An Instantaneous Medium: How Instagram is Influencing the Art World

Artsy Editorial
Jul 24, 2014 3:44PM

When JR met with German composer Hans Zimmer to collaborate for his upcoming film, the two took a picture together that later landed on JR’s Instagram feed. He captioned the photo, “Studio session with Hans Zimmer for my next short film #LesBosquets @pharrell @woodkidmusic.” Generating 6,725 likes and more than 90 comments, the photo is a second clue to JR’s recent collaboration. In May, he posted a photo to the app of himself with Pharrell Williams and musician Yoann Lemoine, also known as Woodkid, announcing his next film project. With just a push of a button on Instagram, JR is able to bring his latest work directly to his 424,000 followers.

With 20 billion photos, and more than 200 million visitors per month, Instagram provides more space for art than any physical gallery. Acting as a forum for commerce and conversation, it has become the outlet that many social media-savvy artists go to first to share their work. Cutting out the middleman, Instagram is standing in for the role of the dealer. “I can post a painting and it will sell before the paint is dry,” artist Ashley Longshore told Vogue in an article that examined the role the app is now playing in the art market. And while it is clear that Instagram is lending itself to trade, is it also influencing artistic practice?

I caught up with photo-conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas@hankwillisthomas, to find out if Instagram is playing a role in his work. As an artist who often explores the medium of photography, Thomas is naturally drawn to the picture-sharing app. Thomas told me he found that it filled a void he felt as a photographer removed from the practice of regularly documenting his life. “Though Instagram has a lot of shortcomings compared to analog (which is just too expensive and time-consuming nowadays), it helps me to pay attention to the moment,” Thomas says. “It is more like shooting medium format or 4x5 where you don’t feel like you have endless shots to waste.”

Thomas’s Instagram account is a mix of photos from his life and snapshots of his work. With almost 9,000 followers in tow, he documents his travels, such as his trip to Cape Town, South Africa; visits to galleries, such as Awol Erizku’s solo show at Hasted Kraeutler; and his own exhibitions, such as “And Only The People” at Galerie Henrick Springmann this past spring, which he shared with the hashtag #andonlythepeople. He adds that Instagram provides a medium for him to interact with his friends and fans. “Your followers also function kind of like a cheering squad,” he says. “It’s vicarious and codependent living at its best and worst simultaneously. It is an awesome medium for research of visual culture; incredibly underused for its anthropological value.”

Contrails (R-4808N Restricted Airspace, Nevada), 2012
Metro Pictures

Photographer Trevor Paglen@trevorpaglen, has built up a following of more than 1,200 people on the app, largely made up of close friends and fans. As an artist, he is most known for his photographic series that documents sites of secret government activity at long range, but his Instagram practice is quite different. He told me he uses the app to share funny and odd things he comes across in his adventures, like the photo he shared last week of a video game captioned, “Nato hitting up the death star.” “It’s not serious at all and I don’t put any effort into making ‘good’ pictures—I just think it’s kind of a silly thing to do and a way to share little snapshots of life with friends,” Paglen says.

When it comes to the difference between his photography and Instagram images, Thomas says the app is an opportunity for creating quick, impermanent photos. “In my fine art I think about what picture I’m going to take for years and don’t put it out to the world until I’m confident it will stand the test of time,” he says. “In Instagram it’s more ephemeral. I know it has a 24-hour shelf life, so it is more about the passing of time.” 

Untitled (Reaper Drone, 2010
Altman Siegel

Thomas, Paglen, and JR join a community of other artists on Instagram. With more than 73,000 followers, photographer and mixed-media artist Vik Muniz@vikmuniz, captures images of his family and stunning landscapes from his travels. Photographer Alex Prager@alexprager, shares photos of artworks and musings from her life with 38,000 followers. Each artist varies in the way they engage with the app, but the opportunity for reaching a large art audience on Instagram is undeniable; everyone from friends and fans, to galleries and collectors can connect with artists almost instantaneously. Just as the daguerreotype radically altered the approach to portraiture, and Kodachrome film made color photos easily achievable, Instagram has ushered in an artistic revolution of its own. Conversation around photography can now happen with just a smartphone and an internet connection. Take JR’s photo from two weeks ago of an abandoned hospital on Ellis Island, for example. The image of a dilapidated, yet hauntingly beautiful window facing the Statue of Liberty encouraged discourse from his followers including personal anecdotes like, “My grandma and grandpa came through there: 1918,” and reactions such as, “Something beautiful about those walls…”

And, as Thomas adds, Instagram feeds the universal human need for social gratification. “The cunning thing about ‘likes’ is that they become addictive as a validation for your life,” Thomas says. “It’s almost like, ‘If something amazing happened in your life and no one was online to like it, did it really happen?’”

—Newlin Tollinson

Artsy Editorial