Instagram and the Perpetuation of the “Commonplace Photo”

Instagram and the Perpetuation of the “Commonplace Photo”

The New York Times’ James Estrin recently penned an article about the “commonplace photo” where he opined on how the photos of the mundane, like our lunch, is having a significant effect on “serious” photography as well as culture at large.

“A photograph is no longer predominantly a way of keeping a treasured family memory or even of learning about places or people that we would otherwise not encounter. It is now mainly a chintzy currency in a social interaction and a way of gazing even further into one’s navel.” – James Estrin for The New York Times

His observations got me thinking more about the value of what I call “social photography,” and what I’ve concluded is that some of it is not photography at all. Let me explain by breaking down categories of social photography that I’ve observed in my Instagram feed:

  • Comfort images (food, pets, familiar places, sunsets)
  • MLIBTY (“My Life Is Better Than Yours”)
  • Novelty (graffiti, a tiny ice cream cone)
  • Serious (images by pros that showcase their vision and skill)

These categories are horrendously broad, but bear with me as I deconstruct them in reverse order:

Serious photography

Simply stated, this is the type of photography that a professional takes and publishes to showcase themselves. It could be an image from their portfolio that they’ve uploaded, street photography, or behind-the-scenes imagery. Unlike social photography, there is an underlying declaration that my photography is better than yours, so pay attention.

Photo by Chip Litherland / Museum of Modern Art, NYC / @chiplitherland


There is a NYC personality who walks around town with a cat balancing on his head. I would venture to guess that there are several thousand images of this guy from people who are “discovering” him. The photo in this category act as visual proof.

Photo by Robert Caplin / Not the guy with the cat on his head, but a close second in NYC / @robertcaplin


MLIBTY or its corollary MLIWTY (“My Life Is Worse Than Yours”) are psychological statements (or maybe cries for help?). When we have the ability to curate and publish at will, we are portraying ourselves in a very specific light. By way of analogy, you’re probably aware of these two archetypes on Facebook:

1. The person who travels all over and publishes a photo from exciting locales.
2. The person who constantly tells you about their last workout.

Photo by Farah Visslailli / Ceiling at the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas / @fayrbear

Photos from an exciting locale aren’t a way to share something the audience hasn’t seen because the Internet has allowed us to see almost everything. These photos are a boast.

Comfort Images

Comfort images are the least photographic category because they are more evocative than they are descriptive. A mediocre photo of a sunset on a nondescript beach (even if it is boosted by an art filter) is merely a representation of something that we all know and love. That the image is unique is irrelevant because its purpose is to stimulate a nostalgic reaction, not document the world around us.

Oh you ate a cupcake, I love cupcakes. <like>

Photo by Lauren Margolis / Key lime cupcakes / @laurgolis

I would posit that “comfort” and MLIBTY images are “representational” rather than documentary in nature. That photography is used as the medium is almost irrelevant to their intent. In the case of the MLIBTY example, a Facebook or Foursquare check-in could accomplish the same effect, so the photo is merely a proxy for the intent. This is very different from the “serious” and “novelty” categories where an image is integral to communicating intent.

So what?

Insofar as the professional is concerned, I think this lays out some interesting opportunities to test. A photographer who wanted to participate in social photography as a means to build an audience could enter the “representational” realm and provide better photos. Would a really nice cupcake photo from a well-known bakery allow for bigger audience building? Or even more simply, could a photographer who uses social media primarily as a showcase for their best work make a more “authentic” connection with their audience by crossing over into the representational realm and napping a photo of that cupcake?

In the world of reality TV, the public pines for mundane details of their favorite stars’ lives – which builds a potent connection that can be exploited through marketing and self-promotion. Are there people who want to know what Dave Burnett ate between shoots at the Olympics? Of course.

Social photography gives the professional photographer a way to connect with their audience in a non-traditional (but contemporary) way. Social photography by the masses may still end up having a profound effect on the appreciation (or lack thereof) of serious photography, but until that becomes more readily apparent, I hope the pros still show me what they ate for lunch.

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This article was written by

Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter.

There are 4 comments for this article
  1. Oliver Lang at 10:13 am

    Nicely simplified approach to the visual potential from mobile phones.

    It’s good that you’ve noted that the people sharing images are an audience – many articles forget that the majority of the time when people open up the app they aren’t sharing images, they’re consuming images.

  2. Kevin at 10:45 am

    Where do documentary or photo-journaling photos fit in your categories? For example the local school children who post photos of their activities and construction of a school garden. Are these valuable or “consumable” outside the local community within which they were recorded? Photography nowadays must be considered an extension of some psychological need or compulsion other than artistic expression. Communication using images seems to be common across cultures and the internet is enabling.

  3. Pingback: Required Reading 9.21.2012 — Luke Copping - Blog

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