I’ll be honest with you. I’m sharing this image because I know it will do well on Instagram.
Even though I consider myself a nature photographer — I photograph wildlife and wilderness! — on social media, my wildlife images take priority. It’s the animals that get the digital hearts from my followers.
I’ve been thinking a bit about the role Instagram plays in the way we see and appreciate art after hearing an NPR story on this topic a couple weeks ago. The artists they talked to expressed how they’re driven by getting a huge reaction from their fans, so they tend to share work that follows the formula that delivers accolades. These Instagram artists don’t risk losing fans by sharing work that’s outside their “greatest hits” norm.
I don’t think any of that comes as a surprise. But it got me wondering, are things really any different here in the Instagram age?
I’m not going to lie: At some level, having a good following on Instagram is important to me. I’m working on a book proposal. When trying to be taken seriously by publishers, it’s better to have 12,000 followers than 12. (Shameless marketing plug: If you want to help me boost that count, you can follow my Instagram feed here.)
We’re acting as if Instagram has introduced metrics to the art world, but it hasn’t. Before I got a gallery show, a curator reviewed my work and decided which pieces to show based on whether or not they thought the pictures would sell. Actual sales determined whether I got to exhibit again.
The number of people who show up to hear me speak is a key factor in whether any other organization will book me.
The ultimate metric is centuries old: whether anyone will pay for the art you create. Even in the Instagram age, for people who hope to make a living as an artist, that’s the metric that really matters.
That said, whether someone will buy your art isn’t a reliable gauge of lasting artistic merit. Vincent Van Gogh sold only one painting during his lifetime — and that one painting wasn’t even The Starry Night, which 100 years later draws crowds of people.
Van Gogh is an extreme case, but not that unusual. Some of the artists we admire most struggled to find commercial success in their lifetimes. Many of the artists working today are trying to balance art and attention.
Earlier this year, I met a painter who is well-regarded in art circles. He has two imaginative paintings in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum — an incredible feat! I asked what he’s working on next. “Fish,” he replied. “I have a buyer and everybody wants fish.”
In the spirit of his fish, the burrowing owls are on my feed today, but that doesn’t mean I’m not doing other work. I am and I’ll share it when the time is right, although it may go in a small gallery or a limited-edition book instead of on Instagram.
Anybody who chooses the life of an artist has chosen the difficult path. The need to pursue Instagram fame is just the latest obstacle. And if you truly want to support art, consider doing more than hitting the “like” button — although even a “like” is appreciated.
(The brand new edition is available of Kevin Ebi's bald eagle book, Year of the Eagle, which tells the story of a year in the life of Pacific Northwest bald eagles. Follow his photography on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.)