A director’s fix

Before Instagram, Kathy Ryan, director of photography at The New York Times Magazine, rarely took any pictures. But the discovery of the social platform changed that – so much so, that she even curated Aperture’s first Instagram Silent Auction last year. She tells FLTR about the impact smartphone photography has had on contemporary photographic culture

Gemma Padley — 7 February 2014

Photographer Sarah Eckinger in The New York Times building, 19 July 2013 © Kathy Ryan"It's not a square table but..." 02 October 2013 © Kathy RyanIrene Alison, from Rome, doing an interview about cell phone photography for her upcoming book to be published by Postcart. 05 September 2013 © Kathy RyanIn The New York Times building, 15 August 2013 © Kathy RyanStacey Baker in The New York Times building © Kathy RyanMorning in The New York Times building, 30 September 2013 © Kathy RyanIn The New York Times building, 01 October 2013 © Kathy RyanStacey Baker takes a photo of Associated Press photographer David Guttenfelder on 40th Street in New York © Kathy Ryan

“I fell madly in love with Instagram,” says Kathy Ryan, director of photography at The New York Times Magazine. “I post all the time. Other people need to get their caffeine fix, I need my Instagram fix.”

Barely taking any pictures at all before she discovered the image-sharing site in October 2012, Ryan is now hooked. “Instagram had a huge impact on me – it’s the reason why I take pictures,” she says. “I did a bit of behind-the-scenes photography on shoots before, and of my family, but that was really it. Instagram opened doors and I just started making pictures. The vast majority of what I post are pictures of life at The New York Times,” she adds. “I take pictures first thing in the morning on the eastern side of the building when the light hits my desk, and then late in the afternoon on the western side.”

Instagram has not only had a profound effect on Ryan’s personal photography, it has also become an important tool in her day-to-day job as director of photography. “I use Instagram in three ways: as a creative outlet, to promote the magazine, and as a research tool – to find people’s work,” she says. “I’ve discovered photographers on Instagram. I stumbled across the work of stuntman Mike Escamilla, who has an incredible eye and is regularly doing these crazy stunts. His images are wonderful, so I got him to do a shoot for us; he was a pure Instagram discovery. It’s also a good promotional tool. If we have something very special coming up in the magazine, I’ll post [a behind-the-scenes picture] on Instagram as it’s a useful way to call people’s attention to what we’re doing. It’s like a visual tweet.”

In addition to posting images on her own Instagram page, Ryan contributes to The 6th Floor, the magazine’s blog. “For me, it’s about celebrating the romance of office life, recording all the beautiful things I see, since my office is where I spend so much of my time. Instagram is the perfect media to capture moments where there is a glint of light that illuminates something ordinary, suddenly making it extraordinarily beautiful.”

Broader Audience

And with some 40,000 followers on Instagram, and a ferocious enthusiasm for taking images with her smartphone, Ryan was the obvious person to curate Aperture’s Silent Instagram Auction, run in October 2013 by the Aperture Foundation, a not-for-profit entity that publishes photography books and organises educational programmes. “Chris [Boot, executive director at Aperture] and I were at lunch one day and he told me about an idea he had – to do an auction of Instagram images. He asked if I wanted to curate it and I agreed. It was something different, and it seemed like it might be a lot of fun.”

The auction’s curators asked a select group of professional photographers to submit an image taken on their smartphone, which was then uploaded to Artspace, a digital platform for selling and buying works of art. Using Artspace, anyone could place silent bids on the different photographs on offer. Featuring more than 80 Instagram images taken by a range of documentary and art photographers, including the highly respected Stephen Shore, as well as newcomers Alex Prager and Cristina de Middel, whose images have been among the most shared online this past year, among many others, the auction culminated in the 1/1 Benefit – a lavish evening of music and art at media company IAC’s New York headquarters, where the Instagram images were displayed on the walls. “We wanted to freshen up this kind of photography auction and to reach a broader audience, so we came up with the Instagram idea, which is really easy for photographers to do and a lot of fun,” says Boot. “The auction was very much shaped by the people Kathy has contact with on Instagram, and other people we’ve worked with who we suggested to her. It was a great part of the evening and created a lot of interest.”

The curatorial process was collaborative, explains Ryan, but pretty loose. “The initial idea was for people to create an original image, which Aperture would post online the week of the auction,” she says. Most were cellphone pictures made especially for the auction, although there were a couple of exceptions, where photographers submitted an earlier image rather than one taken specifically for the auction. “It was great to see a series of beautifully presented square images on the wall,” she adds. “The work was a real mix – from very famous artists to people who are just emerging or not known; and all of it was selling. There was something so inviting and engaging about the whole event.”

Ryan notes that some of the night’s most sought images were by rising stars of the art world, including Alex Prager and Cristina de Middel. “Alex made a beautiful image – a grid of super close-ups of her eye, which references a body of work she did called Compulsion.” The initial bid for that image was really high because it was one of the most striking ones in the show.

“Cristina also submitted a beautiful image – swans reflected in the water against a black sky. I would have bid on it and Alex’s image, but the bidding went right out of my range.”

The Joy of Instagram

Commenting more widely on Instagram’s popular appeal, Ryan believes it is the immediacy of the platform that is behind its phenomenal success. “It is a very immediate way of recording and communicating your surroundings,” she says. “You can make a picture very quickly, and it’s great because you want to post it as soon as you can after you’ve taken it. One of the joys of Instagram is that a bunch of people embrace it who aren’t necessarily photographers in their day jobs but who have a wonderful eye.”

Overall, Ryan believes Instagram has had a positive effect on photography, and that it has an important role to play in the future of photography. “Instagram is not replacing anything. If a photographer only believes in making beautifully crafted images on a 4×5 camera, that’s fine; but if somebody likes the idea of seeing something and capturing it quickly, cellphones and Instagram, with its wonderful filters, have made this possible. It’s a wonderful addition to what we had to work with,” she adds. “I’m not talking about the people who take pictures of what they eat, or of themselves at parties; there are lots of people who are using it to make meaningful images, which are interesting and provocative on a purely visual basis.”

Boot believes Instagram plays an important role in contemporary photographic culture. “Instagram is part of the ecology of the photography world, alongside other online visual media,” he says. “It’s certainly part of the photography landscape at this time. At Aperture, Instagram is part of our approach to social media, and I imagine it will be an ongoing part of what we do – we may even do a similar auction again in the future as it worked so well and was so much fun.”

You can follow Kathy Ryan on Instagram @kathyryan1.

This interview was first published in December 2013 in FLTR, the first smartphone photography magazine designed for the iPhone. Download the app now and benefit from a 30-day free subscription trial.