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Photography in the Age of Instagram

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“The Impact of Social Media on Artistic Perception”
Written by Rick Trottier – RJT Images-Light Works Studio
Technology always changes what we do and how we do it. The automobile changed where we lived, how we shopped, how much and where we traveled and our patterns of life from dating to meals. And in the process of this transformation, Americans began perceiving the world around them in a radically different fashion. Depending on your point of view, this may or may not have been a good thing. Certainly there have been benefits and drawbacks to how the car has altered life since its inception. Electronic devices like computers, cell phones and other information processing and communication-centered technology is the “automobile” of the 21st Century. The impact that these devices has had and is having on our daily habits and social evolution is remarkable and every year, more and more studies charting the imprint that technology is leaving upon mankind show significant changes. It is almost to the point where the changes are occurring faster than we can measure or even understand. And they are far-reaching, affecting how we interface, the language we use and even something as seemingly innocuous as how we perceive artistic expression in mediums like photography.
Photography and the Audience of the Past
From its humble beginnings in the mid-1800s with bulky, cumbersome equipment and glass-plate negatives, photography captured the imagination of all of the places it sprang up. And for approximately 150 years, the basic principles of “film photography” remained essentially the same. Photographers operated a mechanical camera, had to develop “the film” and then make prints. What changed initially was that film photography began as a pursuit for a very few and ended as something that everyone could do who wanted to purchase an “instant camera”. Generations saw photography evolve from an art form practiced only by professionals into a pastime for the masses if you wished to own a camera of your choice and depending on the depth of your pockets. What DIDN’T change in all that time was how we were presented imagery and how the audiences of the past were allowed to view pictures. If photography was something that you did as a hobby or was something for you to capture family moments or other memorable occasions, only those close to you or friends and associates saw your images. What the public saw as a whole was determined by those who controlled newspapers, magazines, art galleries, museums and other venues of public consumption of art.

Editors and curators, publishers and directors dictated what we were allowed to see based on their personal whims, their sense of propriety and often times by their varying conception of what constituted art and fashionable trends in culture. It was not egalitarian in any manner, it was an autocratic control over what a few deemed artistically suitable for public consumption, but it did frame and develop for the masses a criterion that shaped how we perceived art. Even when magazines and other periodicals proliferated throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, a select few determined what was artistic imagery; from the highest fashion pages of Vogue to the exciting cheesecake centerfolds of Playboy. And while this might seem like despotism, an immense manipulation of how we think and what we like, it isn’t any different from how music, education and sports were presented to the public and still are to a larger degree. A small number of people determine what is best for the masses. Our democratically elected government functions in a similar fashion. And before you screech that at least we elect our public servants, each and every dollar spent on a magazine or music CD or sporting event ticket sends a vote of confidence to the people who own the entity you are buying from that you approve of the way they do business. And all of this remained unchanged until the advent of the internet, and especially the outgrowth of social media.

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