A guide to using Instagram for studio artists

Posted on Mar 31, 2014 | 27 Comments

“Who cares?”  This is the question I ask myself all the time. Who cares about the work I do or anybody does? How do we as a craft community share and grow as a field? How do we get others to care about the things we care about? As social media becomes increasingly omnipresent and critical to small businesses, these questions about the relationship between internal passion and external outreach become more pressing and relevant.

sparkler alphabet

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Over the course of the past two years, photography has inched back into my ceramics studio practice through the photo-based social media app, Instagram, where one posts their own images and view those of others from all over the world in real, or almost real, time. It can be a marketing tool for businesses, but more interestingly, an educational one because content can be rich and easily digestible.

The unique tactility of ceramic material and the many steps involved in the process make it easy to show with vivid clarity how beautiful many moments are in making anything out of clay. As a way to promote ceramics and my pots on Instagram, I try and pay particular attention to parts of the process that will never be seen in the final piece. The corkscrew of trimmed clay, the viscous splash of slip, the gear-like shadow of a scalloped plate edge as it rotates on the wheel.

Cup being slipped

The vacuum dunk!

I’ve often advocated for new ways to present pots by taking them out of their staid, uniform backgrounds and into the untidiness of real life. How do we as makers fashion visual stories for our work? How did we present them as the complex objects that they are and imagine the countless contexts that they can and will be put in as independent objects?  As a marketing experiment, I recently posted a single pot daily on Instagram to announce a new listing in my Etsy shop. The surprise was that it worked as a sales tactic, even when the pot wasn’t shot in any kind of straightforward way. In fact, some were hardly visible or were only shadows, but they ostensibly held up as beautiful images that led to people checking the listing. Pushing the idea of pots in real life one step further, in some images I also allowed myself the liberating shift from photographer to art director, something I’d only done in promotional postcards and videos. I used Photoshop liberally to support the concept in an image, not simply adjust exposure. The absurd became a way to garner laughs in an attempt to take the stuffiness out of product shots.

Clover kicking up UPS boxes

Our Chief Packaging Inspector, Clover, shows off her perfect box stacking skills, as she punts boxes into place, in advance of a run to the UPS store. photo: Michael Wilson

 

Like any tool, Instagram can be used poorly, or be a great resource to show technique, life style, objects, aesthetic, and engage about ideas. It’s perfect for those of us with dirty, clay-splattered hands, who have room in our pockets for a smart phone through which to engage the world and share pieces of our lives. I’ve developed a kind of Instagram guide by which I filter content and decide what to post, because it keeps me on track and hopefully the quality of images and content high. We all engage in social media for different reasons, so if you just had a baby or just fell in love, disregard the manifesto. This is geared toward the maker who’s marketing online, so adjust for your own interests and remember that there are exceptions to everything. Although these tenets may seem negative, they’re designed to fight mediocrity, make the experience more effective, and keep today’s identity-obsessed ego in check.

Otter and bird cup in sink

Friends who swim in the sink

THE INSTAGRAM GUIDE
1. The first question is always “what is the value?”  What does this post contribute? There are so many ways to answer this question, but if you don’t have an answer or don’t believe in it, no one else will either. Approach postings from the viewpoint of a total stranger who knows nothing about you now or your past. This emphasizes the need to post interesting content or a compelling picture. Assume that no one cares about the minutiae of your life. Ask “who cares?”, and your gut will tell you.
2. Post from the heart. Same goes for work and don’t anticipate the audience.
3. Share something interesting and educational. This might take a little extra energy in research time, but it’ll be worth it. And unless it’s completely self-explanatory, include a description or more information about what your relationship to the subject is.
4. If you don’t have anything to say, don’t say it at all. Waiting until the right image comes along is better than pushing through a crappy picture to meet a self-imposed deadline. This standard can fluctuate, which is ok, but if you have serious doubts, opt not to post.
5. Try to pace your images. No one is waiting for you to post. And don’t post more than five images a day (though in prolific periods, it’s necessary). 1-3 times a day is ideal.
6. No selfies. If you’re a super model, you’re allowed to post two self-portraits a year, but the rest of us should limit it to one annually (if at all). Unless you’re under twenty-six (supposedly the age of American adulthood), too many selfies comes across as narcissistic. Sometimes it’s nice to see the face behind the postings, but what really counts is substance.
7. Don’t journal unless the image either has a timeless quality or its immediacy is relevant and helpful. Unless it’s breaking news that people might care about or you’re participating in a larger event, the image should hold its own a year from now, not just for the next ten minutes. No one cares about your lunch unless you’re a professional chef or you’re eating bugs.
8. Take time to make your image beautiful. Don’t post grainy, unclear images unless they’re good grainy, unclear images. Personally, I don’t care about iPhone-only shots, I just care about good quality images that don’t have foggy or refracted starbursts from a greasy iPhone lens.
9. Pick the quintessential image. Instead of posting a dozen (or even three) different angles of the same thing, choose the shot that says it all. Keep this tenet in mind when you take the picture in the first place.
10. Pictures should be able to stand alone as beautiful compositions. The exception to this is straight documentation, in which case, say something interesting in the caption.
11. See your Instagram gallery as a whole work of art. Think about the grid and how choosing and sticking with one filter unifies the entire gallery. Think about segues and the flow between pictures left to right and even top to bottom.
12. Post lifestyle pictures when they help others get a better sense of how your world contributes to your art and how they’re intertwined.
13. Post pictures of things that inspire and why. Our aesthetics are much more than the mediums in which we make. Start to make connections between things both for yourself and your audience.
14. Limit family and pet pictures. It’s great to see the friends and family, but we don’t need to see them all the time unless they’re directly relevant to your work. Exceptions include funny pictures and cute ones too (I know, so subjective). There can’t be enough laughter in one day.
15. Let people into your creative decision-making. Sometimes it’s really interesting to crowd source ideas and let people in at that vulnerable stage when you’re trying to make a decision. Of course you don’t have to take their advice.
16. Show moments in the process that you love. Sharing your love of making is the best thing in the world and will translate.
17. Moments of natural wonder never get old. Lens flares are in this year, but might not be next year, so get your perfect angle into the sunset now. Personally, I love seeing pictures of summer from the southern hemisphere during January in the northern hemisphere.
18. Be a part of the community and not a snob.  The fantastic thing about Instagram is that it’s more of a meritocracy than Facebook. Content matters more than who you know. Having someone from half way around the planet let you into their world is a privilege. Yes, you’ll want to curate who you follow to some degree in order to not miss those feeds you love the best, but follow for the sake of their photos alone.
19. Like other people’s pictures liberally. Likes are free and are a great way to support your community. All upside and no downside.
20. Embrace the randomness of Instagram. You never know what you’ll see at any given moment. This allows you to follow a hash tag from anywhere and anyone. It’s the much-needed modern version of flipping through an encyclopedia in the good old analog days.  #heyandhavefun

Please note that this was originally published in the 2014 NCECA Journal and has been modified slightly.