Pierfrancesco Celada, Instagrampier

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by Muddyisland Books/self (here). Softcover, 136 pages, with 76 color photographs. Includes 8 pages of thumbnails, and 1 spread of stickers. There is a short text by the artist near the back of the book. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: In the not too distant future, it seems likely that we will start to see scholarly exhibitions and PhD dissertations that take on the question of how Instagram has changed the aesthetics of contemporary vernacular photography. While the original smartphone selfie transformed the nature of self-portraiture, the careful curating of an Instagram persona has similarly changed the kinds of pictures many of us share with others. Instead of casually posting whatever pictures might be at hand, Instagram has spawned a culture of meticulous control, where the crafting of a semi-permanent visual identity is taken very seriously. For some, each picture is an opportunity to show off the perfect friends and family, the right clothes, the right stuff, the right vacations, and any other trappings of obvious happiness, success, or achievement that might contribute to a certain kind of persona. It’s a public performance of how we want to be represented (rather than who we actually are), built via the methodical accumulation of not-so-random snapshots.

We’ve long known that when tourists visit a major attraction, like the Eiffel Tower or the Grand Canyon, they tend to make very similar photographs as keepsakes – they stand in the same spots, make the same poses, and come home with essentially the same pictures as many of the people who visited that same place the day before and the day after. In the Instagram age, this tendency toward convergence has been significantly amplified. Scenic spots and cool places are now known as Instagrammable locations, and visitors go there to recreate poses made by those whose pictures they have seen. Favorite poses are copied (standing back to camera, or jumping and smiling, or making hand signs, or whatever) and repeated again and again by those that follow, as proof of not only being there but of knowing how to make the right picture.

Pierfrancesco Celada’s photobook Instagrampier is a single location case study of this 21st century phenomenon. Celada’s ostensible subject is the Western District Public Cargo Working Area, a public marine dock in Hong Kong’s Kennedy Town, on the western side of the island, but he’s mostly interested in the photography that takes place there. And while at first glance, such a mundane spot might not seem enticing, the pier has a wide concrete area (like a boardwalk) that faces out directly on the harbor and the city skyline beyond, making it a perfect spot for a portrait with a dramatic background. And as a public dock, the area is also littered with cargo containers, wooden pallets, cranes, and other practical shipping gear, as well as packed materials awaiting transit (like bricks, blocks, and bamboo poles), which can similarly used as a backdrop for picture making. The spot has become so popular with Instagrammers that it has its own informal name – the Instagram Pier.

The visual trope of photographs of people making photographs has been explored by many artists (notably Martin Parr), so Celada isn’t showing us something we haven’t seen before. What’s different here is the in-depth study of photographic behavior at a single location, and the variations and patterns that can be observed by comparing a seemingly endless stream of visitors looking for versions of the same thing. In many ways, the compositional options at the pier are decently limited, forcing personalized creativity into a narrow band of improvisation: pose with the water and city in the background, use the one set of curved handrails down to the water or the few posts for tying ships to the pier as props, or turn back toward the street lights (with black and yellow striped concrete bases) and the stuff gathered on the pier itself and include them in some unexpected way, perhaps with a lucky cargo ship or high speed ferry passing by in the distance. So in a sense, everyone at the pier is constrained not only by the setting, but by the history of images that have already been made and shared.

Celada’s photographs of the pier-based playacting similarly fall into groups: isolated photographs the subjects, isolated photographs of the photographers (both amateur and seemingly professional) at work, broader shots of both photographer and subject together as a discrete unit, and still wider layered views of the pier where several separate photographic activities are happening simultaneously. In the wide open setting of the pier, all the made-for-the-camera strutting, posing, and trick making seems altogether odd. The people in the pictures make strange faces, gather in tight groups and flash peace signs, lie on the ground, jump in the air, hang over the edge, run along the pier, climb on the containers, and generally vamp wherever and however they can, and Celada’s bystander photographs create a layer of distance between these antics and our voyeurism, making the behaviors feel even more mannered and unnatural.

Celada’s images of the photographers re-center us on the hard work it takes to actually create Instagram-ready photographs. The amateurs hold their selfie sticks, pose for their own smartphones, set up timers on tiny tripods, or gamely try to help their friends get the perfect shot. The professionals are working on an entirely different level, squatting, lying, and kneeling to get the best possible vantage point, and with the help of assistants holding long booms and fill lights, trying to control the visual elements they can while directing their clients. Many of Celada’s images of the photographers capture the inherent boredom of such assignments, where all the client wants is exactly what has been done a hundred times already.

When Celada steps back further to capture entire scenes of photographers and subjects in the same frame, his pictures edge toward the eerie almost reality of Jeff Wall’s staged setups. The best of these capture two of three photographers working with a single sitter or a couple, each with his or her own action and expression. And when several of these groups cluster together, all trying to get the same shot, the layering gets almost manic.

The wedding shots are perhaps the most perplexing, as they introduce brides in long flowing dresses and grooms in dapper suits to the otherwise gritty pier. Smiling couples run hand in hand, assistants wrangle unruly veils, couples pose atop cranes or inside tunnels of wooden pallets, all under the close direction and supervision of a team of photographers. In one memorable image, an entire wedding party (of some twenty people) clambers atop a shipping crane, the groomsmen in vests and the bridesmaids in pink tulle; what’s even odder is a group of three seeming strangers who have joined the picture at the left side, almost like they are photobombing the whole scenario.

In another gloriously strange image, one couple in a tuxedo and a polka-dotted red dress perch atop the massive pile of bamboo poles, looking off into the sunset with dramatic seriousness, while just nearby (and surely out of their frame) another man stands on the bamboo poles while his friend (or son?) struggles to lift his own camera high enough to get just the right perspective. Many of these pictures have a quiet comedy to them, Celada’s behind-the-scenes images exposing the absurdity of the whole enterprise. When three or more different hair flips, duck faces, and gymnastic moves cluster in one frame, along with various others checking their cameras and phones, it’s hard not to chuckle.

As a photobook, Instagrampier has its own clever design and construction details. The image on the cover, of an embracing couple, each looking over the shoulder of the other at their own phones, is surrounded by a cloud of heart eyes emojis, the invisible online echo chamber already liking their posts. Inside, the endpapers are doubled, one showing the empty pier with a lone camera left behind, the other offering a Google Maps diagram of the location of the pier. Celada’s images are generally surrounded by plenty of white space, encouraging us to digest each one slowly, instead of scrolling through them without stopping. And near the end of the book, a collection of thumbnail images show how different people have used the yellow and black striped concrete bases of the street lamps as places for posing. The book ends with a page of stickers, that we could conceivably use to adorn our favorites inside (like the graphic add-ons found in Instagram) – the idea of potentially adding even more photographers and posers to the already crowded pictures via these stickers is wonderfully inspired.

If we take Instagrampier entirely seriously, it is a thoughtful sociological study of how images are being crafted specifically for Instagram identity-creation; and if we don’t, it’s a sharp caricature of overtly ridiculous 21st century Internet-driven behavior. Of course, it’s both, and that back-and-forth tension makes the photobook memorable. What lingers for me is the sense of endearing aspiration that infuses so many of Celada’s subjects and their efforts to capture the perfect image – I think it taps into our very human desire to be seen, accepted, and appreciated. While we may fully acknowledge the folly that drives this often bizarre-looking picture-making, it’s hard not to root for these folks to somehow get the amazing picture they dreamed of.

Collector’s POV: Pierfrancesco Celada does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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