Documenting Instagram at {Poem 88}

Stephen Shore.
Stephen Shore, Untitled, (apple orchard), 2015; front-mounted archival digital print, 12 by 12 inches.

In the late 19th century, Eadweard Muybridge used photography to capture the movement of animals and athletes in frozen black-and-white sequences of still images. This photographic phenomenon — the freezing of a moment in time — would come to dominate popular discourse about photography throughout the 20th century. The progression of technology into the 21st century has made common this novelty. The photo is no longer fixed or frozen. As a medium of social exchange, it generates its own timeline as it is passed from one person to another, recontextualized and re-experienced on multiple platforms and devices. The group exhibition “Documentum” at {Poem 88} focuses on the fluid nature of 21st-century photography. It is based on the first volume of an eponymous series published by Fall Line Press.

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Grant Willing, Untitled (grass stairs), 2014, edition of 3; front-mounted archival digital print, 4 by 4 inches.

Viewing this exhibition requires stages of mental unpacking from the viewer. On two walls of the exhibition space, color and black-and-white photos are hung salon-style in a range of diminutive sizes. A few have printed materials hung with them. On another wall, color photos are printed in groups on newsprint. The materials are so different that it takes some time to realize that the richly colored face-mounted photos on one wall are the same as those on newsprint on another wall. The newsprint photos are a disassembled copy of Documentum, The Instagram Series. This volume consists entirely of Instagram photos meticulously gathered by photographer Stephen Shore, whose works feature prominently in the publication, as well as Chris Rhodes, David Campany, William Boling, and Dawn Kim. For the {Poem 88} exhibition, selections from “The Instagram Series” have been archivally printed and face-mounted to acrylic panes.

Some photos in the show were shot by the artists and others are posted collections of found photos. The group possesses great expressive range. In one of Shore’s photos, he closes in on apples in an orchard, to the point where the sky and ground are nearly crowded out. The fruited reds shade into dull magenta and off-yellow across the ripe bulging surfaces, and the ground-fall adds bruised tans and browns of ferment. The composition is natural and chaotic but the colors are intense Easter excess.

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Awoiska ven der Molen, Untitled (light), 2015; front mounted archival digital print, 4 by 4 inches.

Eric Oglander’s photos are selections made from Craig’s List postings of mirrors for sale. Since a photograph has no actual three-dimensional space, mirrors in photos can turn into negative space or pastiches when photographed. A man holding two mirrors seems to have his torso cut off by two rectangles of blue sky and cirrus clouds. An amputated rearview mirror from a car, when placed on a tabletop, becomes a tunneled black portal leading us to a Confederate flag.

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Awoiska van der Molen, Untitled (dark), 2015; front mounted archival digital print, 4 by 4 inches.

Awoiska van der Molen’s photos rely a great deal on blackness, and in some ways most exaggerate the differences between the offset newsprint and the mounted inkjet printing. Tabloid-style printing can only achieve a certain level of saturation. Blacks suffer noticeably, since the texture of newsprint inevitably picks up raking light, diluting the ink’s blackness by fragmenting it into a matte surface. Reflections that happen on the mounted photos slide across the acrylic panes as the viewer shifts, revealing the black beneath as an inky well rather than a fibrous surface.

The exhibition raises interesting questions about what we want from photographs. We have three iterations of the photos. Photos have been mounted, framed and hung; they have been printed tabloid-style, and we can also view them on Instagram. Linking these iterations are stages of selection carried out by artist, publisher, and gallerist. The mounting of the works emphasizes their aesthetic strengths and confers value. The printing of the works on newsprint emphasizes the process of selection and cataloguing. Instagram emphasizes circulation, as well as our show-and-tell relationship with pictures. Aesthetics, selection, and circulation — three different expectations that can be satisfied by the same images depending on how they are made manifest in our world.

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George Miles, Untitled (toadstools), 2015; edition of 3, front mounted archival digital print, 8 by 8 inches.

Art is enabled by technology, and this is another phenomenon we can observe in Muybridge’s photos even though he did not consider them fine art per se. When a new tool emerges, artists will make use of it, and in some ways this is what we are seeing with social media. In his intro to Documenta Volume 1, Shore discusses the diaristic and communal aspects of Instagram and he ends by saying, “Instagram is fun.” We know it is more than fun, however. Like its parent company, Facebook, Instagram is a corporate space that commodifies our social interactions by converting them to usable meta-data. I often find myself concerned by artists’ lack of criticality regarding the corporate institutions of social media. Aside from a few simplistic protests regarding censorship, we seem happy to regard these gargantuan institutions as playful little tools that live in our phones and laptops.

It might be argued, however, that it is not the responsibility of “Documentum” or the artists therein to carry out an institutional critique of Instagram. Perhaps it could also be argued that the “fun” Shore refers to is mischievous in nature, and that the appropriation and remixing of material that is happening here is a process by which artists are reclaiming visual territory. What is clear is that we as viewers are being made privy to a complex process of selection, remixing, and recontextualizing that opens up space for aesthetic and intellectual experiences.
The notion of an image stopping time is no longer awe-inspiring. Even at a popular level, we are conscious of the manner in which images change according to context and usage. The timeline that Muybridge eliminated from photography has been replaced by the timeline of our interactions with each other. It is this new fluidity of human interaction that the artists of “Documentum” are negotiating.

“Documentum” is on view through March 26 at {Poem 88}.

Orion Wertz is a painter and graphic novelist living in Columbus, Georgia. He is a professor at Columbus State University, where he teaches drawing and painting. He was a finalist for the 2015 Hudgens Prize.

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