About a week back, I got a DM from a long-time Instagram fan. He's sweet, a photographer himself, whose thoughtful posts and insights into the industry are informative and pointedly smart. I've seen his work take off, too—with increasing skill and success, all of it deserved. The message, however, struck me as odd.
The occasion? My recent publication with Pansy Magazine. An exclusive editorial, I Hardly Know You Anymore, featuring model, Jay W and garments from Zara Man, Pinkyotto, and vintage pieces from around LA. The fan was excited for me, congratulatory, and very complimentary about the editorial; but he kept qualifying his praise with the question, "Will [this] be your new standard?"
Here is his message in full:
I'm referring to the quality of the photography itself, in the series...I understand an artist's choice of models reflects his inner life. I feel the models on your page are what they should be. Your forethought, execution, composition, image clarity, series refinement and engagement in your 'Pansy series' is far superior to your current portfolio, on your page.
He asked me again: "Will that new caliber of artistic expression be your new standard, here on out?"
This question is strangely appropriate and inappropriate. Appropriate, because, frankly, any artist who puts their work out into the world—in any public forum—opens themselves to scrutiny; it's a sign of both healthy democracy and the communal integrity of the artists that they be as subject to the scrutiny of critics, collectors, gallerists, and fans as anyone.
Yet the comment also rubbed me the wrong way, like a back-handed compliment. I could not respond immediately. This needed more thought.
On the one hand, I'm proud of the "Pansy" spread. It's pretty, it's tonally consistent, it's execution is very deliberate—which shows in the work, and isn't always the way I approach my more intimate sessions (where boredom can do a lot to reveal a model's inner life). But on the other hand, there was that phrase, "far superior to your current portfolio." Inappropriate. Kind-of a slap in the face!
It was clear, though, the more I considered the DM, that my photographer-friend hadn't intended a judgment of my whole body of work. But, rather, he'd intended to level the charge at my Instagram feed. This was, perhaps, a bit more fair...
There are two types of artist's Instagrams: (1) the page curated for tonal/aesthetic consistency, and (2) the page curated to the personality of the artist. You might see @lukeaustinphoto or even my friend, @nixon_light, for the former; @ryanmcginleystudios for the latter. But the true example of the former is Hello Mr's feed, whose talent for aesthetic consistency is drawn directly from places like Kinfolk.
I don't actually think it's possible to do both—maybe I just hope it's not possible.
Even if I can see the benefits of either path. For the former, you set a standard. You brand. You become a recognizable face for a certain look, even a certain palette. Countless Instagram marketing tools will tell you to do these things, too: to pick-and-choose, to stylized, to curate. With so much content in the world these days, they say, you cannot afford not to!
But I can see downsides. With too much focus on tonal or aesthetic consistency, you don't post anything that falls outside the confines of the brand. Worse, maybe, I'm not sure, you simply don't try anything that falls outside. To me, that seems like the death of art. Maybe you're the kind of artist who keeps to their wheelhouse—people, usually men, make careers out of doing one thing well—or maybe you're the kind of artist who tries things, but doesn't let anybody know you do, because then you might lose your audience. And, god forbid, an artist lose something for being creative...
But, frankly, I wonder about the latter course just as much. Those who do not conform their platform to a particular aesthetic, whose feeds are as much about personal reflection and showcasey personality as they are about their art. Conformative aesthetics often lead to trending aesthetics; the copycats inevitably follow. But to be free of these concerns, is it not a sign of the artist's critical and commercial success? Does that success enable you to exhibit such personalty and whim? Without losing an audience, can only an artist like McGinley pull this off?
I'm not sure about any of it. Except that today's world has little patience for mess. Curation seems, not just the name of the game for artists—for anybody, frankly, or have you not seen the sheer number of teenagers listing themselves as "Public Figures" on Instagram?—but a fucking requirement! What do you lose, when no mess is allowed?
I am reminded of my "Intro to Digital Photography" course in college, my only formal training on the subject, where Rosi Hayes told us: serious play, serious play, serious play, serious play. That is the kind of artistic spirit we should be possessed by and of.
I tried to end my conversation with my friend—and will try to end this post—with an answer to his original question. I don't know. I don't know what new caliber of artistic expression I should be making. I like my portfolio. I like my portfolio in the same breath that I want it to be better. I'm glad you like the Pansy Magazine spread. I won't try to make more of it. But I will try to make more pictures that interest me, invigorate me, that challenge my ideas about what I do or am capable of doing.
As for curating my Instagram feed, well, I occasionally think I'll just delete the whole thing and start over from scratch. Try the tonally-consistent thing. Maybe not post every day, but post whenever the work demands it. I dunno. I toy with doing that.
Except, then, maybe I'd be censoring my process. To quote the poet, Jorie Graham's, disarming denunciation against "Imperialism":
And as for her body ("no longer relevant")
it became nothing to me after that, or something less,
because I saw what it was, her body, you see—a line
brought round, all the way round, reader, a plot, a
shape, one of the finished things, one of the
beauties (here it click shut?) a thing
completely narrowed down to love—all arms, all arms extended in the
pulsing sticky heat, fan on, overhead on, all
arms no face at all dear god, all arms—
I think what I'm trying to say is, maybe this matters (how I choose to operate my platforms), maybe this matters not at all. I don't know. But what I do know is, if you're "one of the finished things," you really no longer have a face at all. You're dead and done.