By Lisa Zeiger
“I look at photographs like one looks up meanings in dictionaries.”—Francis Bacon
I wish, by way of this article about Instagram and what seems to be the ebb of print magazines, to introduce a series of essays about Instagram users in whose accounts I discover striking originality, beauty, and instruction. These pieces on Instagram tastemaker-didacts will appear intermittently between now and the end of 2020, alternating, of course, with whatever subjects relevant to Book and Room I feel a psychic need to write.
Why is Instagram important and where is it going? A bit of history of glossy magazines may explain. Until the late 1990s, the four corners of bound, printed high-circulation magazines expressed the singular, spectacular sensibilities of leading editors and art directors—uncut originals. This audacity of vision, celebrated throughout the twentieth century in figures such as Diana Vreeland, Alexander Lieberman and Alexey Brodovitch, is nowadays homogenized by corporate, celebrity-mad marketing departments. I don’t wish to see another hideous “home”--a cloying word for “house”--of the latest starlet, or “actor” as she now styles herself. Fame, no matter how fleeting or irrelevant to design, blights the pricey printed page.
I was raised on novels, but it was the magazines I read in my twenties and thirties—The Tatler, British Vogue, House & Garden, and The World Of Interiors—that formed my visual sensibility with more immediacy than art books or even museums. Magazines presented a vision of the rooms I wanted to create and live in; the clothes I wanted to wear and make my own. If part of my identity was caught up with literature, a different cell sought its expression, more for my own satisfaction than to attract others, in visible, material expressions of a self I had already invented through reading, writing, and speech. My voice needed a vessel, and I learned how to hand-build one from the scintillating visions of magazine art directors and photographers.
My decorative influences as a young woman were most pervasively the rooms curated in glossy publications from the late 1970s until about 1990. I collected every issue of House & Garden and The World Of Interiors, hauling them across continents. They incited me to orchestrate in rooms the old things I found in flea markets and antiques shops, inexpensive echoes of objects I saw in museums and historic houses. Magazines not only educated my eye, but provided compelling examples of how to live with objects I loved, long before I began formal studies of their history and qualities, first at Sotheby’s London in 1987 then at the University of Glasgow/Christie’s in 1988.
From 1981 to 1987, House & Garden was a monthly distillation of Editor-in-Chief Lou Oliver Gropp’s unerring eye. Then-newcomer from British publishing, Anna Wintour would replace Gropp at House & Garden in March 1987, her stint lasting a year. Her baleful contributions to the magazine were to rename it HG, a dumbed-down “branding” I would always detest, and to reformat its oblong shape into an ungainly squarish book. Under Gropp, I had luxuriated in the houses and apartments of House & Garden, all different, yet all over-the-top splendid: the London home of John Stefanidis, Frank Lloyd Wright’s compound at Taliesin West, the Wrightsmans’ private rooms in Palm Beach, Adnan Khashoggi’s Manhattan duplex designed by Alessandro Pianon, and even real palaces, as in the Queen Mother’s Clarence House. House & Garden’s articles were by famous writers of wide cultural ambit, including Rosamond Bernier, Martin Filler, John Richardson, Hugh Honor, Steven M.L. Aronson, and Alexander Cockburn, among others. The photography was consummate: Oberto Gili, Karen Radkai, Tim Street-Porter, Horst, Evelyn Hofer, Sheila Metzner and François Halard.
Then, in 1981, a new apotheosis stepped up the decorating game: Britain's The World of Interiors, tenured for twenty years by the divine eccentric, Min Hogg, R.I.P.; edited since 2000 by Rupert Thomas. During my misbegotten law school years, I spent stolen hours studying back issues of WOI at Columbia’s Avery Art Library. (The rest of my legal career unraveled playing hooky at home, where I read all of Iris Murdoch, Graham Greene and Muriel Spark in bed, with a blue Le Creuset vat of Bullshot--beef bouillon, vodka and lime juice-- simmering on the stove from early morning till midnight, when I watched reruns of The Mary Tyler Moore Show.)
Today it is not starched print magazines but go-with-the-flow Instagram which offers a mass audience entree into unsuspected, even remote quarters of aesthetic experience, now tendered by millions of participants, many of them, in effect, independent curators, some, of startling visual and historical perspicacity. Instagram creates spontaneous communities and conversations among people who share passions of every sort: from politics to literature; city to country; design to fine art; opera to hip-hop.
Instagram ‘s figure in the carpet is the golden, obsolete thread of civility, of elective affinities rather than illiterate brawls fomented online. I have formed remote yet loyal alliances with people I consider especially talented, writing about two of them—photographer Courtney Marie Musick Harvey and painter David D. Oquendo—in Book and Room last year. A third artist, Belgian sculptor Florian Tomballe, will be featured in mid-October.
I have met numerous other artists in person, commencing unexpected literary and artistic colloquy, especially in the rising culture of my adopted home city, Newark. I also correspond with people as far away as Libya and Tokyo. We all speak the lingua franca of beauty, finding and sharing it in a world still wide enough for friendship as opposed to the strangling net of commerce.
Unlike the brass knuckles of Twitter or the trifling of Facebook, Instagram attracts people serious about intellectual and creative matters outside the cul-de-sac of political rage or personal gossip. It coaxes forth our better selves: the selves who live in wonder at the built and natural world, putting aside ire if not conviction. At its best, Instagram is middleman to the marriage, or, more accurately, the polygamy of true minds. The associations it makes possible—anchored in sharing variegated, subjective experiences of culture—are pyramidal, but they are not Ponzi schemes. If you are discerning you will find like-minded comrades with fresh knowledge to add to your own.
On Instagram, glamour and the gutter seduce and sate me, the casually captured inner city street as compelling as the formal presentation of a palace. From one’s cell-phone one may make a thousand expeditions into the cities of Asia, Africa, the Americas and Europe, gazing upon great artists through hashtags—#charlesrenniemackintosh, for example—or via museums, auction houses, dealers, curators, critics, editors, and art historians who post their private, rarefied obsessions. In my cellphone wanderings I have found new minds and eyes, frequently among passionate amateurs in the old, original sense of the word: “lover of,” a person who pursues an activity or field of study--often with great expertise--independently from earning income or “monetizing” their pleasures, to use yet another horrid neologism.
For the past year and a half I have sifted tirelessly through images for over two hours a day, at one point following almost 3,400 Instagram accounts, and saving some 20,000 images I found important. At first I tried to organize them into three rubrics: Rooms, Beds, and Women, but my collection soon reverted to a free-for-all. My most abiding preoccupation is still with interiors, furniture, and works of design and decorative art, to which I’ve added a new fascination with photographs, mostly portraits, whether fashion-driven or from the boondocks. Both kinds mesmerize.
I am unsure of how to categorize the online activities of my Instagram familiars: collector, curator, editor, educator, archivist, art director? Whatever momentary role these participants assume, it is as creators, not organizers, that they preside. If the images they choose are freighted with information and meaning, and are often not their own, it is the beauty beheld and passed on by these individuals that first reels us in, making us willing to learn more. The simple square, scroll, and grid of Instagram are as elemental and susceptible to a brush with genius as a stretched canvas. Sometimes, like the Shroud of Turin, they bear imprints of the miraculous.
NB: The Editor apologizes for the watermark appearing on the right bottom corner of each grid. It will be remedied in due course.