/ 21 December 2012

Instagram turns amateurs into artists

Gareth Pon's photograph was taken through a glass pane from the Nelson Mandela Bridge in Newtown
Gareth Pon's photograph was taken through a glass pane from the Nelson Mandela Bridge in Newtown

In November this year I became an artist. Well, at least this is how I was introduced to my first buyer. "Seriously? You want to buy my photograph?" I asked incredulously. He wanted three, actually. After that came four more buyers, until I had sold more than half my exhibition: a framed collection of portraits and shots of iconic Johannesburg places. I had set my prices low, not expecting to sell any.

For the record, I have never owned a camera. What I do have, however, is an iPhone 4S.

As someone with zero visual training or artistic background, my passion for Instagram and photography has taken me by surprise. Every time I considered buying a camera in the past, I was intimidated by the jargon and the hubris of the professionals. My phone gave me easy access to that world, sans the judgment

View the Filtering the City Slideshow

I started hearing of other Instagrammers in my city. The movement seemed particularly tied to the gentrification of central Johannesburg as a trendy place to live, play and document. So I invited a dozen or so of the small club, called Instagrammers Johannesburg, to my Braamfontein flat and with a friendly nod I was inducted into their community.

Soon we were standing on the roof of my 16-storey building, aiming our iPhone cameras at a thunderous sky hanging low over Hillbrow's iconic towers. Some used miniature tripods custom built for their phones. Others popped an "olloclip" on to their cellphone lens to create a fish-eye effect. But mostly they used their phones as is.

Minites later, after being filtered, sharpened, desaturated, overlaid with text and manipulated by every photo-editing trick available to two thumbs on a seven-by-five-centimetre screen, their images were uploaded to their accounts.

Many novices who see an Instagram picture cannot believe it was taken and edited on a simple phone.

Photo-sharing program cum social network
At its most basic level, Instagram is a global photo-sharing program cum social network. Launched in October 2010, it has since snowballed, flattening other photo-sharing services such as Flickr in its path. By September 2012, the 13-member company had 100-million registered users across the world and a new user was joining every second.

Ghanaian jazz singer. (Verashni Pillay)

The genius lay in its simplicity. Take a photo, crop it to the golden-square standard that defines the medium, choose from one of the 15 filters and share it with your network.

Within those confines users were free to do whatever they could dream up. And dream they did. Fantastic dreamscapes emerged of rosy sunsets, dramatic clouds, converging lines and striking architecture. Serious Instagrammers ditched the standard click-and-go filters in favour of a host of specialised editing applications for cellphones and used Instagram simply as a network to share their edited images.

As one Instagramer said: "This stuff was always possible with Photoshop; it's just that the rules and the expectations are now different. It's okay to completely change the image."

The authenticity of traditional photography becomes moot: one is expected to change the image. As another Instagramer's exhibition tag line put it: He does not take photos; he creates them.

Initially only available on the iPhone and iPad, the app launched in South Africa about two years ago and quickly gained traction with its small, but serious, Apple fan club. It later rolled out to android users and now you can find a dedicated community in practically every South African city.

From the large numbers of happy snappers and hipsters documenting their lives in pseudo-vintage style has emerged a core group of serious Instagrammers who have taken the medium to the level of an art form.

Key to the Johannesburg scene is Roy Potterill, a 30-year-old small business owner who had no previous photography experience. This year he held his first photography exhibition, dubbed #Hashtag, after the meta tags that group images together on the platform. There is a magical quality to his wide-ranging images of the city of Johannesburg, from its people to its distinctive architecture. He confides he can spend up to six hours editing a single image.

Potterill has started Snapgram, a permanent exhibition in the 70 Juta Street precinct in Braamfontein showcasing the best local Instagrammers. Recognition is starting to come in from the big players, thanks to a company called Mobile Media Mob, which Potterill started with Thoban Jappie, a sound producer living in Cape Town. Their company provides mobile images and social media integration to corporates such as Big Concerts, Adidas, Fairlady and Gallo Music.

Power of the medium
Jappie, who also had no previous photography experience, recalls his first brush with professional photographers at a press photo opportunity with Linkin Park on their recent South African tour.

Thoban Jappie’s Camouflaged in Death.

"While waiting outside on the balcony, the real photographers, each armed with two DSLRs [professional cameras] sporting big lenses, made idle chit chat and I got a few raised eyebrows when I stated that I was shooting with an iPhone," said Jappie.

"[Linkin Park band member] Mike Shinoda walked outside and posed for 60 seconds. I managed to take four shots, as compared with the multitude that a DSLR's motor drive can afford you. We then all went down to the hotel lobby and while they scrolled through the images on their DSLRs, I edited my selected shot on my iPhone, uploaded it to Instagram and disseminated it across the Big Concerts social media platforms. About 15 minutes after shooting the pic it had gone viral."

And that is the power of the medium: it produces remarkably good results in a short space of time and can be shared instantly. It dramatically lowers the entry bar into what was once an elite space.

The Instagrammers gathered on my rooftop, most of whom have no photography background, all agree that their new hobby has changed the way they look at the world.

Reactions to Instagrammers from professional photographers has been mixed. Some ignore them.

But then, as one Instagrammer points out, the photographs of many professional photographers on Instagram are terrible. "Everyone is taking better photos than they are," said Levon Lock, part of the Johannesburg Instagram community.

Roy Potterill’s photo of Cape Town.

Still, a few local pros have enthusiastically taken to the medium, notably full-time photographers Nadine Hutton and Liam Lynch. Hutton has embraced the full ambit of "iPhoneography", as all photos taken with an iPhone are dubbed, of which Instagram is a subsection.  

Hutton's recent acclaimed exhibition, I, Joburg consisted of photographs exclusively taken and edited on her iPhone. The exhibition was classic Hutton: street photography and a personal journey and collection of portraits for her world in "queer Joburg".  

"The iPhone for me is just a tool that I can carry with me everywhere, as opposed to a camera," she said. "It's not iPhone photography; it's just photography."

Lynch too is a prolific Instagrammer. A photographer who first made his name capturing South Africa's music scene in his signature black-and-white style, Lynch still uses his camera to take photos but finds Instagram a useful platform to share his work. "It's a form of sketching or note-taking for me … a way of shooting a detail or a context that I wouldn't normally make a point of shooting with my camera," he said.

Verashni Pillay is the deputy editor of Mail & Guardian Online. Follow her on twitter