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Armed with popular photo app, residents document days in detail

Sun., Oct. 7, 2012

In hashtag Spokane, girls make sexy lips in cars, and we drink so much coffee.

Our sunsets are spectacular. Clocktowers overlook our scenic views.

In hashtag Spokane, our graffiti is vibrant and curvaceous and our trees form dense perimeters. We find breakfast attractive, along with lunch, dinner, banana splits and beer. We have intricate but sturdy bridges that cast complex shadows.

Don’t even get us started on the waterfalls. They. Are. Stunning.

Hashtag Spokane – or #spokane, one of countless “tags” applied to photos posted online so they can be found among the billions – topped 25,000 images last week on Instagram, the leading free photo-sharing application. Many more photos than that have been posted by Spokane residents and of the city, of course, but that’s how many times smartphone-armed residents and visitors labeled them as such, whether the photographers identified something essentially Spokane in the images or just happened to make them here.

Viewed through the lens of one tag – #spokane – the result is a representation of life in a place that changes in real time, an accumulation of street-level, tabletop-level or kid-in-bathtub-level views.

“I use Instagram to share not what I’m doing, but what I’m seeing at the moment,” Gabrielle Perez, who’s studying journalism and mass communications at Whitworth University, wrote in an email interview.

It reflects a new level of documentation of daily life, the mundane and unbeautiful along with the sunsets, made possible by technology and encouraged by marketers. For better or worse, users say, it’s a creative outlet, a means of quick communication – and a porthole into different lives, from the level of different streets.

‘You push the button’

Instagram is simple to use, and it’s big business. Users take a photo, crop it into a square and apply one of the preset digital filters. They can post the photo to Instagram and other social media. Facebook purchased the photo app in a $715 million deal that closed this summer. At the time, Instagram said it had surpassed 5 billion photos shared.

Sometimes it’s used for weighty purposes. Even as press restrictions have limited reporting in Syria during its civil uprising, Instagram users post photos of demolished buildings and tanks rolling through streets. Last week, Swedish Medical Center in Seattle posted a series of photos of cochlear-implant surgery as it was being performed on a 79-year-old woman, in hopes of inspiring more people to undergo the procedure.

But mostly Instagram is full of little moments.

Among those 25,000-and-counting images tagged #spokane, the vast majority are images of daily life, of grinning teenagers and toddlers, of clouds whose roundness caught someone’s eye, a shadow on a sidewalk that a pedestrian found striking, of a worn old sign. It’s a shopper’s haul from the farmers market. It’s that moment when the wheel fell off your skateboard and you held up the pieces and someone took a picture.

People’s interest in other people’s moments is nothing new. People have been experiencing the world through other people’s photographic evidence – hoarding those images even – since at least 1854.

That was the year the carte de visite, a type of small photograph mounted on a thicker card the size of a calling card, was patented in France. The photos featured pictures of places people had visited and, later, famous people. They were traded among friends, dropped in parlor boxes. Cartes de visite were coveted for their exotic images.

“If you traveled, you would have your trading cards from the pyramids,” said Melissa Rackham, who teaches photography at Spokane Falls Community College.

A few decades later, inexpensive cameras called Brownies, first released by Eastman Kodak in 1900, made photography affordable. The snapshot was born – photos could be made more impulsively. “You push the button, we do the rest” was the marketing slogan.

‘The light of day’

What is fairly new is the degree to which our lives are documented. Exoticism is no longer required, nor even a birthday party.

Everyday photographers starting snapping lots more photos as they got their hands on digital cameras and stopped worrying about the cost of film, said Shawn Davis, creative director at Zipline Interactive, a graphic design firm in Spokane that focuses on Web development. But those images often sat unviewed on memory cards or hard drives. Now, because it’s so easy to upload pictures to social media programs, the images have an audience.

“Take that digital, add the social aspect, now they see the light of day,” Davis said.

Add, also, the fact that the cameras built into iPhones and Androids create images that are, as iPhone user Steve Johnson said, as least as good as the bigger point-and-shoot digital cameras he had a few years ago.

“I do use other cameras. The best camera, though, is the one you have with you,” wrote Johnson, a recent Eastern Washington University graduate in his mid-20s who posts several photos a week on Instagram, in an email interview.

The resulting visuals compound every day, said Erik Sohner, who teaches with Rackham at SFCC. He called the subject matter that crowds Instagram the “fine minutiae of life, rather than the major points.”

“I find it fascinating, simply fascinating,” he said. “I don’t have the time in my life to document everything, to blog, to post, to Facebook. I find that in modern culture, that is how you exist. I am, I guess, older than that.”

It’s true that Instagram has been abused, Davis said, “by hipsters taking pictures of their food and girls taking pictures of themselves in their cars.” Other oft-Instagrammed subjects: sandy feet on beaches, the wings of airborne planes and espresso drinks. (A coffee shop in San Francisco got some Internet buzz recently for banning Instagram, although it later retracted the rule via Twitter.)

But a run through a recent batch of Instagram photos labeled #spokane turns up images made from unexpected vantage points, Davis said. Even if the subjects are familiar landmarks, “you can see some really cool perspectives on things that you may not have seen before in your city.”

He pointed to a photo of the steam plant towers downtown taken from somewhere well above sidewalk level, a train crossing a trestle against a setting sun as a series of utility poles is silhouetted in the foreground. A photo of a faded Montvale Hotel sign serves to preserve a part of the city that’s likely to disappear.

“Whether you think the pictures they’re taking are dumb or not, it’s a snapshot of life,” Davis said. “This is a way for us to capture everyday life in town.”

For Chris Barton, 36, that’s the appeal. A project manager who lives in Spokane, Barton said he uses Twitter to follow news and Facebook to stay up to date with his friends. He uses Instagram to see the world. He follows people in Portugal, Spain and England. “It’s really fascinating to be able to get a peek into other people’s lives,” Barton said.

The woman in Gloucester, England, posted a photo of a picnic at which the cookout equipment comprised a pie tin and a small burner. “I told her, ‘If that’s really how you barbecue, I cannot come to your country,’ ” Barton said. His comment led to a discussion about government surveillance of citizens in the United Kingdom; it turned out the woman was barbecuing against the rules, and her small apparatus was an attempt to avoid being caught.

Kate Peterson compared #spokane photos and pictures from San Marcos, Texas, before choosing where to move from New Jersey for graduate school. She chose Spokane, where she’s studying poetry. “Usually I see a lot of nature and scenery photos here in Spokane,” she wrote.

Instagram also provides a quick – quicker than Facebook – way to keep track of friends. Rackham said she’s a “bit of a junkie,” checking Instagram throughout the day.

“I feel like I’m in a community of artists,” she said. “I moved here from Memphis four years ago, and I left all my grad school friends. They’re scattered throughout Europe and the East Coast, some in the South. … I communicate with this visual expression – I see what’s happening with them, they see what’s happening with me, and we move on.”

‘Expression for the masses’

Junkiehood has its downside, though. The need to constantly document can seem almost compulsive.

Ira Gardner, a photographer who also teaches at SFCC, says people are trained to be that way. He pointed to a TV ad released this summer for Google’s Nexus 7 tablet. The tablet is crucial equipment during the father-son camping trip documented in the ad. It helps them identify an amphibian, lights the way during an evening walk, serves as a compass.

The commercial strives to train consumers – they can’t unplug, they have to take their media even to the woods, Gardner said. Consumers are bombarded with the message, he said, “ ‘You’re not living unless you’re photographing. It didn’t happen if you didn’t photograph it.’ ”

“The crazy thing,” Rackham added, “is Kodak was doing that 140 years ago. It’s not new. When Kodak cameras first came out with the Brownie they were advertising to the dads on the camping trips and the moms and the daughters having their mother-daughter tea parties, and it’s the exact same thing.” Still, a photo taken back then “was more of a celebration,” she said. “Now it becomes ‘I need feedback, I need feedback.’ ”

Sohner said that if amateur photographers face criticism, it wouldn’t be the first time.“It’s like when the Brownies came out, and professional photographers pooh-poohed that all over the place, because it brought photography to the masses and here’s a bunch of nincompoops that are gonna be out there taking photographs,” he said. “Professionals should have a higher level of literacy and should be able to communicate at a deeper level, but there’s nothing that says the Instagram can’t be a viable means of expression for the masses.”

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