Instagram and Anxiety of the Photographer – Part I


Over a half a billion Apple iOS and Android systems have been sold, which means that there are now an unprecedented number of cameras in the world. This monumental increase in smartphone cameras has allowed for the dramatic increase of photos uploaded to social media sites.

I’m often overwhelmed by the fact that I can upload photos to Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, Flickr, 500px, VSCOcam, Artflakes, Snapchat, Google+, Twitter, Pinterest, EyeEM, and on, and on, and on. Through such apps, a half billion photos are uploaded to the Internet each day. The sheer scale and accelerated growth of mobile photography and social media integration, which I’ll call the new photography, has quickly changed photography in just a few short years.

Social critics and professional photographers haven’t exactly accepted this new photography, their filtered images, or the popularity of sharing them. But criticism of and uncertainty about photography is far from new. Since the inception of the camera, artists from the modern art movement were very critical of photography and rejected it as an art form because it had the potential to change the very basis of art itself. And, in fact, it did.

In this article, I will show how the modern art movement formed as a rebellion against the conservative art forms of their time. From there, I’ll show how the artists of the modern art movement were threatened by industrialization, the camera, and, relatedly, photography. I’ll end by showing that the modernists’ inability to appreciate the power the camera led, in part, to their own demise.

New Photography, Instagram and Death of the Photographer

The new photography we’re experiencing today is created by the masses, where users easily add prescribed digital filters to their images. This new photography relies on the Internet connected camera so that users can be seen in a virtual environment with a billion other users. The new photographer is not an individual; the new photographer is an aggregate of mined user data.Instagram_Icon_Large

Current criticism of new photography includes that the photos are fake, lazy, self-absorbed and that the new photographers lack talent:

“The very basis of Instagram is not just to show off, but to feign talent we don’t have, starting with the filters the­mselves.” – Rebecca Greenfield, The Atlantic Wire

“I’m fed up with these Hipstamatic and Instagram images. When you’re shooting a trash bin using Instagram, you end up with a pretty picture, but the photographer has nothing to do with it … With Instagram and Hipstamatic, it’s all a gimmick. It’s pure laziness.” – Jean-François Leroy, Photojournalist

What’s important to note here is that criticism of the new photography does not seem to be having any noticeable effect on its growth. In fact, people are signing up in droves to share their photos on social media sites like Instagram, which is worth a billion dollars.

This rapid restructuring of photography and social communication (through new technologies) is creating a great deal of anxiety among many photographers. Anxiety being the fear of uncertainty and of the potential threat that the future holds. Photographers’ uncertainty stems from being unable to rely on once established jobs, technology, and techniques (e.g., using dSLR’s, Adobe software). The threat to today’s established photographers arises from a possible future where photography and social media integration becomes the dominant form of the medium.

The thing is, photography has been in this situation before, and we might be able to shape photography’s future by looking back to the past.

Modern Art – Rebellion Against Past and Future

The last time there was such a fundamental change in photography was over a hundred years ago, during the height of the Industrial Revolution. A great deal of anxiety about the future was generated during the Industrial Age as new technology reshaped our landscapes, created the metropolis, and completely altered communication. It was during the Industrial Revolution that the modern art movement (mid 19th to mid 20th centuries) took place, and it was during this time that the camera was invented.

romanticism-art-and-artwork-500x411The modern art movement was born out of the tension between aristocratic academic art and the industrialization of society. Modern artists, who were often formally trained in the academic community, began to rebel against the views of the academy and its focus on creating realistic, objective, and highly polished paintings. The modernists believed that academic art was steeped in conservative, religious morality, and too closely tied to nationalism. Modernists sought a new form of art that could better represent the new world that was being formed by the Industrial Revolution.

To move away from realism, morality and utilitarianism of their predecessors, modernists sought to produce art for the sake of its own beauty and to bring art closer to the human condition. Modernists used abstract forms so viewers had strong emotional responses without having to first think about the form’s meaning. This emotional response was a defining feature of modern art.

While modern artists were rebelling against the past, they were at the same time rejecting the future. Modern artists were critical of using machinery to create art and of the Industrial Revolution’s impact on creating a mass consumer culture. Machine art was considered kitsch art: cheap, mass-produced pieces that were poorly crafted (this could be said about Instagram today). Modernist thinkers argued that kitsch art was bad for culture. Today, kitsch art would be something akin to Thomas Kinkade‘s paintings.

The Modernists’ Reject the Photographer as Artists

In 1888, Eastman Kodak created the first mass-produced hand-held camera. This invention gave rise to the camera industry, allowing for the common person from the new middle class to take photographs. (It is important to note the similarities between the rise of photography back then and today’s smartphone camera revolution.) The modernists rejected photography because it was seen as lazy, and photographers were considered a threat to real artistic talent. The influential art critic and poet Charles Baudelaire captures this well, when he wrote in 1859:


“The photographic industry was the refuge of every would-be painter, every painter too ill-endowed or too lazy to complete his studies … By invading the territories of art, [photography] has become art’s most mortal enemy.”

This 150 year-old critique echoes the very critique that the new photography receives today (i.e., being lazy, fake and an enemy to established photography)!

Modernists feared that art would become commercialized and consumed like any other commodity and take away the value and uniqueness that a handcrafted piece of art provided. Because they were unable to escape industrialization, mass consumerism and photography, modernists became ever more threatened and anxious about their future.

Photography created images that were more realistic in representation than painting could provide, which challenged modern artists to create ever more abstract paintings to distinguish themselves. The more abstract and extreme modern art became, the more challenging it was for the common person to understand it and to connect with it.

Dissociating from Society

By the 1960s, modernists had alienated themselves from their potential audience. With the creation of the middle class, a new market for consumer goods was born. For example, by this time Kodak had already helped to create over several billions photos. Modernists criticized people for their consumer behavior, and their lack of artisan skills.

In turn, the populace saw the modern artist as elitist because the average person had no language to describe the art they saw. The abstract expressionist Mark Rothko is a great example of this type of elitism when he wrote about his piece No. 5/No. 22:no-5-no-22

“If you are only moved by color relationships, then you miss the point. I’m interested in expressing the big emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom.”

This is not exactly obvious to someone without a keen interest in art.

Now let’s come back to today. What will photographers do about the integration of photography with social media, Instagram, and the billions of photos uploaded to the Internet each week? Will they criticize the people that are part of this movement by rejecting this new photography? Will today’s photographers alienate themselves and ensure their own end?

In Part II, I’ll delve deeper into the role of anxiety in response to the threats of technology on art. I’ll also cover the rise of photography as an art form in the later half of the 20th century, during the postmodernist art movement.

Image credit: Andrea with my camera by 55Laney69 and Gabby Likes Instagram by Obtuse Photo

  • Random Pixels blog

    We now know the answer to the question “what if an infinite number of monkeys were left to bang on an infinite number of typewriters, would they sooner or later accidentally reproduce the complete works of William Shakespeare?”

  • [email protected]

    A Canon with a Nikon strap? Really?

  • Guest

    Canon eos with a nikon strap?

  • pixeljammer

    All of the Modernist’s fears were realized. We live in a world filled with crap art consumed by an audience with no aesthetic sophistication. Very few care about craft, and fewer still are willing to work at learning. There is a reason good artists loathe the “democratization” of art. It’s because it produces an unending stream of garbage.

    Are we to blandify and homogenize good art in the pursuit of relevance to the masses? Is that what we care about? Real art is there to haul the masses off the couch, into a self-aware, thinking world where people can learn to see through other’s eyes and grow empathy, understanding, and a broader mind.

    Instagram is there to feed empty souls with garish pap they eat without benefit.

  • pixeljammer

    The development of abstract art was not (and still isn’t) an attempt to exclude the public or the uneducated. It was an exploration into how we see and feel, and how far down you can distill the elements of an idea or a feeling without having it vanish altogether.

  • dannybuoy

    Such complex issues you highlight

  • Caca Milis

    If you think instagram is full of ‘garbage’ you need to follow better, more talented people, (they exist on instagram). The world has plenty of idiots and talented people, you can choose to ‘follow’ who and what inspires you

  • ksb

    Lady’s a troll. Just like Kai from DRTV.

  • pixeljammer

    Of course there are. I didn’t mean that there aren’t. It’s just harder to sift the wheat from the chaff when there is so very much chaff. That’s what I meant about the “democratization” of art—you get a lot of untalented people using the artist’s tools, and so you get an enormous amount of chaff.

    On the other hand, real artists can make art with crap tools.

  • kodiak xyza

    I find quite a few premises here… either hard to understand, or not sure how they connect.

    « the new photographer is an aggregate of mined user data. »

    ok… but how is comparing this to the single photographer,
    the one that feels threatened/dismissive of Instagram advances anything?
    I do not see the relation between people being dismissive,
    and whoever they are, that it determines the norm of photography?

    one can find examples to make any premise/bickering in photography “legit,”
    which is a persistent problem with many articles these days:
    examples as proof of something.
    let people have issues with IG and the “aggregated photography”,
    and not use it as a (shaky) basis for promoting a new kind of photography.

    how does an audience of tl;dr photography, like Instagram in general terms,
    would read about established photographers having a gripe?
    so of course, it is not going to slow anything down!
    more so if one sees IG as a social vehicle for acceptance —
    a nice human trait that is more present in IG/internets,
    than some new kind of photography.
    how is the IG-crowd not disassociated?

    if at all, photography now is comprised of a bunch of bubbles,
    and here and there (maybe mostly here),
    there is some articles about what is better/right/etc.

    bringing past issues in the history of photography is interesting,
    but hardly at play with this notion that the author calls “new photography.”**
    as the quote goes: “prediction is difficult, especially about the past.”

    I do not expect a thesis from a PetaPixel article,
    but there is something refreshing about a nice article that does not overreaches…
    and brings in the tl;dr crowd that forms the core audience of the subject.

    ** it is not even clear why this is “the” new photography…
    it is just a new kind of photography, to be embraced and see what it produces,
    but there is much more going on outside that bubble, which is new,
    and evolving, and intriguing.

  • Fernando Callo

    Kai is God

  • Coop

    Right now I think both can coexist healthily I guess. Sometimes I use my DSLR on shoots, other times my iPod. It’s some variety. Fisheye for my ipod is really cheap, so I got some little lenses for that. You don’t see people shooting model shoots, low light or high speed stuff on phones because they just can’t really do that. The pros are still shooting DSLR I find. There are insanely good people on Instagram that have never tried DSLR and aren’t really into photography but get good shots, but that could be location. I don’t mind cheating a bit, seeing the filters is kind of nice, like seeing a pros process. I’ve been really demotivated lately by stale DSLR shots because I just can’t imagine the end product as I haven’t really developed an end process. Filters kind of make that jump and show you what you could get.

  • Carl Meyer

    Art requires craft, as simple as that.

  • Chuck Kimmerle

    I think the author purposely minimizes the criticisms of Instagram-type phone photography. Sure, there are those who like to use the term “lazy”, but that’s not a valid criticism as effort has little to do with art. The bulk of valid criticisms focus on the dependence on preset filters which severely limit creative possibilities, thus give the impression, real or otherwise, that everyone’s images look very similar. That IS a valid criticism.

    While it is true that photography, because of its dependence on a certain level of technology, was for a long time thought of as a lesser art form (as opposed to painting and sculpture), it is a stretch to equate that issue to the current criticisms of Instagram and Hipstamatic. With general photography, especially digital, the photographer has an incredible level of flexibility not only in how an image is made, but how it is visually presented. The same cannot be said for phone photography, where limited preset special-effect filters, restricted focal lengths, and an unalterable, near-infinite depth-of-field combine to limit creativity and personal vision, not add to it. Sure, it could be argued that other forms of photography, such as pin-hole, have similar restrictions as to focal length and DOF, but unlike Instagram-type images, they offer a much greater creative latitude in subsequent processing or printing.

    The point is that, without a great deal of creative control, we cannot truly express ourselves, as individuals, thus what we create is craft, not art.

  • bob cooley

    You start your article with a false premise – its not that many real photographers are “anxious” about instagram, we just don’t see it (forthemostpart) as a qualitative tool.

    There are some very good shooters who post to the instagram site, but many of them are shooting with real cameras and posting to the site as a social networking tool.

    To compare instagram to the industrial revolution is kind of a joke…

  • Eugene Chok

    i wonder what Alfred Stegliz would think about instagram

  • pixeljammer

    Craft requires mastery.

    I don’t think that comparison is a stretch, per se. Both the introduction of the inexpensive camera and the introduction of iPhone cameras and filters made it easier for the average joe to produce something that would have taken skill and knowledge to create previously.

    The problem is that many of the lousy Instagrammers don’t know good from bad, and end up thinking that sappy sunsets and goofy “retro” filters are somehow making their pictures of lunch into “art”. Unfortunately, lots of people think Hummel figurines and Thomas Kinkade paintings are art, too. It’s a matter of a lack of education, experience and the resulting sophistication.

    It’s not ruining anything—there are still great painters and great photographers (and great Instagrammers, for that matter). The downside is that it does not move the appreciation of the truly good forward. That’s a disservice to the culture. We want everyone to progress, not to remain static or regress.

  • Eugene Chok

    ahhh the duality of man lol

  • kodiak xyza

    the downside is still ok,
    if there is no push to prop-up IG as legit art form causing anxiety,
    and imbedded, among all of the pursuits of photography today,
    as “the new photography.”

    many fun things should remain as fun,
    and some benefit will come off it (e.g., advertising) to someone.

    the problem is elevating a great source of chaff,
    on the merits that there is something good “in there,”
    and propping it up on the “eternal” bickering in photography,
    for things that are validated (in some parts) as good today.

    for instance: Polaroid.
    today, they are very much validated with exemplary collections,
    but if we were to collect all the ones ever taken,
    then there is no difference to Instagram’s crap/good ratio.

  • pixeljammer

    Right. The whole “anxious” thing is sort of insulting, as if we’re cowering in a corner, rocking back and forth and biting our fingernails over this new and scary thing. A bunch of unsophisticated hacks with iPhones are not going to displace talented and educated professionals.

    We’ve seen this before in other industries. The Desktop Publishing “Revolution” destroyed the perceived value of designers and type mavens, but the crap soon sank to the bottom and died, and the lucky few talented people who were able to hang on are right back where they belong. Same thing will happen with the iPhone Reportage/Instagram Fashion glop. Editors will realize that new crap is still crap, and it will stop being used in professional situations (for the most part).

    I agree that the comparison to the Industrial Revolution is silly.

  • kodiak xyza

    “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn”

    oh wait, that is from a movie character… ooops.

  • pixeljammer

    Yes, mostly I agree. The obscuration of the good by the masses of bad does make it harder for people to find and understand the good, however.

  • kodiak xyza

    yes, it is harder for the ones that seek to advance their appreciation of the art… though the hope is that other sources should be obvious after the fun is gone. the same happened within flickr.

    I doubt that people wanting fun sharing/sites worry about their legitimacy within photography, or that of the site. it happens (to a varying degree) with music and radio.

  • Tyler Magee

    the way she’s holding that camera makes me sad.

  • photophile

    Why not?

  • instasplat

    Instagram filters are a wonderful creation
    even taking a dump can be a creative experience

    if you photograph before you flush

  • SoftOnDemand

    Sorry to break it to you but I have my 1DX strap on my D4 and vice versa.

  • Matt

    I have a yellow one on my 60D!

  • Joshua Morrison

    I use my A99 strap on my d800?
    Mainly because its a better strap.

  • Leftfoot LNorals IV

    Ha… Bring it on…I don’t think a program can change it’s filters up as quickly as I change my creative thought process.

  • Cinekpol

    Cause Nikon got most ridiculous lens straps of all the companies on a market?
    It’s like shouting “here’s my camera that costs $$$$ – feel free to steal it”. Not to mention rather poor quality of it.

  • olafs_osh

    your note does not support the article, thus will be ignored.

  • aaa

    The problem of this article is not the subject itself, but the presentation of it. Actually the the subject is more than relevant in today art and photography circles, it does open doors to new question and possibilities of expression. It is not a coincidence that more and more artist are concerned with the vast amount of pictures produced and uploaded every day.

    I think that the article itself in it is basic idea is relevant and interesting but it should be read again and corrected for the mistakes, a bit more thoroughly thought true. It has a lot of potential but for the people that are used to read theoretical works this doesn’t feel like a completed article/essay.

    for the creator: I don’t wish to put you down, contrary I encourage you to write articles like this. Be more coherent with the termins you use, not all art is modernist – for example.

  • ProtoWhalePig

    Dear God. What would Cartier-Bresson think?

  • David Portass

    Opposed to the giant white L lenses not screaming out their value? lol

    I do know what you mean though, I don’t like the manufacture straps at all and take mine off and use a Black Rapid RS-7 because they are more comfortable and more secure. Gonna give a PeakDesign Leash a try too.

    I did know a tog who had both Canon and Nikon who used the Nikon strap on his Canon as he didn’t really care about brands and said the strap was slightly longer than the stock Canon strap, not sure how true it was but he was happy with the setup.

  • John R

    Worse still is how she is holding the camera.

  • David Vaughn

    Much of that seems to be disappearing, however. Young post-modernists seem to have taken that concept further. The absence of art is art.

    My sister was an art student at the University of Texas in Austin, and she shared an exhibit with this dude whose art piece was a dollar bill being blown against a plate of glass by a leaf blower.

    His statement was that it’s a commentary on the American Dream and how we’ve become a shallow society based on (evil) consumerism.

    I couldn’t tell if he was lazy or just was trying too hard.

  • Draper Ashmore

    If it’s worth breaking in, it’s worth using until it falls apart.

  • Grethe Rosseaux

    I’m more annoyed by the way the model is holding the camera :/

  • Renato Murakami

    I think the analogy has it’s merits, but to a point.
    It’s overal good, but perhaps a bit one sided (waiting for the next part to see).
    We have classic painting to modern painting and then early photography on one hand. On the other you have classic photography to… modern(?) photography.
    And then there’s the emphatic “anxiety” of the title, but I don’t think it’s the only factor, not even when we’re talking about the past.
    Truth is, the fact that we still admire classic art of the past and it’s very very hard to find corresponding art nowadays is a signal of something. Perhaps, an art that was lost in the past because other forms became popular instead.
    Not that we don’t have awesome paintings nowadays, but more about the popularity and value that is put in it.

    There’s also something to be said about the banalization of photography as an art form perhaps. Less from the people who knows about it, but more from the people who have absolutely no clue. Specially on misjudgements on how equipment should be able to replace vision and artistry.
    This also has parallels on other artforms, some that were almost killed and completely lost due to over reliance in technology.

    But I don’t think there’s any need for replacement or substitution of photography at all – both (professional and amateur/mundane/Instagram-like) have a place to be, as long as value is put where it should.
    For instance, it’s plenty scary the fact that some newspapers consider it a right decision to replace professional photographers for an iPhone put in the hands of people who are not photographers and will be doing competing work.
    Then again, this might be more of a signal of the end of newspaper era than professional photojournalism.
    The problem in this instance is not Instagram-like tools and community, but rather like giving crayons to a child expecting it to make great works to be put into museums and expositions (extreme analogy, admitedly). The specific case seems to be more insulting to readers than to photographers… the bizarre notion that a smartphone in the hands of professionals that have to do tons of things at a given time will produce equivalent results than dedicated professionals with specific tools.

    That photography is becoming comonplace, sometimes a replacement for words, a simple way for people to share thoughts and feelings, or record memories, isn’t bad in itself – sounds more like a natural progression of communication and register of daily events (diary) to me.
    The problem is people equating and getting confused about that type of more mundane photography, for professional work.
    Which in turn will make less people interested in dedicating themselves for that artform which would then result in less professional work.
    It’s really a society choice all in all. And it has parallels on the historical background explored.

    If you ever wondered why we don’t have that many incredible hand painting techniques that breaks the mould of classic paintings nowadays, other movements that came after it might be the cause.
    On the other hand, if photography had never gotten popular conquering the tastes of the masses, perhaps we wouldn’t have this huge boom in smartphone photography nowadays. They’d come with facilitating software for painting instead? I dunno.

    So I’d refrain from drawing black&white style parallels. It is an interesting analogy nonetheless, but not a complete one.
    Society will have to re-evaluate in all levels the relationship we have with photography. I’m just hoping we don’t loose something important in the process.

  • Me

    it’s War and Peace – not Shakespeare

  • David Godfrey

    For all Baudelaire’s scathing criticism he didn’t hesitate to have his portrait taken by the then famous photographer Nadar five years earlier in 1855. Maybe he didn’t have a few weeks to pose for a painting. Progress, if that is what it is, changing things. Art is not created by a camera any more than it is by a paintbrush or a chisel.

  • starkers

    This “article” is fairly moronic undergraduate drivel. You will seriously be dumber by reading it.

  • J

    Same difference.

  • Anonymoused

    All hail Kai

  • photophile

    The camera itself screams “steal me!”, no help needed from the strap. And the quality of the Nikon straps is just fine.

  • Nesa

    ” The bulk of valid criticisms focus on the dependence on preset filters which severely limit creative possibilities, thus give the impression, real or otherwise, that everyone’s images look very similar. ” – this argument is completely invalid. Would you dismiss black and white photography as limitation of creative possibilities since all the pictures are looking the same – black and white? If you look at them superficially as you look at “preset” photos, they actually all look alike.

    Second point, if you are unable to produce good photo with a phone no DSLR hyper gear will help you.

  • Nesa

    Erh… desktop publishing died because all publishing died. Check out the “Internet”

  • Nesa

    I would be anxious too if I have spent $5000 for camera gear and then see some half-baked iPhone photographer get 500k followers on Instagram producing some amazing artwork in process. Today, everyone is writing books, everyone is shooting decent photos and guess what – nobody cares what “professionals” think about their work. People are having fun creating stuff that matter to them. I have yet to meet an Instagramer who posts pictures and cares about what professional photographers think about it.

    If you want to find a source of anxiety, just look at numbers at stock photo sites. Once a closed “professional” domain, it is now completely open by mobile apps that enable you to upload cheap photos made by amateurs with their mobile phones.

    Anyone who believes they know what “real” photography is should know better. What you think is completely in your mind and is different what other people think. If you have studied photography in schools and read a few books about composition and lighting good for you, but it does not give you ability to decide what is good and what is bad photography. It might be good or bad for you, and you only.

    The bottom line is, if you are a pro, you have a choice – either sit in your basement and criticize Instagram for it’s lack of artistry or show up and measure up on the medium itself. Who knows, you might find social aspect of photography fun and make a few friends. You might even learn a few things you missed at school and in the books.