Saturday, July 29, 2017

Instasaturated: the Tasmanian landscape on Instagram

The tag #Instatassie on Instagram.
Earlier this year, Instagram was littered with ‘best of 2016’ posts.  The site 2016bestnine.com catered to us narcissistic ‘grammers, trawling our accounts for the most popular posts.  I write ‘us’ because I too indulged.  I did not, however, post the grid.  I was surprised by the utter banality of my most ‘liked’ images.   I expected they’d be happy snaps of Paris, a photogenic artwork at the Venice Biennale, or perhaps even one of the dog, but they were almost all landscapes – slightly oversaturated and utterly pleasant landscapes.  My grid was no different to that of any other avid #Instatassie user.

While Instagram was once criticised for its ‘ye olde’ filters, which conjured up a false nostalgia through washed out colours and mottled frames, it’s now dominated by over-saturated hyper-photographs.  Landscapes are sharpened, brightened, saturated.  Up the contrast and you’ll up the likes.  Sunsets in particular get the special treatment. Pinks become scarlets, greys get bluer, and mountains become midnight silhouettes.  Everything is dramatised.

My offending Lime Bay image.
I’m guilty of these very sins.  On a recent camping trip, I experienced an incredible sunset over Lime Bay Lagoon in South Eastern Tasmania.  I immediately got out my phone of course, eager to share my experience with the world (or at least my 681 followers).   But the photograph could not capture that sublime moment – how could it? I was standing ankle deep in water with a stubbie of beer. The warm breeze that was exceptionally unusual for a Tasmanian evening carried a slight tang of fish and burning eucalyptus.  Seagulls, and even a bird of prey, circled our heads, and aside from their shrieks, there was just a soft lapping of waves.  The pink of the sunset was subtle, but it bathed us in mood-altering light, and while it sounds like a cliché, the shallow lagoon really did sparkle.  When I uploaded the photograph later, I wanted to share this experience, and faced with a square image of moderately-coloured seascape, I set to work ‘enhancing’ this projected experience.  I upped the saturation, deepened the contrast, and played with a couple of coloured filters.  The birds, which were clearly visible to our eyes, were reduced to silhouettes against the purple sky, and the sky was clearly reflected in the water.  I was rewarded with many ‘likes’, and a request from one of the many saturated-landscape-loving Tasmanian Instagram accounts to re-post the image under their account.  I would not have received these likes without upping the saturation.


Of course, cameras lie. They cannot represent what our human eyes actually see, let alone the sensory experience of being in a landscape.  Naturally, we want to share our incredible experiences with others, and in lieu of other forms of easy representation, the oversaturated ‘Instagram aesthetic’ replaces genuine expression. A two-dimensional mimetic photograph or painting will never come close to conveying sublime landscapes, and that’s why paintings like Turner’s seascapes and Monet’s gardens, which convey emotion and hint at the multi-sensory experience of being within the natural environment, are so compelling.  The Instagram aesthetic, by contrast, is retrograde, and risks making the actual live experience somewhat underwhelming.  Over-saturated hues have become the norm – the equivalent of a sugary treat.  It’s immediately gratifying, but has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer.  In our image-dominated world, how do artists compete with this raised bar? That’s the challenge for artists: how to convey the subtleties of experiencing a sunset without resorting to the junk food of over-saturated representation.

JMW Turner, Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth, 1842. 
Collection of the Tate Museum. © Tate, CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 

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