Above: The attacks on the World Trade Center, New York, 2001. Credit: Unattributed/photographer unknown.


Instagram, the image-led micro-blogging software app for smartphones, has revolutionized popular photography--particularly the photos that were once known as snapshots (a set of prints picked-up from the drugstore). The snapshot was associated, above all, with the human desire to capture, record, document, moments of lived experience--the production of an aide-memoire or memory aid. (One of the leading brands of 35mm camera film in the pre-digital era used for many years the tagline: "Keep it [a memory] with Kodak.")

The revolution instigated by Instagram is not the move to digital but the act or decision of sharing one's aide memoire photos--often with any curious person whatsoever (i.e., a stranger) who happens to also be using the app. About a billion smartphone users share their snapshot photos with each other in this way. For Wim Wenders (speaking in 2017) the revolution of Instagram demands a reappraisal of the singular photo-image, "now, it's about showing, sending, and maybe remembering. It is no longer essentially about the image. The image for me was always linked to the idea of uniqueness, to a frame and to composition. You produced something that was, in itself, a singular moment. As such, it had a certain sacredness ... that whole notion is gone."

Equally, writing in 2010, French critic Nicolas Bourriaud said, "it is very likely that future historians will consider these early years of the 21st century as the period when the status of photography changed radically; the years when photography ceased to become a tool for recording reality, and became a constituent element of reality itself--no more and no less a part of our daily lives than tap water or the asphalt of our pavements." And he continued, "we are increasingly disinclined to view a photograph as a trace or support of memory, or as the recording of a moment: it is lived moments themselves--freighted with static images--that call out to be framed (and digitally retouched). Whether it be paparazzi, socialites-with-cell-phones, journalists, technicians, tourists, conscientious parents, personal PRs, or those on Myspace or Facebook, we are all caught up in this iconic time, punctuated by the small syncope of the frozen image. In a world defined by representation, which is constantly recording itself and watching-itself-recording-itself, the fixed image is a simple moment-of-movement."

So, what emerges in the Instagram era, for photography and image-making practice, is the rise to prominence of the continuum of photo-images: a narrative, a photo-essay on life itself. While the iconic, distinguished, privileged single image recedes: it is these myriad continua sequences that are now essential--several billion of them; unstable, never static, evolving, unfolding, disappearing.

Now the iconic single photo-image remains in mass-culture most notably in the format of the searing photo-document of a world event, the news reportage images which frame history.

(28 January 2018)