I discovered Instagram about a year ago. This was probably about 5 years later than everyone else in the civilized world, but I’m ok with that. Instagram is a website that hosts images uploaded from users. Users have pages that store their images and friends or strangers may view the images and “like” them and leave comments. When I learned of the existence of Instagram, I did not join for a couple of months. I was curious as to why people would use this site to post photos and why they would want to connect with other users.
For many social networkers Instagram is simply an extension of their internet powers. Their Instagram account is tied with their Twitter account and their Facebook account. A photo is snapped and it instantly appears on all three networks. Other users only have the Instagram app on their phones and their photos instantly appear on only one site.
First I wanted to know what kind of images people desired to post. The images I found seemed to fall into a few categories. There were the moms who took only images of their precious children. There were the not-yet-moms who posted only images of their precious dogs/cats. There were the youngsters who posted only images of themselves, usually head shots. There were the life documenters who uploaded a photo of every place they went (think mall, bathroom, bank). And there were the naturists who took mostly images of clouds, sunsets, bodies of water and flowers.
Like pretty much everyone else in the world, I first thought of these photo posters as self centered. The photos were all about them and their immediate worlds. It seemed that they would post a photo of their choice in an attempt to let the world know what they were doing at that moment. Of course, with the assumption that the world was waiting on the edge of it’s seat to know what they were doing at that moment. Our internet population seems to suffer from this idea that their life and their opinions are so very important that they need to keep us all updated every few minutes. It’s the idea of being small scale celebrities. If we have 1,423 friends or followers it must mean that people like us and if people like us, they’ll surely need to know what our breakfast looked like, right?
But that argument is way too easy. Anyone can be cynical about society. The more interesting question is: Could there be a different explanation? Maybe there could be. What if Instagram is not about self absorption? What if Instagram is about beauty?
Consider that the moms who took images of their precious children first saw the image or the moment that drew them to reach for their camera. That image was so adorable, so moving, that moment was so warming that they instantly felt they would want to preserve it. And the not-yet-moms with their pets? We all know that our animals do the most bizarre things when no one else is around to enjoy it. When the Labrador nestled his nose under the cat’s belly and went to sleep, perhaps that image resonated deep within the camera holder. Regardless of where the image took the viewer in her mind, that beautiful moment needed to be saved and shared. The youngsters with their endless self portraits…maybe it’s self image, maybe it’s seeking outside validation but there’s something, if not within the image then within the search that is beautiful. The need for human connection. And the images of the mall, the café, the river and the shoreline, sure these are documentation of everyday life but aren’t they also evidence of a search for beauty in that everyday life?
Think about why you take photos. What moves you to reach for the camera? Isn’t it some definition of beauty?
I have a bit of a camera problem. When I was introduced to the iPhone 3gs a few years ago one of the conveniences was having a camera with me at all times. Need to remember exactly what item to get at the grocery store? Take a photo. See the outrageously dressed lady in line at the grocery store? Take a photo. Notice the rainbow of oil floating on the puddle beside your car? Take a photo. I quickly maxed out my phone memory with my photos.
When I considered Instagram I considered what sort of photos I would choose to post. Would I fall into one of the categories? And who would I be sharing these images with anyway? As I scrolled through my photos on my phone I saw so many different things. If anything, I would need to create a new category for what I would Instagram. There would be art, some kids, some dogs, some nature, but there might also be the Oscar Meyer Wiener-mobile. There might be a lady in a bikini riding a small chicken. There might be an image of my jeans on fire…while I was wearing them. Maybe a dead hummingbird, Honey Boo Boo’s mom and drops of maple syrup on the table. And maybe a peanut butter cookie burning like charcoal. What could all these images possibly have in common?
Beauty is a quality that gives pleasure or enjoyment to the brain. Beauty is the electrical impulse in our brains that we verbalize as “I like it” or “it’s pretty”. When you are forced to think about the elements and principles of design and how they quietly work behind the scenes to manipulate the brain’s response, you begin to see them at work every day and in every circumstance. These formal qualities are always important but the conceptual qualities also play a role. Beauty is also my dad’s pocket knife that now belongs to me. Nothing especially pretty about the photo but the emotional impact can be profound.
Beauty is a quality that can be shared. I’m pretty sure it’s one of the big reasons why artists make art, to share the beauty they have found with others. Since joining Instagram I’ve found a handful of people who for one reason or another choose to consider beauty with me. Our photos mingle on the home photo feed. A painting, a concert, a boston terrier, a sketch on a piece of notebook paper…all very different takes on locating and documenting beauty in everyday life.
On a good day there are enough sunsets and fluffy clouds to balance out my photos of dead mice.