There is a disconcerting uniformity to the photos on Instagram. I don’t mean the photos of brunch food and the pouty bathroom-mirror self-portraits – I mean the photos taken by the photographers of Instagram trying to share an artistic vision, not just their latest sunset. I’ve been trying to make sense of this – is it just that this volume of photos is eventually bound to have grouping and patterns? Or is it some strange peer pressure around how things should look in an image?
I’m a newcomer to Instagram; late to the smartphone game, I only got an iPhone a few months ago. More than any other app, I was drawn by the visual sharing on Instagram. It’s fascinating to me what people notice and take photos of in daily life. I was particular in following people who only post photos taken on their phones, which is at once more challenging and more real, somehow, than posting processed camera shots. I am fascinated by the snowy, minimalist views from a photographer in Finland. I “aw” over the sunrise-lit farm animals shot by an Alberta cowgirl. These, to me, are the best shots on Instagram – pretty if not beautiful, well composed, rarely artistically ambitious, but real and immediate and therefore wonderful, a slice of life that I get to look in on.
Then there are the artistic shots, Photography as opposed to mere photos. The square format on Instagram lends itself well to symmetry, and at first this was refreshing and unusual, but repeating patterns quickly emerged. There are variations: the silhouette in the middle of the frame; the feet neatly positioned on the photo’s edge; the back of the head shot. It’s impossible to pin down where the trend started – I try to follow Instagrammers with distinctive styles, but what to do when the main distinction in my feed is between hats on the turned-away observer? Other themes are equally ubiquitous: the endless tunnels, symmetrical or not, with silhouetted people or without. The artfully arranged objects, food or coffee mugs, on a fine edge between materialism and abstraction.
Perhaps it’s a feedback loop from other photographers, a need to try on others’ photos for size. But if I take a photo looking up a transmission tower, whose photo is it? It certainly isn’t mine, if photography is about vision, not the pixels. Post-Instagram, I may never be able to take a photo of, say, the Brooklyn Bridge, my vision now contaminated by too many images. We perceive so many things as images that maybe we stop thinking about them as physical things, just objects we need to photograph, and to photograph in a certain way.
How do you take a new photo of something that has been photographed endless times by endless people? Maybe, with certain tunnels and bridges, you can’t. But I find myself thinking twice before posting photos to Instagram, checking to see if I’m committing subconscious plagiarism.