From selfie to sublime
30 July 2023
by Jasmina Trifoni
mikeyk has 4.7 million followers on Instagram. As a photographer he’s not that great, and the subjects aren’t that interesting what post. There are several photos of his dog, of his favorite foods (above all, the Nutella crêpe wins), even of the packet of antacid pills he takes after he’s overindulged in sweets. mikeyk, however, is a celebrity: he did it, on 17 July 2010, to publish the first photo, albeit quite ugly, of the Instagram story. Even before Instagram,
launched in October of that year, it made history. After all, mikeyk is Mike Krieger, the co-founder, together with Kevin Systrom, the app that changed the world of images.
Two months after its launch, Instagram had reached one million users, which became ten million a year later. Today it is estimated that 100 million photos are added every day, and that every user spends at least 32 minutes a day
swipe the app and like or post content. Instagram then invaded the art world, with gallery owners among the most
important players on the planet, such as Perrotin and David Zwirner, who have discovered new talent on the platform, replacing it with maybe obsolete studio-visit. Indeed, at the 2015 Frieze New York fair, the Gagosian booth, the gallery of galleries, had presented artist Richard Prince’s New Portraits: large-scale prints of selfie screenshots that other people (unaware) had posted on Instagram. Back then, some of the subjects had sued Prince, but lost the case, given that according to the judge Prince’s work was “transformative” (the caption had been changed) and the appropriation had as its purpose to question the concept of copyright in contemporary society. Some doubts, however, about honesty Prince’s intellectual remains, and many questioned whether the artist (and the gallery owner) was smarter or the collectors stupider who, at that fair, had bought all 37 screenshots in the series, at a price of $100,000 each.
If the Prince-affair represents an extreme case, which however should make us reflect, it is true that Instagram, and with it the ubiquity of images, has clouded public perception of photography as an expressive medium. Just post today a silhouette or flash of a tourist with the terrified gaze of a hare struck by the headlights of a car (to mention only some of the most popular images) to feel like a great photographer, and to get paid to hold a workshop
aimed at other wannabe great photographers. As had happened, just to give some Italian examples, with Fontana’s cuts, the combustions by Burri or with all of Arte Povera, the concept of “I could do it too” today pervades the medium of photography.
With obvious repercussions on the market of great fine art photography. Which, from the advent of Instagram to today, has continued to lose monetary value despite the fact that in the same period of time it has forcefully entered the large museums, finally equated to painting, sculpture and other mediums of art in general.
To understand the dimensions of the phenomenon it is enough to consider Andreas Gursky, probably the most brilliant photographer of the his generation: Between 2006 and 2017, 32 of his photographs fetched at least $1 million at auction. 99 cents II, taken in an American discount store, and one of his images from the Pyongyang series (an amazing work he showed with sharp lucidity the effects of totalitarianism on the inhabitants of North Korea) have both been sold to the staggering $2.3 million each in 2006 and 2012 respectively. Today, however, to buy a photo of Gursky, so to speak, 400 or 500 thousand dollars is enough. And the same drop in prices applies to the works of other great artists, da Wolfgang Tillmans to Shirin Neshrat, from Thomas Struth to Hiroshi Sugimoto.
In the last edition of Art Basel, last June, it was almost painful for someone who, like the writer, loves and collects photography, to see that seminal works by immense authors – such as Shinjuku (1962) by Hiro, or those by Gordon Parks who recounted the segregation of the black population in the USA or, again, the series In the American West (1979-84) by Richard Avedon – had quotations comparable to those of works paintings by very young artists who are now entering the art market, and from which it is probable that they will soon disappear, when will the reckless fashion for neo-figurative painting that has been raging for some years come to an end.
In short, precisely because we are invaded by photographs, the public – be it Instagram users or art collectors –
he can no longer discern between the selfie and the sublime. There’s a whole universe between the cute friend’s bathroom mirror shot to the self-portraits of Cindy Sherman or Zanele Muholi.
And if photography can embrace an infinite number of genres, from the landscape from abstraction to street photography, great photography is never the result of a lucky coincidence. AND the expression of a thought, of an expressed will to tell the world through a path that goes far beyond one single, beautiful, image. Indeed, for a photographer, a great photographer, it often represents the tension of a whole life. As Ansel Adams said, “You don’t take a photograph, you make it“. We should all look up from our smartphone and study.
From books. Of the greats.
(cover, Richard Prince)