The Misplaced Debate About Instagram

BY Taylor Davidson | July 22nd, 2012
Brooklyn, NY

Andy Warhol,

Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art.

Why is there such a fuss about Instagram?

In brief, technology changes faster than culture, incumbents never like being disrupted, and “photography”, “photographer”, and “photos” don’t mean what they used to.

Looking at the changes in photography broader, let’s remember that this isn’t new. Every new form of art is derided by the old. Black and white photography disliked color photography. Painting disliked photography. I’m sure every new style of painting was initially mocked by the existing dominant style.

The “new” is traditionally largely disliked by the “old”. I say largely, because there are traditionally pockets of early adopters who are the first to try and either discard or take the technology to larger audiences. It’s a fundamental human trait that crosses art, business, health, science, etc.

What differs, however, is how different sectors react to change.

And while people have taken to phoneography (iPhone, Instagram, Hipstamatic, Camera and the incredibly wide range of photo editing, manipulating and sharing apps), the reaction by the traditional photography industry has been far less enthusiastic, to put it mildly.

To which we shouldn’t be surprised, given the broader historical context. But the photography industry better catch up to the realities. There’s a choice: disrupt, or be disrupted.

Photos don’t have to be “art” to be good.

Photos don’t have to be “art” to be good.

— Taylor Davidson (@tdavidson) July 22, 2012

“Photography”, “photographer”, and “photos” don’t mean what they used to. Photography as a art form and a commercial enterprise is changing, in large part because while more people care about photography, they don’t care about photography as an art form. Photos don’t have to be “art” to be good. Photos can be meaningful, memorable, interesting, even evocative, without being art. More importantly, photos have become incredibly accessible and powerful ways to communicate, by sharing experiences in a richer way than possible with text (or sometimes combined, as memes), and even moreso, with phoneography and the web they can be timely, shared instantaneously to anyone and everyone. Filters are easy ways for anyone to edit their photos to apply an artistic touch, even though as any filter becomes widely adopted its impact declines.

But we all know this. What we’re not thinking is about is the broader meaning.

Forget the message, pay attention to the medium.

Most of the debate about Instagram centers around the easy use of photo editing filters, overused cliches, and the banality of the subject matters, and the images themselves.

To which I say: if that’s what you’re upset about, follow other photographers, because there are interesting and unique photographers using Instagram, and there are ways to find great images. Yes, there are a tremendous amount of banal images, but even those images are important to somebody. The fact that we are looking at them isn’t a problem of too many images, it’s our own failure in how we filter them out. As Mathew Ingram sums up in GigaOm,

Are there lots of shallow uses of these tools? Sure there are. But that’s not the important part.

So, what’s the important part?

Marshall McLuhan’s famous phrase “the medium is the message” means that the focus of analysis should be the medium itself, not the content it carries. Yet that’s not what people tend to focus on: we tend to focus on the obvious (the content), but miss the structural changes that occur more subtly over time.

Instagram is the obvious change. But the medium, mobile devices, connected to the network, that capture images, is the far more valuable thing to pay attention to.

Cameraphones will not be the last technology that democratizes the tools of production and puts the ability to create (and ship) art into people’s hands. Instagram will not be the last app that helps people be artists for a minute a day. It will not be not the last app that helps people see great photos and share in great moments.

More disruption to photography and photographers is surely on the way; but by over-focusing on popular use of these innovations and attempting to cut them out of “photography”, the industry is doing a disservice to it’s own future. As McLuhan also said,

Control over change would seem to consist in moving not with it but ahead of it.

Right now, most* of the traditional industry is attempting to control change by shutting it out. It would be a big step forward for the industry to move with it. It would be an enormous step to move ahead of it.

Most, but there are some shining examples, including The New York Times and Sports Illustrated.

The business of photography isn’t dying, it’s just different.

The business of photography is no longer just about photographs.

Robin Sloan and Noah Brier have pointed out the differences between stock and flow in media; stock is the durable, static content we create that’s still interesting in 2 months, 2 years, or more, while flow is the feed, the daily stream of updates.

The traditional parts of the photography industry (commercial, editorial, agencies, stock photography, camera manufacturers, etc.) have always understood how to do stock well. And they still do. But where they fail is the flow, which also happens to be the newer form. And that’s how even as many industries have picked up on the importance of visual imagery, they have largely utilized the flow aspect of photography. Flickr was one of the first popularly-adopted web companies to ruffle the photography industry. Facebook has learned how important photo sharing is to the social media industry, and has invested heavily into their own photography features (demonstrated by their acquisition of Instagram), and Twitter has been making product changes to bring more rich media into the stream. E-commerce companies are emphasizing the role of imagery in driving product discovery and purchase decisions. Pinterest is based entirely around visual imagery. Online media is emphasizing strong, large, bold imagery, highlighted by Boston.com’s The Big Picture, the bold imagery of Fast Company’s Co. sites, and more.

Thus, there are many ways for the photography industry to increase their range of products and service offerings to fit the visual imagery needs of business today. The quicker the photography industry understands how the business models in photography are changing, the quicker they’ll be able to adapt.

More about Instagram and photography by Mathew Ingram, Edward Rozzo, Joerg Colberg, David Campbell, Ed Kashi, and Allen Murabayashi. And for much more of my thoughts on photography, start here.