How Instagram hit photo-sharing gold

Instagram has tapped into something. Obviously. But what gives it aesthetic currency?

Alex Gilks

When I was in sixth form classics, the zenith of visual communication for a student involved spilling instant coffee on your research project wall chart the night before it was due. It would still have just enough time to dry, but you had to be careful that your hand-drawn classical ornamental device (egg and dart moulding pattern, for example, or egg and chips, if you were given to nonsense) was drawn in black ball-point or permanent marker, not in one of those other bloody ink pens, or else a whole section of your submission would run a murky cloud, with black seeping under your pasted-on cut-out photocopies of ruins, and working on the floor next to your bed at 11:59, you’d be tempted to just sod the whole thing.

The brown liquid (local Gregg’s coffee, or Tiger or Bell Tea) would stain areas of the cartridge paper a yellow-brown. It looked old and warm and somehow authentic. Almost exactly like the Dead Sea Scrolls, you thought. The archaic pastiche was complete if you carefully burned some of the edges of the poster with some matches. There ain’t no software filter for that.

Anyway, fast forward 20-something years, and the aesthetic whimsy-de-jour for shared happy-snappy photos is broadly ’1970s-esque grunge’: desaturated, but heavy on the yellow, high-contrast, square format, leaking light, dust, and sundry textures.

Why does Instagram have, for now at least, such aesthetic currency?

‘Good’ photography is easy

Not really. Most of the awesome things about ‘good’ photos are still special, and hard to achieve. But it isn’t so hard for people to get sharp, high resolution, brightly-lit and richly saturated images, since cameras with goodish lenses are way more affordable, and the default settings on cameras are geared towards making things look like the pro stock photos. And when that becomes the norm, people have to find their cosy sub-cultural space elsewhere.

So, when even mum and dad’s photos can pop like the Sony Bravia coloured balls ad, Junior feels more at home with the sweat and urine-soaked feel of Dad’s partying youth (though Junior was actually thinking of the video for Nirvana’s Heart Shaped Box which he discovered during exams last year).

The paradox of lush

Texture and depth look really nice with the flatness and luminosity of screens. As with the prevalence of decent quality digital SLR cameras, it’s easy for stuff to look good on screen, so we like images that work harder to grab our attention. Six hundred years after the ‘discovery’ of perspective, we are still smitten with the illusion of depth.

Affecting personal history

It’s not like there weren’t good cameras in the 1970s. But Instagram ties in naturally with a keenness for LOMO cameras, Holgas and the like: picture-making technology that links us to the fuzzy and innocent images of our parents’ photo albums, all faded Polaroids and woollen jerseys and long wavy grass. The difference is, with real Polaroids you have the commitment of money; with Lomo and Holga it’s money and funny film and time, and learning how to use a clunky old box. With websites and software, it’s pretty much instant and free to mess with photos, although you won’t have such an effective printed result. Or no prints at all.

The iCrowd

There’s an exclusiveness about using apps and websites to do everyday things, even if we don’t want to admit it. It’s not just owning and knowing how to use gizmos and sharing functions, it’s understanding what the heck it means and what people are saying that eludes older and less educated people. It can feel special to share things with like-minded people. It isn’t likely though that many great living photographers will check out your Instagram photos, or anyone else’s for that matter. Using Instagram tells people that you have an iPhone or an Android phone, and you know how to use the App Store or Google Play. When you use it, you are advertising for Apple and Google, and now Facebook.

Speed scrapbooking

A curious feature is that a lot of Instagram users are youngish types who are quite design-savvy, and would be able to figure out how to achieve Instagram-style effects in Photoshop using colour adjustments and layer blending, which would allow them to do it with greater control and subtlety. Or, y’know, learn to use the SLR camera settings, old fashioned camera lens filters, or even do stuff in the darkroom.

But that takes time to do; you can’t do it on the fly. Which is pretty much the point. Digital cameras meant we could fire off a dozens of shots of the cat at no cost, delete some later, and maybe a couple are worth going back to. Sharing photos, creating categories, discovering odd groups and participating in online albums became sophisticated with Flickr. And more recently, Instagram means less discretion in the photography and publishing process, but it’s a much more streamlined way of sticking things online which are just having the bare minimum of personalisation.

So it’s more, faster, and about Being Relevant in social media: persistent but not TL;DR, technologically up-to-date (albeit with a dollop of irony), familiar and uncritical, Big Internet-branded shoot-from-the-hip homogenous intimacy.

Alex Gilks is a graphic designer in Dunedin (it's in the South Island). He does some teaching, and dabbles in this and that.