Mapping the Universe of Instagram Photography (New York, 2018)

"The Networked Camera: Mapping the Universe of Instagram Photography" is a talk I presented at the panel Social Media in Theory & Praxis: What Is at Stake Now? at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, April 18, 2018. The event was a presentation and panel discussion featuring five invited speakers, organized by The Graduate Center Program Social Media Fellows.

The organizers: "Use of digital platforms and tools like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and Google has altered cultural production, political processes, economic activity, and individual habits. This event is a presentation and panel discussion on several pressing issues in social media and digital literacy featuring five invited scholars, organized and moderated by The Graduate Center Program Social Media Fellows. The speakers bring expertise in a range of timely topics including: grassroots use of the Internet, feminism, free and open source project development, labor, appropriation, peer production, virtuality, networked cameras, and big cultural data analysis."

One of the most interesting social media—Instagram—is photography-based. It presents questions such as: how we can discuss it as a new chapter in the timeline of the history of photography, and as an important contribution to the contemporary visual culture? These questions have been at the center of the recent research at the Cultural Analytics Lab, a research lab based at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, and led by Lev Manovich, a leading culture and media theorist and Professor at the Computer Science department. The work of the lab combines the latest methods of computer science and the humanities. In the talk, I presented some of my research that I've done since 2013 while I've been a research fellow at the Lab.

Summary of my talk:

Instagram—an online platform designed for sharing photographs taken with a smartphone—exemplifies what philosopher Vilém Flusser calls “the universe of technical images.” The main question that I will address today is—how to study this universe?

First, in order to fully grasp the visual culture that has emerged in the universe of Instagram since its first release in October 2010, we need to unpack the work of the networked camera. It is not just a new kind of camera. The networked camera is a hybrid tool that seamlessly merges making, editing, sharing, and viewing of images. It comprises hardware and software, the availability of wireless Internet connection, and the existence of online image-sharing platforms such as Instagram. It produces not only images, but also layers of metadata, and establishes connections and relationships. The networked camera has created new conditions for making and viewing photography, and our task is to come up with new methods of studying it.

Instagram is a product of the networked camera, this hybrid device, where making and sharing of images is inseparable from their viewing. All stages of photographic production, distribution, and reception take place seamlessly within the same user interface. Which is significantly different from all earlier photographic practices where these three stages were distinct and separate.

From an art-historical perspective, there is no such thing as Instagram. Because each user’s experience of Instagram photography is unique— every person’s Instagram feed is different. The live feed of images consists of contributions by those other Instagram users that this person is following. If we want to consider the ways in which regular Instagram users produce and consume photography within this platform, we, art historians, are left quite confused. We cannot study Instagram photography the same way we are trained to study, let’s say, photographs exhibited in museums and galleries, kept in archives and personal albums, or reproduced in photo-books and magazines.

One thing that we can do, however, is to study a selected group of photographs. For example, I’d like to mention the notorious subgenre of popular photography, the selfie. We have studied it extensively at the Cultural Analytics Lab, since the launch of the project called Selfiecity. Since its emergence in 2013, however, the selfie has become one of the most attacked and misunderstood image types produced by the networked camera. Selfies on Instagram have been criticized, among else, as miserably failing successors to the painted self-portraits of the Renaissance and Baroque artists. Such comparisons, however, ignore the historical and cultural specificity of each case.

The approach to study a selected group of photographs such as selfies can be productive, but it is also dangerous because it deliberately extracts some photographs from their natural environment—it isolates these images from the networked camera, from this hybrid device of their making, editing, sharing, and viewing. And that can be misleading. Instagram photographs are not floating in some kind of vague space. They are not directly comparable to paintings, or even photographic prints. They have their own, very specific materiality because they are inseparable from the networked camera.

Individuals are using the platform of Instagram to create their galleries, and they are conveying all kinds of messages in the language of photography. One might ask—but are these messages important? The universe of Instagram photography equally embraces professional and amateur photographers, it is equally open to famous artists as it is to self-taught activists, it hosts sophisticated and highly designed galleries as well as collections of family snapshots, it is used by reality TV stars as well as small grassroots communities. This universe unites multiple aesthetic sensibilities and numerous social uses of photography. As such, Instagram offers a perfect sample of contemporary photography-based, global visual culture.

But it is not easy to define. It is not an exhibition, it is not an archive, it is not a group of like-minded avant-garde artists, it is not a photographers’ agency or a magazine. Instagram photography seems to be quite different from all that art and photography historians have been studying so far. One tool that can be extremely helpful is what Lev Manovich in his book Instagram and the Contemporary Image calls Instagramism—a term that describes the ways in which Instagram photographs “establish and perform cultural identities.” Manovich writes:

Instagramism is the style of global design class, although it is also used by millions of young people who are not professional photographers, designers, editors, etc. This global class is defined not by the economic relations to the “means of production” or income, but by Adobe Creative Suite software it uses. It is also defined by its visual voice, which is about subtle differences, the power of empty space, visual intelligence, and visual pleasure.
— Lev Manovich, “Notes on Instagrammism and mechanisms of contemporary cultural identity (and also photography, design, Kinfolk, K-pop, hashtags, mise-en-scène, and cостояние),” in Instagram and Contemporary Image (2016), 25.

This Instagramism is not yet as familiar and as heavily theorized than all the other -isms we know all too well—such as Realism, Surrealism, Cubism, and so on. To fully understand Instagramism requires to construct your own set of critical tools that departs from what we take for granted.

The Graduate Center, City University of New York. April 18, 2018.

The Graduate Center, City University of New York. April 18, 2018.

List of all speakers at the panel (listed alphabetically):

Chris Caruso, PhD candidate in CUNY Graduate Center Anthropology. Interests: poverty, social movements, political economy, and grassroots use of the Internet.

Sumana Harihareswara, Founder and Principal of Changeset Consulting. Interests: feminism, open culture projects, free and open source software development, and project management.

Michael Mandiberg, Professor of Media Culture (CSI) & Coordinator of the ITP Certificate Program (GC). Interests: interdisciplinary+conceptual art, appropriation, the digital vernacular, and peer production.

Laura Pavón, PhD candidate in Latin American, Iberian and Latino Cultures (GC). Interests: Twitter and virtuality, narratives of Mexicanidad+Latinidad, affect theories, and gender studies.

Alise Tifentale, PhD candidate in Art History, The Graduate Center, CUNY. Interests: Instagram and identity, networked cameras, visual culture, and data science+big cultural data.

Moderators: Jennifer Stoops (Urban Education) and Naomi Barrettara (Music).

The Graduate Center, City University of New York. April 18, 2018.

The Graduate Center, City University of New York. April 18, 2018.