• George Byrne

Fertile Ground: The Power of Instagram

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Social media has made it easier than ever to show your work to a global audience of people. We look at how platforms like Instagram have removed old barriers for emerging photographers to establish themselves while creating unprecedented competition.

Texts by Eleanor Scott

Social media platforms were created to help people connect with likeminded people, share ideas, stories and artwork, and photos of breakfast, coffee and dogs. Social media has become entrenched in our daily lives and caused seismic shifts in almost every industry from journalism to manufacturing.

In an essay about photography as an ever-evolving art form, published by the Guardian in November 2012, writer and photography critic Sean O’Hagan spoke about how, even in the face of a “tsunami of digital technology”, photography continues not only to endure but to prosper, with the number of photography festivals, art book fairs and career opportunities steadily growing. At the time, social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram hadn’t even been around ten years. But content overload and the future of photography in the ‘social media age’ were already serious concerns. Now, with over 95 million photos and videos being uploaded to Instagram every day, it remains an interesting phenomenon whose far reaching effects are still unknown. However, despite its faults (who remembers the halcyon days of the chronological feed?) Instagram is one of the most powerful, richly populated, and accessible creative tools for photographers.

George BryneIMAGE—George Byrne, Post Truth exhibition, Olsen Gallery

“Artists can now showcase their work and gain a borderless audience that advocates on their behalf whether they’re aware of it or not.”

Emerging photographers in particular are benefiting from the platform’s capacity to grow an audience of potential customers and clients. In the past, without the perfect combination of hard work, talent, social capital, geographical privilege and financial reach, it was much harder to have your work seen by the right person to propel their careers forward. But social media changed that, almost overnight. Now, it matters less where you’re based or if you’re represented, although the latter is still advantageous. Artists can now showcase their work and gain a borderless audience that advocates on their behalf whether they’re aware of it or not. A ready-made fan base is a serious consideration for traditional galleries, museums and photo book publishers that have no choice but to consider the commercial viability of the work they choose to support.

In conversation with the British Journal of Photography about VICE Magazine’s 2018 annual photo book issue Privacy and Perception, Photo Editor Elizabeth Renstrom said that Instagram has “democratised the medium”, and pointed out that many of the budding photographers featured in the issue were found via Instagram. Photographer and artist George Byrne has also spoken about how Instagram has had a positive influence on his creative process and success. Known for his abstract and vibrant portraits of Los Angeles, early in his career Byrne found that the daily practise of uploading images taken on his iPhone to Instagram helped him to develop his style as a photographer, while also gaining him a rapt audience. Now boasting over 116,000 followers, Byrne continues to successfully engage with his online audience while flexing his creative muscles.

Devin Allen is another photographer who initially found his audience through social media. Originally intending to pursue portrait and fashion photography, Allen discovered a talent for a more documentary-style approach to the medium while attending the 2015 Baltimore Uprising protests held in response to the in-custody death of Freddie Gray. During the protests the police broke his Fuji XT1 camea, so he began taking pictures with his iPhone and uploading them straight to Instagram. The now iconic photos went viral, quickly gaining Allen a loyal fan base and the attention of major news outlets including the New York Times, CNN, BBC and Time Magazine. However, emerging photographers aren’t the only ones who have embraced the platform and found success. Considered one of the most significant photographers of our time, Stephen Shore made a name for himself by capturing the mundanity of 1970s America. Shore has proven to be very deft when it comes to adapting to new technologies, likening the creative process of Instagram to that of print-on-demand books. In fact, Shore’s passion and predilection for the platform is so widely recognised that MoMA’s 2017/2018 retrospective of his life’s work also included three years of his Instagram feed.

“In Instagram, I’m fascinated by the visual communities that develop. I find it very satisfying that there are a group of people who look at each other’s work every day, and they’re all over the world.”

 

Stephen Shore

“One of the things about the print-on-demand books is that I thought of the book as a whole – as a work of art, not the individual pictures… And I found that that took a certain pressure off the individual picture, and that the individual picture could be more of one note that would be part of the chord, or the phrase, which would be the book. I found that same quality again years later when I encountered Instagram. A new means of distribution and a new means of communication [which] opens possibilities that didn’t exist before,” Shore said in the audio playlist for his MoMA retrospective. “I also found in Instagram the kind of playfulness that I liked in the books – that I could try an idea for a day and explore it. But also, in Instagram, I’m fascinated by the visual communities that develop. I find it very satisfying that there are a group of people who look at each other’s work every day, and they’re all over the world.”

Of course, there are downsides to Instagram as well. Several big-name brands, influencers and organisations have been caught poaching content without providing credit or pay to the artists they’ve stolen from. Plenty of creators also find that they get stuck in affirmation loops – only making the type of art that their followers consistently engage with and love, which then contributes to the same homogenised aesthetic that led them into that cycle in the first place. Yet, even with the downsides considered, the platform still proves to be a positive force for many photographers because, at its core, Instagram offers creatives another means to reach out to the world.

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Eleanor Scott

Eleanor Scott is a Melbourne-based freelance writer and editor. With over five years of experience she has written for publications like the Guardian US and Neighbourhood Paper, and her work has always reflected her passion for art, design, photography, and culture. Previously the assistant editor of Australia's most widely read sustainable architecture magazine, if she wasn’t a writer she’d probably have become a designer – or indulged her love of surfing and become a permanent beach bum.