The essay What’s Next for Photography in the Age of Instagram? (2018) by Sean O’Hagan in the Guardian caught my eye; myself being a sometimes habitual user of Instagram as well as having a vested interest in photography in general and the direction it is heading.
O’Hagan notes the increasing use of photographs on platforms like Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat; the numbers even increasing since his 2012 essay: – Photography: an ever-evolving art form (O’Hagan, 2012); where there were already staggering figures: ‘By April 2012, Facebook users were posting photographs at the rate of 300 million per day.’ (O’Hagan, 2012). Even though it would seem we are facing ‘unimaginable image overload’ (O’Hagan, 2018), there are signs according to O’Hagan that we still have an interest in art photography; photo festivals and photo book publishing being the most significant outlets. Therefore photographs are shared in their own different ways on social media platforms and then to a lesser extent (but equally importantly) in more physical, traditional ways.
I have often been curious as to how the photographs themselves are taken is changing and what impact this could have on how they are shared/collected. Instead of classic portraiture, selfies are prevalent (282 million were taken in 2016 – (Myers, 2018)). Also instead of skilled photojournalists covering all news, reportage is much more democratic with many people having access to smartphones with cameras and (access to the internet for subsequent sharing). This gives new perspectives on the democracy of the image and had implications for authorship. So the smartphone is the key tool which has changed how images are taken and distributed as well as received. O’Hagan too is aware of this: ’the smartphone camera has already made photography democratic in a way that no one could have predicted.’ (O’Hagan, 2018). I began to wonder how then to break this newly-formed cycle where the same smartphone that takes the image, distributes it and receives other images as well seems to be very powerful. The smartphone’s physical appearance too – seeming quite small and innocent – for me adds to its deceptive power.
One approach O’Hagan refers to is the artist ‘interrogating the medium’. Here, the artist is often ‘shifting it away from documentary towards other, more conceptually driven art forms – abstract painting, sculpture, performance, video installation.’ (O’Hagan, 2018). In my mind this means instead of tackling any topic with the camera, the artist instead turns their camera and/or mind towards their own practice and experiments with ways of interrogating everything surrounding the photo. Therefore it seems to me there are two distinct sides to photographic based art. These consist of firstly the more traditional documentary photography, although O’Hagan explores more edgy ways of making and displaying this work. Then secondly there is interrogating the medium of photography and the various platforms it appears on.
One exhibition seemingly dedicated to a contemporary interrogating of the medium was: All I Know Is What’s on the Internet at the Photographer’s Gallery (2018-2019). I did visit this exhibition myself; although before I had read this essay and so I wasn’t particularly looking for work that ‘interrogated the medium’. In retrospect, I wish I had paid more attention to all of the works that were on display there as it was on one of the last days the exhibition took place. It looked like there were some really topical works that investigated photography’s place within society and how it affecting us and is used in ways that we wouldn’t usually associate with photography. However, I was just taking a stroll through the exhibition and so didn’t take in all the details of the works and perhaps consequently didn’t ‘get’ much of the works.
There was one work in particular that stood out to me though and this was Stop the Algorithm by Stephanie Kneissl & Max Lackner (2017). This was mainly because I ‘got’ the work and liked the presentation as well. Here, there was an apparatus that allowed an Instagram feed to ‘endlessly’ (and perhaps mindlessly) scroll; much like many of us do to a certain extent on our smartphones at one point in the day. However, the work had a deeper meaning too, which I wouldn’t have inferred without reading the description beside the apparatus. The deeper meaning was that we don’t just ‘mindlessly’ scroll even if we think we do: there are many algorithms present within the Instagram app that control the way we interact with the app and the photos that appear in our feeds.
I would suggest that as well as interrogating the medium in the way the work is made there is also the way the work is presented. If the work is presented back in a traditional way (on a wall in a frame) the work might lose impact. If however, it is presented in an imaginative and suitable way like much of the work in All I Know Is What’s on the Internet, the viewer is more likely to see the appeal of the work. Instagram too (ironically) can be a platform for presenting an artist’s work – if not the work itself then the experimentation leading up to it. ‘In 2014, Argentinian artist Amalia Ulman created an Instagram feed as a work of art in itself’ (O’Hagan, 2018), which proves the ‘diaristic nature’ of Instagram can be used creatively. More often though, Instagram is used by artists as a notebook for sharing art and ideas behind art.
After reading through O’Hagan’s (2018) essay, I am more intrigued about interrogating the medium than traditional documentary. One possible way I can see to interrogate the medium is by using the concept that the smartphone itself is a common viewing platform for images (via Instagram or otherwise). If smartphones are used to take the images as well I could see a potential project where I take a picture with my camera through the viewfinder of someone else’s smartphone camera and then appropriate this smartphone viewfinder image (including the surrounding subject matter (like the hand holding the smartphone)) into my own Instagram feed. This would lead to a more democratic view to photography where my authorship and subjectivity was melded into the vision of the person holding the original smartphone.
Fig. 1 Kneissl, S. & Lackner, M. (2017) Stop the Algorithm. [Photograph] Retrieved from: https://thephotographersgallery.org.uk/whats-on/exhibition/all-i-know-is-whats-on-the-internet (Accessed 21/03/2019).
All I Know Is What’s on the Internet. [Exhibition] 26th Oct. 2018 – 24th Feb. 2019. The Photographer’s Gallery, London.
Kneissl, S. & Lackner, M. Stop the Algorithm. All I Know Is What’s on the Internet. [Exhibition] 26th Oct. 2018 – 24th Feb. 2019. The Photographer’s Gallery, London.
Myers, L. (2018) Instagram Stats You Need To Know For Success in 2019. At: https://louisem.com/152018/instagram-stats-2019 (Accessed 21/03/2019).
O’Hagan, S. (2012) ‘Photography: an ever-evolving art form’ In: The Guardian 16/11/2012 At: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2012/nov/16/sean-ohagan-photography-art-form (Accessed 21/03/2019).
O’Hagan, S. (2018) ‘What next for photography in the age of Instagram?’ IN: The Guardian 14/10/2018 At: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2018/oct/14/future-photography-in-the-age-of-instagram-essay-sean-o-hagan (Accessed 21/03/2019).