Brave New World

In the age of Facebook, so the saying goes, if it wasn't photographed, it didn't happen. In the age of Instagram - an iPhone app that has garnered seven million users in less than a year - if it wasn't photographed with a clear filter, low resolution and burned border, it didn't happen.

Be Our 5th," said the status announcement in July on the Facebook page for the Instagram app, when the company was seeking to recruit a fifth member. Employee recruitment via social networks is not unusual; what was unusual here was that this company only had four workers. That's really something considering the statistics that Instagram reported just weeks ago: Since last October, more than seven million people have downloaded their iPhone application and used it to share more than 150 million pictures. Facebook, by comparison, took nearly two years to reach five million users.

"Why is Instagram so addictive?" asked the psfk.com website (reporting on trends in digital culture), which featured an item with a photo by British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver. Since joining Instagram, Oliver has become one of its stars (with 62,000 followers ). Indeed, the star didn't miss a beat: He took a picture of his computer screen with the article that appeared on psfk, and uploaded it to his Instagram account. In the line of text that can be appended to each photo, he asked his fans: "Why [is this app popular]? Maybe you can tell me." And they, in turn, accepted the challenge: 81 responses in three days (and 838 Likes ).

girl on beach
Yuval Sa’ar

From this, one can quickly see why Instagram has become such a successful and addictive app in such a short time. One person noted what some people actually see as the main drawback of the gimmick that is so associated with the app: "It's a quick way to share gorgeous pictures, even if you're not a good photographer." Someone else distilled the message even further: "It's just fun."

Instagram isn't the first app that deals with photographs, and it's certainly not the only one that allows you to make pictures "artistic" (or not - you decide ). But it is the first to create an entire worldwide social network out of a photography app, and it accomplishes this in the simplest way: All you do is take a picture with your iPhone (the app is designed in such a way that it works exclusively on the iPhone ); then you go into the app, crop the photo as you like, and then select the filter you want to be used on it. When the photo is ready, in addition to Instagram you can choose whether to share it on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr or other such places. And thus, one of the weightier questions of our time - what to do with all the pictures that pile up on our mobile phones? - has been answered.

"We are witnessing a process of saying good-bye to our old film cameras, and even digital cameras. Everyone is taking pictures, all the time. There's even a new name for it: 'iPhonographers' - people who take pictures with iPhones," says Talia Zeligman, a graduate of the Hadassah Academic College photography department and an independent consultant who lectures in the visual communications department at the Bezalel Academy of Arts & Design.

Two years ago, Zeligman and colleague Avraham Cornfeld started Untitled, a nonprofit Internet magazine about art and design. She thinks that Instagram's meteoric rise has to do with a winning combination of fun and creativity.

"The filters make photographic capabilities accessible," she says. "In this case, when someone clicks 'Like' - it's not about my wittiness, but about the photo, about the composition."

Another reason for the app's success is that the "front" of the application, or the pictures that greet those who surf the site, are not their own shots, but pictures selected by others.

"[Instagram] managed to be very precise in terms of all the parameters," adds Zeligman. "Of course, it's always a matter of luck, too, and timing, and a thousand other factors, but they've managed to create a world that is characterized by super-minimalism. Something with very high quality that fits a certain niche, that's limited to a certain community of users. Thus, it has a certain intimacy that you don't find on Facebook, where most of the noise is about marketing. The front is the photography. Of course, there's also a layer of gimmick here too, but the bottom line is that this app enables you to achieve results that would be very hard to achieve without professional training."

Do you use Instagram?

Zeligman: "Sure. I was one of the early users, but my really intensive usage of it began in the last two or three months. I go in there at least three times a day, check what pictures people posted, and put up a picture of mine every few days."

beach, stones
Yuval Sa’ar
Life in a frame

Angel Bonanni, an actor, singer and model living in Tel Aviv, has recently become an iPhonographer, too. He says Instagram is nothing less than an artistic medium "in which to express my art and myself."

Before the app was created, Bonanni engaged in photography on a much more modest scale. "I don't consider myself a photographer," he hastens to clarify, "but I love things that are related to art, to painting, to music, to writing. And in this case it all goes into a single picture. I don't think it's a passing thing. It just sweeps you away. With Instagram you can display exactly what you want. There are professional photographers there as well as people who didn't have the faintest clue about photography before, but everyone has an equal place in which to show off their talent."

It seems like it's an application that allows anyone to take beautiful pictures.

Bonanni: "That's true but the main advantage of Instagram is the quickness of it - the short time between the moment you take the picture and the moment you post it. In the end, I think that the real essence of Instagram and of photography in general isn't 'Do you know how to take a photograph?' Rather, it's 'Do you know how to tell a story, to convey an emotion through a picture via the composition that you create?' Sometimes I take a picture and say, 'Wow, what a frame.' But then when I get home I notice that on the other side of the picture something a lot more interesting is happening than what I had in mind at first. And then I crop it to capture just that side, and enlarge it, and put it through one of the filters that I think is suitable, and it creates a totally different story."

Meir Cohen, deputy director of the ADD Content Agency, which represents directors, screenwriters, actors and models, is probably one of the most active Israelis on Instagram these days: He has about 3,000 followers, many of whom are very active in posting responses.

"Last night I got the best present," he wrote on his Facebook page on his birthday in July. "Anyone who knows me certainly knows about the new fetish I've developed in the past year - photography (and Instagram, mainly ). My brilliant Amir [Cohen's partner] somehow collected 600 photos of mine, sorted them according to subject and color scheme, and put them together as a wonderful book."

The vast majority of the photos in the book, it goes without saying, were taken from Instagram.

Isn't it just another app that lets you take really pretty pictures?

Cohen: "At first the cool filters solve a lot of problems for you, but if you don't capture a special moment or the colors - you haven't done anything. I post two or three pictures a day and can't always count on the picture being cool just because of the filter. I think it takes more than that. It's like with photographers who switched from film to digital. At first they derided it a bit, but now everybody's doing it. A lot of photographers that I know, good friends, use Instagram."

One professional photographer who uses the app for pleasure is Karin Bar, whose resume includes work for clients like Castro, Daniella Lehavi and Alembika. She is now on the editorial board of the interactive magazine Zooz, that covers fashion, lifestyle and culture. She posted her first picture on Instagram around the time the app first came on the market, last October.

"I'm always photographing elevators, it's a regular thing," she says. "And when I'm in the car. Why do I take photographs? I guess it's a kind of diary. I don't show everything, but it is public. If I were single, I guess I would use it to expose myself to a potential audience ... There's a cool concept of the 'Instagram romance.' A complete stranger gives you a 'Like' - and that's how a relationship is created."

Why would a professional photographer like you want to take part in a site for amateurs?

"Precisely because it is my profession and the thing that I love to do. I always took a lot of pictures, even before I had a camera on the iPhone, but then I spent a lot of money on it. With Instagram the photos are personal, you'll hardly ever see anything commercial of mine there; from the start I came to photography with a documentary attitude. For example, I love to follow the photos of a certain Brazilian model - many of her shots have artistic value, but not the kind that would necessarily get recognition in a museum."

Although Bar calls herself an addict, too, she says she still has a somewhat ambivalent attitude toward the app, primarily because of the way it is being co-opted by some corporations: From the Burberry fashion label to T-shirt websites, and even to news sites like ABC, which have all made use of Instagram in some way.

"When I joined, there were maybe five people that I knew who were using it, but many more were soon added," she explains. "Today, I have a dual attitude toward Instagram: I can feel how the commercial world has come into it, and how it treats the app as just another marketing platform. As soon as Burberry or New York Times Fashion [the paper's fashion supplement] came in there, it started to take on a commercial nature."

Shrinking time

In early 2010, a man by the name of Kevin Systrom, a senior marketing manager for Nextstop, a Silicon Valley company, began teaching himself app development in his free time. He had an idea for an app that would compete with Foursquare, an app that lets users inform their friends where they are; he spent his weekends working on a prototype. Then Systrom showed the results to people at the Baseline Ventures and Andreesen Horowitz venture capital funds, following a casual conversation at a party in Silicon Valley. Just days later, he left his job to start a new company called Burbn with his friend Mike Krieger. The two began working with initial funding of $500,000.

After more than six months of development, Systrom and Krieger found that the progam they'd created was heavy and didn't work at the desired speed. So they chose to focus on just one aspect: posting photos. In eight weeks they had built Instagram and launched it in the Apple App Store. Within hours, it was the most popular photography app of all, and it has been rapidly amassing more users ever since. As noted, it now has more than seven million of them.

One person who is not among them is David Adika, a lecturer in the photography department at Bezalel for the past 10 years. Adika uses Hipstamatic, a similar app that preceded Instagram, and was devised to expand various photographic possibilities (with different types of lenses and film ) but did not become a social network (see box ).

Adika cites the "game-like aspect" of the apps as a key reason for their success: "I'm totally into this. I'm very excited by it and delighted by the wealth of possibilities. But for me it's a game, a passing trip. Like Angry Birds."

Why has it become so popular?

Adika: "Because people are thrilled by the contrast between the sentimental aesthetic of the pictures and the ultra-modern device with which they are taken. The ability to shrink time, and be here and there at once, really excites people."

How is this feeling created? How does the program manage to condense time this way?

"Basically, by using filters of a very strong light that 'burns' the subject's face and makes wrinkles or other flaws in the skin disappear, and sometimes also creates red lips - a formula that is very flattering to the subjects. People like the gap between the reality and the image, it creates a kind of distant result. Suddenly the photograph doesn't represent reality as it is, but as an aesthetic object. Almost like a work of art. You're seduced by the false aesthetic that is created."

And does this aesthetic trickle over into artistic photography? In the fashion world you can already see spreads photographed in the spirit of the Instagram aesthetic, or projects like Time Out Tel Aviv's 100 Most Influential People, which photographed everyone with an iPhone.

"The world that I come from - the art world - cannot embrace or adopt this method, because it is very uniform. What artists or people who consume art love are the ideas and the originality of the artists. They don't like something that is systematic and limited in its ability and sophistication, like those filters that are applied en masse to all the photos."

'Take a breath'

The issue of artistic value comes up in almost every discussion about the onslaught of images in the digital age. Prof. Micha Kirshner, head of photography at the WIZO Haifa Academy of Design and Education, thinks that the principle underlying the app - of processing a picture as the photographer sees it in his imagination - is not essentially different from the situation in the past.

"The practice of processing a picture has been common since the late 19th century - by other means, of course - but the principle is the same. No one reinvented the wheel," Kirshner observes. "What has changed is the potential for what you can do and the visibility of the works."

Kirshner, who served on the board of Monitin magazine and was a regular columnist in the Maariv weekend supplement, also believes that nothing has changed in terms of photographs' artistic value, either. "Someone who didn't know how to take a picture before still doesn't know how, even if he uses advanced technology, and someone who does know can only improve on his work.

"This is a key point: The technology doesn't make the layman a better photographer. On the other hand, I can't dispute that the amateur photographer is given a very wide and interesting range of programs and applications, and a broader spectrum of images, but it's one that the photographer-artist would define as kitsch or cliche. Either way, I view it as a positive thing. I see my kids taking pictures and going into Photoshop or the iPhone, and being captivated by it."

But they wouldn't be creating pictures if the technology weren't so available.

Kirshner: "That's true. Today the darkroom sits in your jacket pocket, and at any moment you can create an image that at least, on the face of it, is fascinating, provocative, innovative. And I think that's fantastic. But in the end, this application won't make anyone a better photographer."

Will an amateur iPhone photographer always be less good than a professional photographer using an iPhone?

"For sure. Of course, there are some autodidacts who were born with the mysterious trait of creativity. They could study in an academy or skip that altogether and still be outstanding artists. And it works in the opposite direction, too: just as someone who's very tall won't be a center on a basketball team if he doesn't have the talent and work ethic to do it."

A key concept that Kirshner tries to impart to his students is the importance of taking one's time: "We try to put a strong emphasis on taking your time when viewing something," he explains. "We say: 'Dear students, take a breath and give it another moment.'"

What happens when one of those students, whose consciousness has been shaped by a fast world that's overflowing with images, produces an especially impressive picture?

Kirshner has a simple answer: "When we look at the students' output, we usually look at collections of 10-20 works to try to grasp their 'signature' - to see if the standout image is a random occurrence or part of an orderly way of working and adoption of a particular viewpoint."

You're not worried that that sounds old-fashioned? Conservative?

"I may sound conservative but these are the facts of life. When I come to analyze someone's work, I'm taking a judgmental stance and therefore I must see a whole portfolio. What is happening obligates us older photographers who are also professors to sweat more and to keep up with new terminology. But that doesn't bother me because in the end, what comes up for discussion is appearance. If the blue area or the blue tint is correct or not. They asked this sort of question in the Renaissance - it's asked on Instagram and will be asked in the 22nd century, too."

But why does the new aesthetic have such a powerful attraction for us all right now? What is it about this aesthetic that also draws in professional photographers?

"It holds something of that longing or nostalgia for a bygone world, for a past that we always perceive as better. The present is always difficult - we have to contend with income tax, with the price of cottage cheese, with high rents. Getting milk straight from the farm, straight from the cow's udders, sounds more romantic. Time softens the hardships. The memory becomes more polished, more romantic, and that's what wins us over."

'Old-fashioned aesthetic'

At the last end-of-year exhibition of the Bezalel photography department, Gilad Baram showed his final project, entitled "Photoscape" - an international, interactive work based on video communication via the Internet. Baram created an extensive network of different people scattered throughout the world who replied to a request he sent via email: They consented to "host" his camera in their private living space. Basically, they served as agents in a mechanism he calls "remote-control photography." While they held their own mobile devices, he instructed them where to aim them and when they caught the desired frame, he photographed it as it appeared on his computer screen.

Just over a month ago, Dan Madorsky, also from Bezalel, exhibited his final project, which was also related to photography as it appears on the Internet.

"Most of the images and photos that I and everyone else essentially consume via the Internet are low resolution due to built-in technical issues," says Madorsky. "These photographs undergo a process of 'reduction' from the time they come out of the digital camera until they are posted on the Web - a process that empties them of visual content. The apps also erase a lot of details from the original photograph, and in order to create the desired effect they dilute the digital information in it. This was the starting point for my final project."

What artistic value is left in a picture at the end of the "reduction" process?

Baram: "Personally, I really like the old-fashioned aesthetic and the retro feeling of the photographs, the lack of sharpness and lack of detail. I've seen a lot of photos that were produced with the help of these apps that were as interesting and moving as photos taken by professional photographers with more or less unwieldy digital and analog cameras. In my view, the quick editing that these applications make possible doesn't add or detract from their artistic value."

How does someone who just completed his studies in photography deal with the ease of photographing and creating effects nowadays?

"In school, the lecturers always talked to us about the unbearable ease of photography in our times and the lack of technical understanding to which the photography aspires. I think this ease only works in photography's favor. The photograph is an event, an encounter between the photographer and the subject, between the photo and the viewer. The more people photograph and the easier it is for them to show their photos to viewers, the more interesting and inclusive the dialogue is among the parties involved."

What does the future hold for Instagram amid such a utopian dialogue?

Says David Adika, "The fashionable dimension of these applications is what it's all about. It's 'hype,' it's what's 'in' at a given moment. I'm sure that in less than a year from now, it won't interest anyone. Another trend will have replaced it by then. It's fun; you don't buy a movie or a camera, you just switch applications, and the ease with which you install the application is the same ease with which you give it up. The vast majority will stay with 'the real thing.'"

Meir Cohen believes Instagram is here to stay: "They said Facebook was just a passing trend, and Twitter, too. A big part of [its success] comes from the way everyone uses it in a different way."

The aesthetic of Instagram could easily be construed as an homage to the concept of the "Kodak moment" produced by iconic cameras like the Kodak Instamatic (the inspiration for the Hipstamatic app ) and the Polaroid.

But, for her part, Zeligman says that a new conception is needed: Now, one moment, a single point in time, has to be stretched out and viewed as a continuum: "Remember that you're not printing these pictures and seeing them one at a time, in a large format. This is a stage, and on this stage you get a mix of moving photographic material, moving human material, and often little stories are attached to each picture. It's a redefinition of the medium. And it's something that you don't see in schools' photography departments.

"Instagram is essentially a 'puppet site.' There is no profile page, nothing. It's the life I live with the iPhone, it's in my hands and it remains there, unlike Facebook, which you can also surf on the computer," Zeligman says: "It will be interesting to see what happens when the company has a proper website or an app for phones that are not iPhones. But they're just four people," she says with a smile. "When are they going to do that?"

Didi Hanoch assisted in the preparation of this article.