Instagram leverages an illusion of creativity

Ordinary photo on the left; arted up with Instgram on the right

By now the rapid ascent of Instagram is familiar to everyone: from zero to one million users in three months; from one to two million in another six weeks.

I signed up when it first came out but didn’t use it much as none of my social friends were there yet. Now it seems everyone’s posting. Even though I’ve only followed a select group of folks (it’s a lot of images to look at if you follow hundreds) I have in my feed their breakfast, lunch, dinner, meetings, architecture, furniture, reading materials and whatever other everyday tsotskes they find across the table, out the window or overhead. And I’ve been doing the same. Publishing everything from chairlift views to close ups of appetizers. And why not? It’s a fast, fun and easy way to share where you are, what you’re doing and whom you’re doing it with.

But it strikes me that the real reason Instagram has taken off is that it provides us with the illusion of creativity. The brilliance of Instagram is that it lets us snap a most ordinary photograph and instantly “art it up” with one of 15 filters. It gives us the sense that we are better photographers than we actually are. We don’t have to do anything other than point our iPhone at the most mundane of subjects. Early Bird, Hefe, Sutor, Toaster and their fellow filters do the rest. We think that we are creating, expressing, being clever. But as Douglas Rushkoff might remind us, we’re simply being programmed. Told by this app what constitutes an image.  Just as we’ve been told by Facebook what defines an online profile, a digital friend, or an endorsement. Just as we’ve been told by Tumblr the new format for a blog post.

Bad photo shot from the chairlift; better photo thanks to Instagram

Don’t get me wrong. I really like Instagram. Often an image is a much better way to share an idea, a place or an enviable experience than is a check-in or 140 character soundbite. But we should remain cautious of just how much we let all the new social apps and platforms dictate what we produce and how we communicate.

Instagram or its competitor Picplz may or may not be here to stay. Twitter could take them both out. But the idea of posting images in the stream, in a more socially conducive manner than Flickr or even Facebook allows, is here to stay. Which means you may have to endure (or not) a little visual clutter coming from my direction. I make no claims to being a photographer, but if you want, you can find me out there as edwardboches. If you’re a better shooter than I, perhaps I’ll follow you back. (Smile.)



29 comments
Rudy Manno
Rudy Manno

Dear Edwardboches,

Thanks for the info, I have a blackberry bold, I really want instagram and its not in the app store, I aso looked for google play, but that didn't show up either. (you can download instagram on google play) I figure there will be some tech person out there that knows a loop hole. I don't want a similar app either, I want to follow certain people on instagram.Thanks!

I look forward to your next post

lgumbinner
lgumbinner

My take is simple - I love when better design is accessible to all. Instagram means prettier pictures on blogs, more artful photos in my Twitter feed, and less blah snaps from those doting moms who can't stop sharing their baby pictures. The way I see it, we all win.

Aspenmichelle
Aspenmichelle

Please can someone help me? My instagram account was blocked and now my iPhone is banned completely from using instagram again. They violated their terms of service and failed to mention anywhere in it that they take the phones ip address. I want to create a new account but it seems almost impossible.

mikescheiner
mikescheiner

Edward, the one thing i'm surprised you didn't mention was the visual scrap booking of our daily lives. I think what Instagram offers (and a bit surprised it didn't take off with Hipstamatic) is both taking the ordinary and everyday and making it feel ownable to you via the shot and filter. Yes, it truly is allowing for great artistic expression. I do think what most people are now doing is using this in context of their other social feeds. Instead of just sharing verbally or by checking in, actually showing what they are doing at that moment. Proof that a picture is worth a thousand words. BTW, loved your mountain shots.

cjsparno
cjsparno

Interestting article and premise. I have become a huge fan of apps like Instagram, not so much for the social aspect, which is nice, but for the creative freedom they provide me. It's hard to explain this in writing, but if you have ever used a Holga or played with a Diana and 120 film, you know the feeling of taking what you thought was a a well composed and well exposed picture only to be surprised with the results (sometimes horrified). WIth an iPhone and an app like Instagram, you can have that same fun you had with a Holga without the cost and resources of film processing . It's this fun aspect that makes it easy to take more pictures (not just the right shots) and really enjoy the "art" of photography. I really do enjoy the creative shots I have seen come out of this and similar apps.

BruceDeBoer
BruceDeBoer

My take is that the use of apps like Instagram or Hipstamatic is one of romance. By romance I mean the essence of a photo that is part beauty and part open for interpretation. Photographs can deliver way too much ugly detail for the casual photographer; bad lighting, flat color, poor composition, etc. Give me automation that adds beauty to my life and I'll use it more often that something that doesn't. In the case of the apps it's mindless and convenient.

Add to that some fun you got something special. I'm a very experienced photographer and I use various apps for my iPhone that give me a "surprise inside". I'm not quite sure how the app is going to interpret what I see: SURPRISE! It looks great and I can take credit for it.

Thanks for this post EB. I think you're right on.

dweingrod
dweingrod

Edward - Have to disagree with you on this one, but glad you brought this up. I used to teach photography and had a similar reaction as you did when I first encountered Hipstamatic and the whole idea of the filters. Back in the day I spent a lot of time preaching the craft of photography as well as the vision and any sort of artifice that would make the final image more "precious" was anathema to me and my peers. So when I first looked at Hipstamatic, the "Hip" was bad enough and the loss of control and cuteness that the filters added made it worse.

But a funny thing happened with Intstagram. The ease of the UX and its basic commitment to a sharing, networked approach changed my thinking. It became less about presenting any sort of illusion of creativity and more about celebrating the abundance that I could share with friends. It actually became liberating for me to be able to think less about making a "great" picture and more about being able to connect with friends using a tool that I carry with me at all times. And btw, there also seems to be a growing #nofilter movement happening in the Instagram community

I'm still confused as heck about some aspects, like last weekend when I carried around my Nikon D200 and iPhone and tried to figure out the difference between an "Instagram" picture or a "regular" picture. The closest I got to an answer was that Instagram liberated me to take simpler pictures of broader subject matter or things that connected me more to my friends and less to "great photography". In other words, I think its making me less precious about pictures. Are these photos less creative? Maybe, but I think that the abundance of imagery that mobile phones and tools like Instagram are creating is likely to change our definition of what creative is.

lenkendall
lenkendall

First of all, I'm a much bigger fan of CrossProcess than Instagram, but that's a whole other issue.

I agree that these services have created somewhat of a false sense of creativity, and in many ways, have flooded our feeds with mediocre photography, BUT it has accomplished one very amazing thing. It has slowly trained millions of people to have "soft eyes." In other words, to notice things that they never would have before.

Standard camera usage has generally focused on the same types of scenes: people and landscapes. No one wanted to carry a camera around all the time, so they would only do so when they had an intention to shoot images.

With the phone slowly becoming our primary camera (after all...the best camera is the one you have on you), people have become used to impromptu photo taking. With instagram and the like layered on top of it though, people started to realize that rather mundane things could start to look quite interesting if the right filters and colors were adjusted. Now professional photogs always knew this, which is why they've always taken images of odd things (to you and me) that turn our brilliantly, but now through a learned behavior, the masses are starting to look at the world differently and do the same.

I believe that city-dwellers are looking at their surroundings with a new lens because they're analyzing what objects around them have the potential to look stunning if manipulated. So whether or not the influx of these images is entertaining to us all, I'm happy that it's moving us away from our typical state of tunnel vision and indifference to the simple wonderful things around us.

PhilAdams
PhilAdams

Hi Edward. Whilst agreeing with much of what you say I think that there's a more mundane dynamic behind the success of Instagram. Namely that the filters make it possible to take passable pictures on what is otherwise a pretty average (iPhone) camera.

For impromptu, unexpected shots, mobile devices are the camera of choice (and necessity) for many people. But I for one have found myself not bothering to capitalise on many a photo opportunity simply because I knew that the quality of image delivered by my iPhone would not justify the effort. Instagram and Hipstamatic have changed all that.

At some point I'll write a post that compares and contrasts these two apps. For the sake of brevity here I'd say that Instagram wins on its hard-wired social/sharing functionality. But Hipstamatic has the (much) stronger business model. (Which I have written about - http://philadams1.wordpress.com/2010/10/01/hipstamatic-an-iphone-app-with-a-business-plan/).

Phil

mbloomstein
mbloomstein

Edward, thanks for drawing out the Rushkoff connection. His charge to "program or be programmed" is catchy--and more challenging, demanding, and time-consuming than the moment it takes to pop it off as a pithy retort. And that's the rub, right? In existing social structures, we can use Instagram to produce more photos, use Twitter to offer more comments, and use Facebook to share more status updates--all more quickly and easily than ever before. But as you point out, we don't necessarily create, connect, or engage. Rushkoff's challenge to break those structures demands we invest energy and spirit--and who has time between the superficial blips? Quantity and frequency are a cunning substitute for quality. Like Alice in Wonderland's White Rabbit, we may be running at an increasingly faster pace toward an endpoint with no greater engagement or creativity. But hey, at least we'll have lots of high-contrast snapshots of the journey.

lyssandro
lyssandro

I can see your point. I believe that instagram has taken away from the mobile photography the responsability of capturing the images with quality. It will take a long time until you're able to shoot photos with the quality of a SRL camera in your mobile, anyways...
IMHO, Instagram has made people more confident to express themselves through photography by taking away the equipment limitations. It does challenge people to be creative.
Everybody have access to the same filters and some of these people are being very creative and standing out of the crowd. That's the reason of the success of instagram, reckon...

annimetti
annimetti

I don't know if we are being programmed as much as we are simply infatuated with the seductiveness of the instagrammed images. Like Polaroids, everything looks *interestingly good*. The instagram filtering really jars with me and makes it difficult to see the real quality of an image. I think in the end the effect is oversaturation with overfiltered images which is a shame because it risks overshadowing the more important aspect, image/visual sharing and communications. Hopefully when enough people are hooked, some alternative without the blur-saturate-polarize-filter will be released.

jeffKwiatek
jeffKwiatek

I like the idea of instagram because it makes creativity approachable and shareable. It has the "Hey guys look at this cool thing I made," factor built in so people want to use it. But the danger also comes from the ease of use. It's not hard to take a really cool vintage photo anymore. It's not hard to get the desired effect and after a while it all becomes cheap. The Instagramed photo of your morning breakfast is only neat to look at so many times. Like you mentioned to me on twitter we are "fooled by the filters." It takes mundane photos and makes them interesting. But when those photos become the norm it's not really that interesting anymore.

It also surprised me that you didn't bring up Path. It gives you the ability to share life in a visual way but the audience is much more tailored to people who might actually find your breakfast interesting. It also doesn't delude people into thinking they are artists. There are problems with both Instagram and Path but I like the idea they both give us an option to communicate our lives in a visual way.

dweingrod
dweingrod

@BruceDeBoer Completely agree. I think that this is all about ease of use and sharing. I don't feel like I'm trying to be more or less "creative", but more often making choices based on whim. Sure, I'd love to be able to take the photos back to the "darkroom" and make them work just right, but that ultimately would take too much time and get in the way of the primary objective for me of these types of photos.

BruceDeBoer
BruceDeBoer

@dweingrod I think you're comments are also valid; content is king - sharing is caring. However, I've been a pro photographer for 30 years and use is because my casual snapshots shot with these filters are fun and - bonus - they diguise the fact that I wasn't putting any more effort into the "snaps" than my next door - visually inept - neighbor.(see my comment above).

Additionally, I've since learned what each "film" is capable of capturing and making choices that will best illustrate the scene. It's a tool but one that starts at X+2 not X+1 ... sometimes X+2 is more fun.

dweingrod
dweingrod

@edwardboches No more filters for you!!! :-)

ctually I've gone more the other way a few times, actually "cheated" by taking native Instagram images out into Photoshop so I could have the kind of control I used to have in the old days.

edwardboches
edwardboches moderator

@dweingrod That's just because you're addicted to it and can't stop posting everything in your sight line. ;-) Seriously. I agree with all of your comments about easy, liberation, etc. But, if you had the exact same app without the filters that suddenly put a patina, or softening, or color exaggeration on your images, I am willing to bet that you (or at least others whose images aren't quite as good) wouldn't use it as much. Furthermore, what happens is that if this feature of arting up your images works just a little bit, it inspires more use from more people, at which point the network effect kicks in and adds yet another level of propagation. Anyway, carry on. I like most of your images.

dweingrod
dweingrod

@PhilAdams Yep, add to that the fact that I come from a world where the final print of the photo was the arbiter of creativity and quality and it makes it even more difficult to decide. I think that like blogs and tweets have instilled confusion among writers about where to write their "serious" writing we will start seeing the same situation in photography. Len's point below about "soft eyes" is great.

PhilAdams
PhilAdams

@dweingrod Hi Dan. That's really interesting. I had a similar "dilemma" this weekend with kids and dog on a local beach. I had a "proper" camera and my iPhone with me. The resulting flickr set is a combination of Instagram and "normal" shots. The instant gratification (Instagram gratification) of being able to share interesting looking shots with friends added a real time social layer to the outing and, for this reason, the iPhone was camera of choice for some shots over the more sophisticated and higher resolution Canon G9 that I was also carrying.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/philadams1/sets/72157626152476662/

Phil

edwardboches
edwardboches moderator

@lenkendall True, it is refreshing to find a stream of visuals free of cats, dogs, babies and smiling faces. Then again, there are still too many of them. Take a look at the popular page. However, you are right in that there is more non-traditional stuff. Note my scrabble board. Or the deck chair in my stream. And, as you point out, the fact that Instagram inpires us to "see" might be a good thing. In fact, you could make an argument that deep down everyone is creative, but too many people think that they aren't. They're intimidated and don't even try. Instagram makes it so easy (and you see others doing it, too, that what the heck, why not?) But I still stand behind the claim that if it weren't for the filtering that makes us think we're better than we are that many of us may not use it as liberally.

Alesha
Alesha

@lenkendall I love this description "It has slowly trained millions of people to have "soft eyes." In other words, to notice things that they never would have before." Totally true, when I leave the house I noticed little things that I didn't before like a buidling that has a striking contrast to the sky or a fire hydrant that is rusting. I see pictures, everywhere.

annimetti
annimetti

@lenkendall Nice. I like your thoughts here a lot, the focus on the change in the way we look at things rather than the affects on photography practices.

KyleHarty
KyleHarty

@lenkendall I agree, Len. I have a new eye for the simpler things that often get overlooked.

PhilAdams
PhilAdams

@edwardboches I guess a business model that delivers revenue in both the short and long terms is the ideal situation. I have no problem paying for each new Hipstapak as it is released. Each one costs less than a cup of coffee and is much more fun. I pay £9.99/month for a premium Spotify account that gives me an ad-free user experience and offline listening through its app. I have no problem paying a very reasonable £3.99 annual subscription for the improved Guardian newspaper iPhone app. I pay for a pro account on flickr. And, if they asked, I would happily pay for security of service on Delicious and/or trunk.ly. Whilst Instagram is winning hands down on its social "plumbing" I suspect that there's a nice warm feeling for the Hipstamatic guys that comes from having (at least some) black numbers on their spreadsheets.

Phil

edwardboches
edwardboches moderator

@PhilAdams If you mean a business plan in that it charges me for additional filters, yes. But not sure how far that will actually go in building long term platform. Need all the potential tie ins that Instagram, or the inevitable Twitter photo sharing/filtering app will have. Look what the NY Times does with crowdsourced photos. Once one of these apps gets to critical mass, the opp for marketers to tap into the crowd, creating content and generating reaction, will probably yield an equally effective business model. Four or five or even 50 million users will be worth something. Then again, there's always the "sell to Facebook or Google" business plan.

edwardboches
edwardboches moderator

@mbloomstein Where's the modern Grace Slick when you need her? This calls for a killer song.

Bournesocial
Bournesocial

@edwardboches @jeffKwiatek Edward, what you neglected to mention in this is that because our smartphone cameras are basically complete crap for shooting video or still images (small sensors, small lenses = highly pixeallated images and no low-light shooting) apps like Instagram exist to tart up your photos that you capture on the fly. It's like putting lipstick on a pig with art filters. Chase Jarvis has long advocated that the best camera is the one that you have with you (http://www.chasejarvis.com) -- and he pimped products for Nikon that defied this notion by being big, bulky Digital SLR cameras. The consumer wants a compact camera that's available to take great shots that include filters like Instagram. And they have it: It's called the Olympus PEN, and Mullen won several awards promoting this camera (as you well know). I'd bet that in 5 years, you've forgotten your Instagram simulacrum of art and all of the PEN shots you've created with a big sensor will be framed on your wall. What the PEN lacks in social sharing is also being remedied with the new PENPal device that wirelessly transmits images from the camera to any mobile device for immediate sharing of high-quality images (with or without filters). So, stop looking at the world through rose-colored miniature lenses, and open up your aperture wide to the quality images you and your family deserve.

edwardboches
edwardboches moderator

@jeffKwiatek Good points. I didn't mention Path for even though I'm signed up, don't really use it. Seem to either have real, in person relationships, or digital ones that sometimes become real and in person. I suppose if I were geographically separated from the people closest to me then I might use Path. However, not sure they serve the same purpose. On Instagram, there are already people striving to get more "likes" and more "followers" and drive up their visibility in hopes of making the most popular page.

Trackbacks

  1. […] This is a great mini-meditation on Instagram. In it, Boches raises some interesting questions about the relationship between creativity and technology. The primary question seems to be: How creative can you really be when the parameters of your chosen medium are always pre-determined? Can creative genius occur inside the proverbial box; or, can it only ever happen outside of the box? Or, in this case, the filter. […]

  2. […] before the dose of haterade. There is an element of art to the instagram. Edward Boches had some great observations on the benefits (and fallacies) of this. However, I still feel like there’s more to it. […]

  3. […] Instagram is addictive too. They made some changes this year and I don’t mean the $1 billion payday the company’s founders garnered from a suddenly generous Mark Zuckerberg. (Mark was lacking a mobile ‘thing.’) Instagram moved to the web and stopped playing nice with Twitter, making it harder for my followers to see pictures of my eating habits, and just this week Instagram updated its TOS and Privacy Policy. (Update on the update – Instagram returned to a world prior to its update.) All of the above is fine by me as long as Instagram keeps allowing me to take pictures with a ‘soft eye’ and easily share them. (I came across the term ‘soft eyes,’ coined by Len Kendall, in a comment on a post by Edward Boches.) […]