Instagram as Rearview Mirror


March 14, 2012 by LeVoyageur

If you have ever driven a car, you might have experienced the disorienting and distorting effect that rearview and side-view mirrors can have. Consider this:

  • Many of these mirrors carry a caution due to their convex design: “Objects are closer than they appear” (despite the fact that most objects are in fact quickly fading into the background.)
  • The glassy reflections of passing landscapes, buildings, and other cars become blurs as we pass them on our way.
  • All objects in our receding visual environment are being filtered through multiple layers of glass: sunglasses, mirrors, tinted car glass – layers of glass and mirrors that are often dirty, streaked with rain, or covered in ice and snow.
  • Our views through the mirrors have a shimmer about them, caused by sun, street and headlights, and the movement of the automobile.

As you drive, you see certain objects of interest. Though they remain, they become smaller as you continue on your journey and become dominated by the rolling landscape and other objects that enter your field of vision. It is not long before a particular object, a house for instance, or a waving child riding down the road on a bicycle, become blurred images, refracted, reflected, and finally invisible before becoming forgotten as we carry on.

In a similar way, Instagram presents a vision of the immediate past, filtered as if by lenses, and scrolling past in miniature. It is easy to say that Instagram is just another toy – another app for the tech-savvy, the camera geek, the would-be photographer. But it is worth considering the technology more closely and asking why such technology becomes as popular and worth as much as Instagram apparently has.

What does it do to our sense of time when photographs are filtered to look “retro” as they pass through our social media feed, constantly updated, often alternating with images that are actually old? What to make of the phenomenon of seeing things, people, and events through filters that evoke times gone by?

It could be argued that the Instagram process is not unlike our 24/7 news cycle. But as ugly and disorienting as “news” can be, it is in effect real life. With Instagram, we have what amounts to a simulacrum: a pretense of reality, the distortion of reality. Instagram is an app for image making, and not in the photographic sense: it is an image of ourselves – a nostalgic, artistic image of a different us, a different environment that we seek that is by design distorting and unreal. Its images often do not bear any resemblance to the object it has captured digitally. They become something else entirely: tintype, Polaroid, good times gone by.

People use social media to connect, but in this attempt at connecting to the lives of others through a media technology, Instagram is instead like a rearview mirror: receding images, displaced, filtered, distanced, finally disappearing from view. By disconnecting us from an image of reality that we can locate and relate to, what we expect in normal social discourse, it is a destabilizing technology that distorts our view of what is there, what it looks like, and what remains when it is not the subject of our gaze.

Rather than art meets life, it is life reinterpreted by technology to create our very own media image, a version of reality. Instagram is us speeding through life, catching glimpses of our path, creating a visual narrative that scrolls by in a mirror into the past.

For further reading, see my article: Instagram, Instanalyis: The Victory of Nostalgia.

2 thoughts on “Instagram as Rearview Mirror

  1. rosewater12 says:

    Intriguing essay; but (maybe its my Dilaudid-deluded mind) I still don’t know what Instagram is.

  2. James LaForest says:

    Instagram is an application that you can download to an iPhone – it works as an overlay essentially on the iPhone’s built-in camera. Its function is to dress us images with an array of different filters (to make them look retro or abstract) and then share the images through social media like Facebook or Twitter.

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