How has social media changed the images we create? Critic and filmmaker Ricky D’Ambrose suggests in an article for The Nation that mass production of imagery in the smartphone age has given everyone the opportunity to make “art” of a sort—but in the process, the individuality of the artiste has morphed into the bare-bones technicality and characterless generalizations of the creative “look”-maker:
Nothing is exempt from the creative’s glare…Everything can become material, or ‘atmosphere,’ spruced up by ingenuity. This may be why it seems increasingly difficult for so many people to go on speaking about particular places. The creative, with his pocketful of looks, sees only a ‘space’ (‘What a good space!’), ready to be used up…The creative stands defiantly outside the history of art, or else ransacks a thin chronology of images (Andy Warhol’s through Christopher Wool’s, Martin Scorsese’s through Quentin Tarantino’s), ready to recover from everything before him the most potentially exciting look—his salvageable loot—that Canon or Apple can engineer.
Now that imagery has been democratized and distributed via cell phone cameras, we’re all prompted to become artisans and curators, making the unique and complex stylizations of “art” increasingly rare—and the propagation of “looks” an everyday affair.
For example: Taylor Swift and Kylie Jenner spend lots of time on Instagram, curating a lifestyle (a “look”) they sell to their millions of fans. It isn’t just about the music Swift might make, or the clothes Jenner models: it’s about infusing every moment of their lives—from the food they bake to the parties they throw—with an enviable, creatively staged “look.” Fans then replicate the looks these favorite celebrities use: whether it’s a pose, selfie style, or filter they gravitate toward.
But there are also less obvious, yet more pervasive trend creators: the artisans and designers, bakers and chefs, photographers and web designers, event stylists and wedding bloggers who sell and promulgate their brand by creating curated lifestyles and “looks” people are instinctively drawn to, even lust after. It’s in their clean, sophisticated backdrops and super-natural filters. It’s in the perfectly staged breakfast table and adorable baby with jam spread all over her face. They make a killing by putting together a “look” people want that feels artistic and beautiful. This is “art” democratized—it’s also art marketized to a greater degree than ever before.
‘Every Over-Styled, Washed-Out Instagram Photo’
Perhaps the best example of this would be the magazine Kinfolk—called by some the last lifestyle magazine, it’s developed a wealth of enthusiasts alongside a horde of critics by projecting a specific “look.” Awash in minimalism, artisan coffee pour-overs, and light-wash denim, people find the Kinfolk look both enviable and laughable (depending on who you are).
Criticisms haven’t stopped people from flocking to—or adopting—the Kinfolk look. As Kyle Chayka wrote for Racked, “Walk into a tasteful design store, carefully curated fashion boutique, or immaculate Airbnb loft anywhere in the world, and you’re likely to find its pristine pages laying in wait, the way bibles nestle in hotel drawers to comfort sinners.” Moreover, the Tumblr Kinspiracy chronicles the homogenous, stylized Instagram “looks” all spawned and promulgated by Kinfolk magazine subscribers. The magazine has fostered a “reductive aesthetic conformism” among its followers: “The Kinfolk look has become so influential that every over-styled, washed-out Instagram photo of a succulent or a cup of coffee is now deemed to be part of its visual bandwagon,” notes Dezeen magazine.
As D’Ambrose points out, the Kinfolk “creatives” have not developed a particularized vision or beautiful frame, but rather a technique of lighting, staging, and posing that their fans adopt. Kinfolk isn’t creating art, per se—it’s creating a look, a lifestyle. As D’Ambrose writes further on in his piece, “A lifestyle is what makes a look possible at all, because every look is a kind of amenity….And a lifestyle, like a look, is available only in an affluent, wasteful, appetitive society such as ours…”
While this is a bit harsh, it helps explain the Kinfolk phenomenon—and uncannily matches the words of Chayka in his profile of the magazine:
Kinfolk created a lifestyle with familiar, do-it-yourself tokens—the unfinished wood tables and mason jars and dinner parties—fit for a world in recession, and subsumed them within an iconic visual style that was equally easy to participate in through social media. Kinfolk also came into existence just as we started using platforms like Instagram aspirationally, translating the aesthetics of the glossy print page onto the even glossier screen and making them our own in the process.
I wrote about Kinfolk in 2013, back when it seemed to focus more on cultivating small gatherings and community than on minimalist photography and global foodie culture. The editors advocated for a departure from technological obsession, and published an article about Thomas Aquinas and the sacred ritual of breaking bread. The magazine’s photographs—of a floured skillet, a swinging hammock, a vase of flowers—seemed more about re-enchanting the quotidian than about conveying a given “look.”
But over time, “The magazine’s oppressive neatness also seemed like a mold followers had to fit into, performing for the sake of an Instagram photo,” says Chayka. One magazine reader said he felt pressured to make every piece of his life perfect: “Nothing looks real anymore. You spend 20 minutes setting up your morning coffee with a copy of Kinfolk on a marble countertop.”
Shades of the Creative
People who follow Kinfolk (and other “look” curators on Instagram) begin to use their poses, shots, filters. Like the Kinspiracy blog, they grow homogenous and faceless—their photos less and less about smiling faces, and more and more about perfect flower bouquets and baby feet padding along a shining wooden floor. These users’ accounts become, as one friend put it, “shades” of the creatives rather than depictions of “fully individual human souls.” They reflect less and less of the silly, artless, unfiltered “memory,” and more and more of a chosen, filtered, lovely “moment.”
I suspect that when we do this, we’re trying to capture the ethos of a moment: the hum and environment that undergird our lives. We’re trying to use image filters and poses to get at the meaning of a memory: to look back over an archive of images and be able to say, “This is my story.”
But really, the “look” we adopt evokes more pathos than ethos: it’s about the creation and promotion of a particular feeling, feelings expressed (even teased into being) by our images. The images don’t end up chronicling memories—they become the memory itself.
I realized this when, while looking back through some old Instagram pictures, I was reminded more of the moment of posting—the filters I’d chosen and why, who liked the photo and who commented—than of the moment the picture depicted itself. It frightened me, honestly. I realized I had posted for the accolades and shared pathos, not for the sake of reminiscence. Or, at least, if I had started by posting a memory for memory’s sake, I was distracted along the way by curating a “look.”
It’s difficult to avoid such temptation as pressure increases for one’s Instagram to have a “point” of some sort—to depict a brand or look, Kinfolk-style. Artisan curators push us toward a form of entrepreneurship or marketing, even if it’s just promulgating our own personal brand. If we’re moms, we become Instagram’s version of mommy bloggers, sharing ever-more-adorable and posed pictures of our children. If we’re coffee lovers, we become latte-art propagandists. If we’re yoga lovers, we become downward-dog poseurs. To make these images appealing to the widest group possible, we slowly prune them of any particularizing or imperfect facets.
Amid all this curation, the ability to simply be—to post a couple pictures of your last family gathering, or a random shot of a goofy baby face (in which the baby is only wearing a stained Gerber onesie, oops) becomes almost impossible. It feels trashy and unprofessional next to this glamorous feed of “looks.” It’s not curated enough. Memory images don’t have a brand, beyond their recollected moment of joy. They may have ethos—but they don’t have pathos.
To be clear: it only makes sense that artisans and creatives such as Kinfolk editors and event stylists would seek to create and propagate such images. It’s what helps them sell their products. They are using images to market their services. D’Ambrose’s point is that we should differentiate such pieces from “art”—and mine is that we should not let such images prevent us from sharing the particularized, messy, lovely pictures that make up our quotidian pleasures. We shouldn’t let their “looks” supersede and homogenize our own.