Instagram in Plato’s Cave: Part 2

First published in LinkedIn 29 November 2019

If you missed Part 1 please first see: Instagram in Platos’

Despite the confluence of digital medias, image manipulation (though not a new phenomenon), and the ubiquitous availability of representations, the photograph has shown an astonishing resilience to still be seen as evidence. We evidence the fact that we have been to Paris, attended an event, or had dinner with a friend through the photograph, usually as seen through our social media sites. And to a great extent this is still seen as incontrovertible proof. Interestingly, there are now some activities that are more socially unacceptable, or inappropriate to propagate in this way; the surveillance of individuals, the portrayal of death, certain policing activities, are all things that we do not want to see evidence of. Where once it may have been seen as shocking, it was also seen as acceptable as it was still novel. The Instagram picture, possibly less likely to be distorted, speaks to a moment and relies on the ‘instant’, and is based on the notion that this ‘something’ did or does exist and it is represented so that those following can acknowledge, or ‘like’ the demonstration of that event, or thing.

Whatever was seen as a limitation (in the old paradigm of amateurism) or as a pretension (through artistry) in or by the person with some form of device that can capture an image, any image, there now seems to almost be a new sense of innocents, or maybe it’s a naivety towards other visual realities, or mimetic objects. In stark contrast to this we have the ‘noble’ image makers, artists such as #cindysherman, who have honed the art of composing haunting, unforgettable photographs and has done so faithfully decade after decade. Her images now juxtapose those of a person armed with a smartphone who can take endless snapshots in an ignoble attempt to replicate the depth of emotion seen in these images. Rather, these images are seen for what they are, as souvenirs of daily life. 

Again, by contrast, painting, printmaking and to a great extent prose (word pictures) can only ever be a selective elucidation, limited by the discerning nature of how these works have/need to be interpreted and possibly believed. Whereas a photograph can be treated as a selective transparency into a lived event, that carries with it a presumption of authenticity, and thereby seems to be authoritative. As a result, there is a seductive proposition that photographers, albeit sometimes just onlookers, benefit from the blurred boundary that exist between art and truth. This is exactly where the conundrum now sits, as previously there was this sense that photographers were most concerned with mirroring reality and that they were haunted by some kind of tacit imperative to traverse the fine line between taste and conscience. 

Although the casual commentator may believe those armed with a smartphone have more of a thirst for popularity, on the contrary, Instagram is replete with images that ooze social consciousness, if one is willing to look past the surface. Consequently, where once we had to wait patiently, and often years, for the Farm Security Administration photographic project exhibition to come to our country, or town (think late 1930s and photographers such as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, Russell Lee) we simply now turn to Instagram and with the simple hashtag, #farmsecurityadministration we find hundreds of these pictures; of sharecropper, poverty, dignity, texture, exploitation, geometry and other subjects, that were all originally taken on film and exquisitely represented, complete with subtle manipulations, all framed on gallery walls. They are now re-represented, acquired or some may say plagiarised.

Although the subtlety of manipulation no longer requires dedicated hours in the darkroom, there is no lessening of the fact that the photographer actively decides how a picture, or a person in that picture should look. In selecting one particular capture over many others, the photographer still imposes certain values on their subjects. Thus, there is an appreciation that the smart device undeniably captures reality, but that it does not interpret it, the photographer still does, and imposes on this an interpretation of the world by choosing which image to display and which filter they might apply. This is not unlike what has always happened with painting and drawing. However, the unprecedented ubiquity that now allows almost anyone to take an image, only further emphasises that the undiscriminating, promiscuous, or self-effacing enterprise of image making in the 21st century is alive and well. This very ubiquity, that once may have been seen a passive, or unique to those who had the skills, or owned a reasonable camera, has ushered in a new wave of understanding what the photographic record actually represents, its ‘message’; as if that were even a thing to be naïve or indifferent about.

Make no mistake about it, despite the ubiquity of the image it still idealises (like most #style and #fam photography) but now it is no less assertive than images that make a virtue of #plainness (like #stilllife and #mugshots), thanks to a simple hashtag. That is because, more than ever the camera/phone invades the everyday and this is now accepted as implicit or even expected. But I suppose this is not unique to our time, although it is now far more pervasive. For when photography first took off in the 1840s and 1850s, it quickly became a technology that made it possible to create a mind-set that looked to establish a precedent that anything in the world was a potential photograph and it did so (at that time) because it was seen as ‘unique’ and had not been seen through that lens before. Now it does so because ‘we can’. 

Interestingly, where some of the early masters of photography (David Octavius Hill and Julia Margaret Cameron for example) used the camera as a means of creating painterly and hero images, today the smartphone provides our artists (painters, printmakers, etc) accessible sketches (among other things of course), providing a 180 degree turnaround; where once the image tried to mimic, now it empowers. Even from those early days, as photography strove to capture the largest possible number of subjects (with its limitations), we now see that it has simply realised that ambition. We used to think (because we didn’t know any better back in the 70’s) that it was the industrialisation of the camera that fulfilled the promises that was inherent in photography from the very beginning: that of democratising our lived experience by translating it into images that could be shared in print. Little did we realise, even then, how nascent this ambition really was.

We can now look back with nostalgia on an age where taking good photographs required an expensive SLR, not to mention their cumbersome forerunners, that were the toys of middle and upper class, the wealthy, or the obsessed. Still more remote, or maybe forgettable, is the era of the Kodak Instamatic (noting the prefix ‘insta…’) that invited anyone to take pictures, albeit that we celebrated the crappy quality of their capture through a plastic lens. But going back even further, only now in museums do we see the first cameras, made in the early 1840s in France and England, and used only by their inventors and/or buffs, and where the photographs had no clear social use, other than to be gratuitous of a second rate artistic activity, with pretensions of being otherwise. Now, the primary purpose of the image is to be social, and yet the former pretension lives on. Or does it? It is clearly in the mind, or the intent of the image maker, regardless of the device that creates the image, that the social uses of the image can be formed either as a self-consciousness act of ‘image-as-art’, or as an image that is simply a ‘utility of self-consciousness’ or ‘evidence’. 

Instagram handle: @michael_sankey Or see: https://www.instagram.com/michael_sankey/

If citing please use: Sankey, M. (2019). On Photography in Instagram: Instagram in Plato’s Cave, Part 2. LinkedIn. 29 November. Available from: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/instagram-platos-cave-part-2-michael-sankey

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