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Instagram's visual shorthand may flatten the senses

January 12, 2015

Like most people my age, I use Instagram. Instagram’s shtick is that it offers users a suite of filters that introduce simulated analogue flaws and quirks into digital photos to make them resemble the Polaroids and degraded film stocks of decades past. These filters, from the beachy hues of “Hefe” to the cool Tungston blues of “Nashville,” add a heightened aesthetic pretense and sense of instant nostalgia to snaps of the mundane.

A little while ago, I noticed another element of the service – not a feature of the software but a practice, something that I also do myself – “flattening.” Flattening is taking a picture from an angle directly over an object such that only two of the three dimensions are seen. The resulting images are like orthographic projections, devoid of clutter and systematic in their representation of ordered objects. Flattening hides unsavory, unaesthetic information that does not support the aesthetic message of our carefully crafted Instagram streams. It elevates the mundane such that a cup of coffee or an assortment of camping gear can become a beautiful image, an iconic constellation of objects. It is in this sense that flattening is an aesthetic crutch, a tactic of aestheticizing common things. While flattening makes it easier to create a more balanced, symmetrical image, it is also an easy trick that anyone can emulate.

While not a feature of the software per se, flattening is as ubiquitous as any of Instagram’s filters, yet it goes largely unmentioned in media and design circles.

For this blog post, I wanted to ruminate not on the aesthetic implications of choosing to flatten images, but on the almost default nature of the practice and what it does to our ability to see and produce images.

As I was reading here and there about Instagram, I learned about visual literacy. The term was first used by the writer John Debes in 1968 and is based on the idea that pictures can be “read” and that meaning can be constructed by the “reader” using critical skills of exploration, critique and reflection.

Visual literacy is getting some attention in the STEM fields as an important component of problem solving and critical thinking. It is argued that visual literacy augments numeracy and traditional verbal and written literacy. By practicing to see mindfully with our eyes, one enhances the ability to visualize abstract concepts in his/her mind’s eye.

Being visually literate demands an understanding of visual syntax and semantics. The syntax of an image are its building blocks: scale, colors, framing, dimension, perspective, rhythm, resemblance, foreground, background, etc. This may also include camera placement and post-production elements (Instagram filters are one example). Visual semantics refers to the image’s relationship to the social world: the identity of the photographer, the image’s purpose and context, the audience, what has been omitted from the image, what the image “says” about an object, event or individual, and so forth.

Every form of visual representation reduces and transforms observable reality. In photography, characteristics of an object disappear from view depending on the angle of a camera. Through the photographer’s decisions and the limitations of the camera itself, we lose context and a sense of place and time. Yet photography has the ability to preserve innumerable elements from experiential reality: the nuance of gesture and expression, the play of light on a landscape or object, etc. With flattening, all but the most basic elements are cut away. With the image of a coffee seen from above, we lose the information of the decorative design on the side of the cup, the surroundings, the people and other untidy elements of the scene. Instagram users craft tidy versions of “reality” with most visual components strategically removed. Captions and tags fill in the gaps, but viewers of flattened images encounter reality as symmetrical, systematic and uncluttered.

Instagram users are skilled at creating images that get “hearts,” but by using the same filters, similar angles and subjects they're losing the ability to produce and consume nuanced images.

Instagram, with expressive and mimetic possibilities of sharing and combining image and text, coupled with its restrictions of square format and limited filters, is responsible for the proliferation of these scrubbed versions of “reality.” The conscious and unconscious decisions of Instagram users, both as consumers by choosing what to “ heart” and as creators by choosing what content to represent, ensure that a lopsided, viewed-from-the-top “reality” propagates.

Increased consumption and creation of images through egalitarian and abundant visual technology does not necessarily lead to greater visual literacy. Instagram users are becoming skilled at creating images that get plenty of “hearts,” but by using the same filters, similar angles and subjects they (and we) are losing the ability to produce and consume nuanced images. In terms of visual literacy, Instagram users are producing images with unvarying visual grammar, upholding a dominant, culturally determined convention of what is visually good. By repeating trendy conventions, we are losing sight of expressive power and the conceptual capacity of images. We are not only creating and consuming fewer images outside the contemporary norm, but we also have a harder time seeing new and unconventional imagery around us.

Pictorial recognition is frequently considered universal (“A picture is worth a thousand words”), but there’s evidence that there is difference in how pictorial information is interpreted by people of various cultures. For example, studies with Zambian tribesmen in the mid 20th century demonstrated that people, unless taught to see three-dimensionally (in the strictly Western convention), cannot interpret pictorial depth cues and have a two-dimensional perception (again, from the Western conception of the term). Such people prefer split-type images that depict the essential characteristics of objects, even if all of those characteristics can’t be seen from a single viewpoint, to perspective drawings that depict objects from a single viewpoint. Subjects also had difficulty matching a photo of an unfamiliar animal to a 3D toy version of the same animal e.g. a kangaroo, but had no problem matching a photo of an animal commonly found in their environment to its toy version.

Currently, these studies are considered problematic and ethnocentric but I believe they nevertheless support the core of my argument. The researchers’ belief that the Western style of pictorial depiction represents the world in an objectively correct way led them to conclude that the tribal people had failed to recognize pictorial depth cues because of their lack of learning. It seems clear, however, that the researchers failed to understand that their subjects had their own way of processing and depicting the 3D world, since split drawings convey just as much information as perspective drawings. The researchers were unable to realize that a different culture might have a stylistic preference for a split-type drawing and have a pictorial convention shared by the members of that culture.

By habitually flattening images without attention to the aesthetics choices we make in doing so, we lose the sense that there are other ways to represent the world. In consuming and creating images with a limited palette of conventions, our eyes and our minds’ eye become lazy, less elastic, unable to be innovative or see a different perspective, literally. Ultimately, the angle and the placement of a camera phone is only a part of the visual syntax of an image. By relying on the visual cliché of an overhead shot, we contribute to the collective loss of our visual elasticity. 

— Written by Vladlena Belozerova