Taylor Davidson · From Photogram to Instagram

Behind changes in mediums and messages, from the photogram to the instagram
by Taylor Davidson · 23 Mar 2013
Berlin, Germany, 2013

There is no progress in art, any more than there is progress in making love. There are simply different ways of doing it.

— Man Ray, 1948 essay

Man Ray was an influential modernist artist with a famously private streak behind a wild creative sensibility.

Among many things, he was known for his “rayographs,” more generally known as photograms, or photographic images made by putting objects on photographic paper and exposing them to light without a camera.

When I think of the word photogram, the key isn’t the “photo”, but the “-gram”, a phrase that refers to ”something written, drawn, or plotted,” often as a symbol or series of symbols with a meaning behind it.

But the photogram is far from the most popular -gram. Telegram, cablegram, sonogram, diagram, cardiogram, ideogram, and infogram, for example, are examples of artifacts carrying messages created and transmitted by unique technologies. [1]

Which leads us to Instagram. What’s behind the name?

When we were kids we loved playing around with cameras — we loved how all the old Polaroid cameras marketed themselves as “instant” (something we take for granted today). We also felt that the snapshots people were taking were kind of like telegrams in that they got sent over the wire to others — so we figured why not combine the two?

Pretty cool story. Replace tele- with insta-, and done! But the more important part to the story is that they kept the -gram. They changed the technology, but carried over the core communication function.

And that’s an important reminder. While the key to the success of the medium of Instagram and today’s popular photography comes from the insta-, the future of the medium lies in the -gram. Whatever changes in the technology behind photography, videography, or any form of creative art, the message will always be the most important part. [2]

* * *

A couple of years ago I wrote a post about how Edgar Allen Poe would have used Twitter. My main point:

Regardless of the era, great artists pick from the range of tools, mediums and methods available to them to create and distribute their “greatness” to the best of their creative ability and commercial temperament.

Tools, mediums and methods come and go. I’m not an art history major, but I enjoy going to art museums and reviewing the ebb and flow of art movements over time. Cultural conventions come and go. Fashions come and go. Mediums come and go. People don’t care about the tools themselves; they care about what they can communicate with them. The message is more important than the medium.

But why? We’ve all heard that “the medium is the message.” But what’s interesting about that phrase is that the interpretation isn’t as obvious as it may appear.

McLuhan defined a medium as “an extension of ourselves,” an extension of the range of the human body, senses, or mind in a new way from which a change emerges. Any innovation, invention, or applied idea is a McLuhan medium.

Following that same focus on change, a McLuhan message is a change that a new invention or innovation “introduces into human affairs.” The message isn’t the content or the information transmitted through the medium, but the resulting effects on human dynamics that are enabled by the message.

The medium of Instagram (and to a larger extent the cameraphone) indelibly changed how people think about photography. The message is that communication won over art. Everyone is a photographer. And photos are disposable records of moments, to be taken in bulk and largely forgotten and unshared. Great art still lives, but it’s harder to find and harder to truly celebrate, since accessibility breeds a form of contempt.

For the moment. There will be another Instagram-like impact on photography. The medium is still ripe for innovation. Perhaps “art” will swing back into fashion and communication will dwindle, a swing to quality over quantity. Perhaps the focus on individual photos will be replaced by a focus on stories. Perhaps we’ll learn how to edit instead of just manipulate. Perhaps the Lytro and the light field camera will prove to be a truly new medium.

Even though there may be “no progress in art” itself, the innovation in the artistic mediums has had an enormous impact on human life. And with the continued innovation in the underlying technologies of art and communication, that progress isn’t stopping anytime soon.

  1. Could -meme become the new -gram? ↩︎

  2. More about the fundamental reasons behind Instagram’s success at The Filter Future. ↩︎