by Anna Shave
Our consumption of art in the contemporary moment has, without question, been altered by the growing and pervasive influence of Instagram. We are more inclined to be searching for that perfectly ‘Instagrammable’ shot to capture and upload when surrounded by art, potentially fed by a desire to gain ‘likes’ and ‘followers’ rather than allowing ourselves to be truly enriched by artistic experiences, unfiltered by the realms of social media.
Despite the pitfalls of Instagram, it is undoubtedly a platform with room for artistic potential. It can be a place for artists not only to showcase their work, but to curate, collect, experiment. Teju Cole – the novelist, art historian, acclaimed photographer, and New York Times photography critic – uses Instagram in such a way, as a kind of virtual sketchbook.
In his article ‘Serious Play’ for the New York Times, Cole notes how ‘Instagram can be an extra studio, a place to do more.’ He deliberates on how photographers such as Stephen Shore and Dayanita Singh are part of ‘a group of artists who have been successful in the conventional photography world but who also use Instagram primarily as a space for new creative work.’
There is a directness to this particular use of Instagram, one that allows you closer insight into the artistic processes of artists you admire. I definitely feel this sense of closeness when scrolling through Teju Cole’s Instagram feed; among a sea of images depicting close-ups of paint marks on canvas, as well as examples of his photography, his sparse captions read almost like diary entries. They are little poetic snippets which grant us entry into the intricacies of his thoughts.
‘John Berger died a year ago today. I miss him.’ 2 January.
‘A lot.’ 4 January.
This relationship between caption and image has deeply influenced Cole’s works outside of Instagram. As he explains in an interview with Artforum, for Black Paper (or #blackpaper), Instagram helped him ‘figure out which pictures were strong enough, and which I needed to discard.’ For Blind Spot, a hardback collection of Cole’s film photography combined with a lyric essay in the form of captions – or, as he calls them, voiceovers – he notes how ‘the length of the text…was partly shaped by writing on Instagram.’
The book version of Blind Spot followed an exhibition of Cole’s photography in Milan in 2016, Punta d’Ombra at the Forma Meraviglia, for which each photograph was accompanied by the corresponding voiceover as an exhibition label. The trajectory of this project is exemplary of how Instagram can feed into the artistic world outside of the digital realm – and, despite its pervasiveness, the ways that it can be artistically illuminating.