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The 36 photographs currently on view at Sushi Bar Gallery are the works of 19 alumni of the Yale Photography MFA program. With the prints framed and hung neatly on the gallery’s white walls, the show seems like any other standard group exhibition featuring the talents of the institution — except for this one, the curators pulled the images from the artists’ personal Instagram streams instead of from their professional portfolios.
Yale Photo Instagram, which opened last week and runs through Friday, is curated by Tommy Kha and Maayan Strauss, two Yale MFA alumni whose also have work in the show. Every image on display was originally taken with a camera phone and has now been printed as a 5×5-inch digital C-type; in this sense, they depart from the photographs typically seen at MFA exhibitions, which are the results of meticulous editing. The exhibition makes a case for Instagram’s lack of pretension, seeing its potential to quickly publish photos as a boon rather than a threat to the purity of the medium.
An Instagram show isn’t exactly groundbreaking — images from the photography-meets-social-media app have been the subject of exhibits around the world for a while now — but that trend is actually one of the reasons why Kha and Strauss put together Yale Photo Instagram, which they describe as “the wrongest show.”
“It’s wrong in the sense that everybody is doing it, so it makes it geeky, boring, lame,” Strauss told Hyperallergic. “And I wanted to capitalize on that ‘lame’ and pair it with Yale photo, which is very established and associated with certain ideas about traditions about photography and has shaped trends in photography.”
By combining the spontaneity and democracy of Instagram with the selectivity and prestige of their program, Kha and Strauss are hoping to challenge what they see as “the Yale aesthetic.”
“I’ve been hearing that phrase for a while since I’ve been at Yale,” Kha said. “I honestly don’t know what it means exactly … I think it’s this weird, fictionalized concept or stereotype about us, and it’s always associated with our kind of assumed privilege or snootiness. I just thought that was really funny that every time there’s something really negative about our program it’s like this ‘Yale aesthetic.’”
While the show plays on the carefreeness of using Instagram, it also aims to dismantle the negativity attached to what Kha calls “the nonseriousness of Instagram,” arguing for the value of an app that many photographers have accused of cheapening or destroying their art form. The works on view are simply snapshots of these artists’ personal lives, but they reveal Instagram as an outlet for photographers to take and share images that may not necessarily fit the confines of their formal projects.
“When I take pictures with my phone it’s in a less contrived way, not thinking about making art or making something meaningful, but just making something quirky and fun,” said photographer Terttu Uibopuu.
Still, Kha and Strauss note that most feeds do end up relating, whether intentionally or not, to each photographer’s body of work, and they selected images that demonstrate this. Pao Houa Her, who often photographs her family, opens the show with a portrait of her husband gazing calmly at the viewer; Kathryn Parker Almanas, who creates scenes with medical props such as gauze and surgical gloves, contributes an eerie image of a hand holding a bloody egg against a paper towel. Louis Connor merges her idiosyncratic photographs of vegetation with one of Instagram’s most popular tropes, the selfie, hiding her face behind leaves.
Interestingly, the photographs are presented without text — no captions or hashtags. Most of the photographs are also of the #nofilter breed, and only one uses a preset frame, so the only visible reminder of their source is their small-scale, square format. While this speaks to the increasingly high quality of cellphone cameras, the relocation of images by trained photographers from a social network into the traditional space of the gallery more importantly addresses the issue of how context defines art and shapes its assigned value — the way presentation affects how we look.
“This show is kind of amusing, but it also asks big questions,” Strauss said. “Like, ‘What is the frame that creates something appropriate and something inappropriate? What is the thing that gives a certain institution, a certain artist, a certain work some prestige?’”
Like most images on Instagram, the works in Yale Photo Instagram aren’t particularly extraordinary, but they are compelling — like short, charming notes. It makes you wonder how much time you’d spend looking at these pictures if they were on a phone rather than the wall, and whether they’d even earn a double tap of the screen. By pulling pictures out of the feed, the show highlights how our rapid scrolling curtails our viewing experience. The way we photograph may be changing, but we still assign value to traditional manners of display. Yale Photo Instagram stresses the role of the gallery space in shaping our level of appreciation.
“Instagram is one of many contemporary platforms to engage with picture making and an audience,” Joseph Maida, another participating photographer, said. “It’s by no means a replacement for the exhibition wall or the printed page.”
Yale Photo Instagram continues at Sushi Bar Gallery (62 18th Street, Greenwood Heights, Brooklyn) through June 27.