Teju Cole on Instagram (2018)

Amongst all the studies about Instagram’s detrimental affect on our mental health, all the time wasted scrolling and attendant statistics about how many miles we thumb through per day/hour/minute, there are people who use Instagram for purposes other than bland distraction, “inspo”, or self-promotion. Teju Cole is one of them.

He’s written about Instagram in the past: back in 2015, he drew the similarity between Stephen Shore’s work in American Surfaces and Uncommon Places with the kind of “provocatively unexciting” imagery Shore posts on his feed. Cole also explored the work of other photographers with original or enlivening approaches to the app, describing how following their work in this way allows a renewed depth of understanding of their more formalised work offline. Instagram, he suggests, offers the opportunity for play, for the balance between “a sense of freedom and the steady burn of an obsession” to find a visual home: “it can be a conversation that unfolds gradually”. This generous vision of the app as a worthwhile visual format is a more and more unusual one.

In the same piece, he acknowledges the way that “Instagram users value spectacular images”. The algorithm privileges the quick hit over the slow burn: vivid, dynamic, immediately intelligible imagery is the currency. Some of my favourite images to see in a gallery setting — Richard Learoyd’s sculptural portraits, made by a room-sized camera obscura, Sarah Moon’s moody, velvet tones, Koudelka’s inky prints — lose so much of what makes them extraordinary when digested through the screen of an iPhone. The nuances of an incredible hand-print, or the subtle deterioration of a photograph over time — and the mystery or weight they accrue — are also lost. Instagram represents a kind of flattening of so many of the idiosyncrasies of the photographic medium and seems to be generating a set of styles and genres of its own: close-up portraits tend to do well, and photographers who have a very clearly defined palette (restrictively so?) tend to have hoards of followers.

Cole has managed to hold the addictively saccharine rewards of Instagram at arm’s length. In fact, whilst advocating for the use of Instagram as a tool, and a valuable medium, he uses the currency of likes to tell him whether his imagery is too Instagrammable. “If I put up something and it’s instantaneously super-popular I know that - not always, but more likely than not - it’s failing on some level. There’s something too easy about it,” he explained on a podcast back in July. Implicitly, Cole is privileging the nuance of a photograph that resists immediate intelligibility or interpretation; a successful image, for him, should — perhaps — hold something back.

All this thinking and writing is a precursor to his current approach to his own Instagram feed. At first glance, it looks like a grid of almost single-colour squares. When you click onto an image — or when it appears on your own feed — it is revealed to be a close-up image of a section of painting, often with a near-uniform colour (though there are multi-coloured squares, too, more as time goes on, but always in the abstract). Sometimes the faint cracks of a painting that has aged over the years are visible; sometimes the grain of the canvas itself is visible; often the subtle tones of a red that burns and deepens, or a blue whose wash is made up of teal, navy and cerulean, can be seen when you look at the image for more than the brief moment usually allocated to Instagram looking. Cole’s own words from years previously — “provocatively unexciting” — come to mind: he is experimenting, perhaps, with the limits of his followers’ patience. Will they stay for these images that, really, offer no immediate gratification (by Instagram’s standards) at all? Will they apportion them likes? (Stephen Shore has ‘liked’ almost every one of these images, perhaps tellingly).

In fact — whilst deviating drastically from the kind of parameters that usually make an Instagram picture successful — the images offer a very different kind of gratification: the slower, harder-won but more sustaining kind that comes from close and careful looking. I don’t know which paintings Cole takes his pictures of, but inherent in the imagery itself is what Cole seems to be suggesting as a valuable mode of seeing. They present a view of a painting that is so close as to be near-forensic: the kind that you only usually see briefly, in a gallery, when you take the risk of setting off an alarm to lean up close to a painting and get a sense of the brushwork. In isolating this close-up view, Cole is allowing that brief flash to be lengthened, the contemplation extended indefinitely. The idea of making pictures out of unintelligible, identityless sections of paintings, abstracting them via their isolation, and then posting them to Instagram, is almost laughable in its disregard for Instagram’s algorithmic visual codes.

Beyond being conceptually arresting, the images have their own quiet power: it is not often that our phone feeds us a solid few inches of rich colour, with all its emotional sway (a bloody, passionate red, a cool black, the frenzied dashes of yellow onto grey). When the rest of your feed is populated by images that jostle for attention, Cole’s images burst up like islands of visual rest, a place to moor yourself for a moment before going back into the fray of the dopamine-inducing visual equivalents of a klaxon. And then, once you’ve acquired a taste for Cole’s subtleties, and go back to visit his page, returning to the grid, the splendour of all these abstractions next to each other is as neat and bright as a Mondrian.

At first, Cole would pair his images with a brief, poetic caption. I have been unable to source many of them; some are lines taken from Shakespeare’s sonnets, some are from the Odyssey, one is from an airline instructional safety message (‘Breathe normally. Although the bag does not inflate, oxygen is flowing…’). In some captions, Cole has wrested a word or two away from their usual caption place, using spaces so that they float free. His first captions, like his images, gave little away; they are allusive anchors, often hinting at depths but rarely revealing much. They signal the possibility of a rich and profound world available should you choose to take a closer look, or to simply stop your scrolling and reflect. And then sometimes the caption doesn't appear at all. Cole didn’t appear to have a grand strategy: the images, and captions if they have them, rose up quietly, never announcing too much, never forcing your hand.

Since drafting this piece, Cole has become more emphatic in his captioning, at times alluding to a mood of political despair, and, more recently, announcing: ‘A photograph of a detail of a painting is a photograph, not a detail of a painting.’ He is firmly staking ownership of these images, this project, on a platform that often forgets it is trading in photographs at all, such is its bent towards advertising. Imagery on Instagram is less a photograph, more a product that can be bought and sold, passed around or re-grammed. With this single line, Cole reminds us that each image we post is, in fact — or can be, or should be — a photograph, not a bland record of witnessing or an ad. His grid of abstractions are acts of authorship, choices carefully made. As the captions have lengthened and become more discursive or direct, the images themselves have employed more colour, more movement. The project gathers steam, revealing its intentions apace.

Cole’s unfamiliar language — abstraction — dislocates Instagram-type imagery from Instagram at large, showing it as the doppelgänger it is. It advocates for a return to a way of seeing unmuddied by commerce or manipulation. The first time Cole posted one of these images, it was to memorialise John Berger, who believed that advertising — “publicity images”, as he called them — continued the self-congratulatory tradition of oil painting; that painting and photography have served similar social functions, and that those functions (self-aggrandisement and demonstration of wealth as much as aesthetic ingenuity) should be held under scrutiny. Cole’s project, framed as such, could be seen to extend Berger’s reasoning, or offer an alternative: that neither painting nor photography need be so mercantile. With these images, Cole is saying: “look closely, and then closer still; take your time, then take even longer. I am selling you nothing.” On Instagram, world of immediate gratification and sponsored posts, that’s something.