Instagram has captured the imagination of a generations – not only the newer, digital generation, but also my generation – those who grew up in the ’60s and ’70s, by which time photography was accessible to the average family, but the experience was something to savour and much less spontaneous than today’s relationship with the camera.
Cameras used to be film-fed, and each shot was a commitment, subtracting 1 from the precious few frames remaining on the film. Once you’d finished the film – often several weeks or special events after taking the first shot – you would take it to a shop and wait another week while the photos were developed; little squares of glossy treasure.
You couldn’t tell whether you’d taken a good picture, or put your finger in front of the lens, or cut someone’s head off until after the photos were developed and paid for. The whole thing – from first shot to excited first look – was a protracted and special experience, rewarded by a handful of paper photos that you then lovingly added to a scrapbook using sticky tape or little adhesive corners.
Everyone knew someone who had a Polaroid camera, which was truly a thing of wonder – the shot was taken, and the photo gloriously delivered in a matter of seconds through a slot in the base of the camera in a magical, white-bordered flourish of (almost) instant photostatic gratification.
Kids with cameras in the ’60s and ’70s, dreaming – or not – of a burgeoning photographic career, would mostly frame the mundane; or point and shoot at anything that happened to be in front of us at the time – faces, food, pets, feet, clouds, flowers in your grandparents garden. But a finished roll of film bought you a ticket to the main event – the experience of waiting, anticipating, basking in the fruits of your creativity, reliving moments just passed and, finally, ordering them and arranging them and putting them on display. The photos themselves would, by today’s baseline standard, be considered low quality – grainy, shaky focus, poor clarity, naïve colours and restricted in virtually every attribute.
Fast forward 30 years; the age of (actual) instant photostatic gratification – not just mobile phones, but mobile phones that connect to the internet, and that have inbuilt cameras. No more film, no more waiting to see the shot, no more cost and time of development barring your access to the product. We can take photos in high resolution, crop them, resize them, rotate, flip and overlay them.
Instagram connected these two worlds, dragging the nostalgia of the former into the miracle of the latter. If you look at the common themes in photos published by a broad set of users, those delightfully banal object studies have re-emerged; faces, flowers, the sky, food, and a bewildering number of shots of people’s own feet. All filtered through sentimental, prefab themes that faithfully reproduce our less sophisticated, analogue output from the early ’70s – even that little square format – as if to do away with the whole magical bag of tricks afforded to today’s technology-driven, retouch-obsessed society.
In doing so, Instagram’s neatly-design technology has engaged a unique set of seemingly unconnected constituents. The result is addictive and quite thrilling; an emotional ride through nostalgia, creativity, childhood places, convenience, belonging, sharing… and, oddly, feet.