagram 4 panels

Images from Cindy Sherman’s Instagram account.

Another well known photographer who makes effective and creative use off Instagram is Cindy Sherman. In over 40 years of work, she is known for using herself as a model, creating images that highlight the male gaze, like the black-and-white “Untitled Film Stills” (1977-80) inspired by the films of Antonioni and Hitchcock. Although she appears in most of the photographs she publishes on her Instagram account, she detests the selfies that are almost synonomous with the platform. As Jason Fargo noted in an article for the New York Times in 2017:

“Her new mock self-portraits are of ordinary people, albeit cartoonishly caricatured. They are some of the first pure protagonists in Sherman’s work: These women are not metaphors, they are not waiting to be represented, rescued or destroyed. They are gloriously, catastrophically themselves, and we meet them on their own terms — as we so frequently meet each other — in stagy, embarrassing, endearing selfies launched into the world.”

Using apps like FaceTune, Sherman overturns the practice of putting our best face forward on social media by manipulating self portraits in ways that exaggerate the flaws, garish make-up, gaudy clothing and kitschy backgrounds. She uses the technologies created for social media to critique how it is commonly used, adding another layer of complexity to her commentary on how we, and especially women, create our image and how that image is commodified and consumed in popular culture.

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