The Genteel
April 17, 2021


Photographs by @johndeguzman, @uptowneastnyc and @newyorkcity
Photograph by @cxcart.

On the seventh floor of the W New York - Times Square, Joe Tucker and Isaac Howard observe four photos mounted on display. "It's not art. I mean they're nice, but those photos aren't necessarily art," says Howard. His friend Tucker, a photographer, shakes his head in disagreement. "No, it's art. I use Instagram all the time. It's like Twitter for photos." 

The quiet exchange between Tucker and Howard at the hotel's The Living Room bar represents how Instagram has altered New York City's visual culture. In less than two years, Facebook's billion-dollar baby has over 50 million users and counting. The photos on display belong to a new exhibit, #WDesign, launched by the W New York - Times Square and Instagram NYC during Internet Week. #WDesign features Instagram photographs shot by six of New York City's most popular Instagram users: @astrodub, @bridif, @cxcart, @johndeguzman, @newyorkcity and @uptowneastnyc. 

"I hope it showcases how people can take legitimate photos with their phones. The reality is that we carry powerful computers in our pockets. The iPhone does take really good photos," says Brian Difeo, creator of Instagram NYC, a group of "early Instagram adopters" in New York City. 

Instagram briandifeo
Photograph by @bridif.

The Instagram-powered exhibit is one of the first of its kind for New York City while similar kinds of showcases have already popped up in Hong Kong and London. Each photograph captures minuscule details that tourists and city residents alike ignore: a fire escape, the underbelly of a subway station, steel piping at a construction site. Together, all 36 images create a landscape where unpolished design aesthetics take centre stage. 

Printed on canvas, filtering techniques allowed shooters to spin mundane structures into gritty, street art. Whether a puddle reflecting the Chrysler Building or window frames zigzagging towards the sky, each digital image seemed to be on the verge of becoming an oil painting.

Aside from photographs, the exhibit also presents a bit of conundrum: how does one refer to a photo's creator? Are they visual artists, mobile photographers, "Instagrammers," photographers or just plain old app users? At #WDesign, creators were credited via their Instagram handle, not their real names. 

What makes a photographer in the end is not the device. What really counts is having a creative eye. Instagram has opened the door to new possibilities...

Difeo describes himself as a photo blogger. "I don't consider myself an artist. The culture is different because you are sharing. There is a real-time quality to Instagram, a sense of immediacy … the hash tags let you connect with people from around the world."

John Smock, a photojournalist and an adjunct professor at the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism, admits that he is an avid Instagram user. "I play with it all the time…it's like instant abstract art." For Smock, the exhibit represents how visual literacy is expanding. "It has created less of a barrier. It's an art form that encourages people who (otherwise) wouldn't participate, a means to experiment."

Is Smock correct? In some way, does having access to a free photography app mean we are all visual artists? Markus Hartel thinks so. A street photographer, Hartel regularly organises photo walks throughout the city with tourists. "What makes a photographer in the end is not the device. What really counts is having a creative eye. Instagram has opened the door to new possibilities…the chances of taking a good picture or being discovered are much higher now." 

Instagram newyorkcity
Photograph by @newyorkcity.

Despite his reverence for the app, Hartel does not think Instagram-themed exhibits will stick around. "It's a bit gimmicky after the novelty wears off…with Instagram, you do have a bit of a premeditated voice. Your choices (in telling stories) are limited. If a photographer keeps using the same kind of filters, and it's a range of people doing the exact same thing… it just makes everything look homogenised."

Known on Instagram NYC as @LolitaLens, Lolita Beckwith, a digital photographer, disagrees. "I love seeing how people photograph things…it's like an endless, amazing gallery. I am constantly blown away." Beckwith also considers the exhibit to be a marker of validation. "It was like a coming-out party for 'Instagrammers'…it was proof in a big way…that Instagram photos are a viable art form... it's only going to get bigger."

#WDesign runs through the end of June at the W New York - Times Square.




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