The Tyranny of Images: Why Instagram and Pinterest Worry Me

This photo has absolutely nothing to do with the topic of this blog post. Which in this case, oddly, is precisely the point.

Today’s news that the mobile photo-sharing platform Instagram has been acquired by Facebook for $1 billion underscores a trend that’s been gnawing at me for the last few months. Mark Zuckerberg clearly understands that images are an increasingly important element in social discourse. So do the founders of the visually oriented Pinterest, which in less than a year has leapt from obscurity to become the third most popular social network on the web.

Why should this worry me? I’m a reasonably visual guy. I’ve been a serious photographer since my childhood, and my years as a magazine editor taught me the importance of balancing words with images.

I guess I fear that the emphasis now being given to the visual is upsetting that balance.  Increasingly, words alone are seen as inadequate or insufficiently appealing. As Joel Friedlander says, explaining why he plunks a large photo into the top of every post on his blog, “it’s a given: blog articles attract more interest with photographs and other images.” Pinterest only intensifies this need for images. In fact, as Tony Hallet pointed out last month, if a blog post has no images, it essentially doesn’t exist in Pinterest’s eyes.

Knowing this, any blogger that wants to be read will find an image to go with the words. That’s great when an image enhances or reinforces the meaning of the words. But all too often it doesn’t. Finding a picture that explains an abstract concept is difficult, especially if you limit yourself to images you have a clear-cut right to use. As a result, bloggers frequently face this choice: go without an image, or settle for one that looks good but has little to do with your topic.  Increasingly, they will have no reasonable option but the latter. It’s the tyranny of the image.

I agree, as Tony Hallet says, that “it’s arguably the photographer, the illustrator, the graphic designer, maybe even the infographic creator who will hold the key to much of what lies ahead.” It’s another question, though, whether the key opens the right door.

Desktop Saturday

Mesquite Dunes, Death Valley, January 2012

Mesquite Dunes, Death Valley, CA

I don’t claim to be much good at photography, but it’s one of my more diverting hobbies. Last month whilst in Death Valley on holiday, I crawled out of bed well before dawn in order to catch sunrise at the Mesquite Dunes.

I was not alone.

In fact, there were so many other photographers there, that it was a challenge to frame any shot without one in it. (And we were all cursing the tall young man who was determined to watch the sunrise from the peak of the tallest and most picturesque dune.)

I wasn’t thrilled with any of the photos I took, despite the best efforts of my trusty, if graying, Nikon D70. But this week, as I played around in Aperture, I realized that this one shot, while not particularly distinguished, makes a nice desktop background. So I offer it here for your use as such.