Dirt: Insta Als
Portrait of the critic as a 'grammer.
Besides being a Pulitzer-prize winning critic, a New Yorker writer, the author of multiple books, and a curator in his own right, Hilton Als happens to have one of my favorite Instagram accounts.
Sans profile photo, and with only a rare selfie peppered in amongst thousands of squares, Als posts earnestly, frequently, and without the self-consciousness that seems to plague so many of us as we endlessly scroll through the app. He shares pictures of artists, writers, actors, family members, movie stills, New York passageways. They’re accompanied by captions that are alternately electric, kind, or poetically simple. It’s an intellectual oasis in a desert of sponsored ads. His posts get me Googling—people, shows, and references I wouldn’t necessarily find in formal publications.
I’m not alone in appreciating his eye. People have written about Als’ Instagram in Hazlitt and Sleek, unbeknownst to Als himself (he told me he was touched by my interest; twas mutual.) But I wanted to ask him for his own take on the app. We chatted on the phone about his approach to curation, why he sticks to using the ‘gram as a digital archive, and whether he’s on TikTok (Spoiler: he’s not.)
Anna Perling: People have written about your Instagram as a mode of cultural criticism, and a commentary on photography. Do you agree with that take, or do you use the app just for fun?
Hilton Als: Oh wow. That’s beautiful, and probably much more clever than I am. I’ve always loved photography. I was a picture editor for many, many years. I was always supporting photographers, and then I started to do my own photography and I wanted to do it in a way that wasn't employment—I didn't want it to be a job. I wanted it to be something that was diaristic, associative, and that brought pleasure to me, and I hope brought pleasure to other people.
The juxtapositions [of photos] are very important to me because that's where you find meaning. Not so much in formatting in a typical way. I think that meaning happens often when one photograph bumps up against another photograph. It changes the picture, you know. It changes that row of pictures or it changes our idea of what's possible with photography.
I have a Rolleiflex camera and I really enjoy it, but it's heavy. With the camera that I use on the phone, it's even more interesting than point and shoot. You're able to frame in a beautiful way and to play with light in a beautiful way, which is what photography is. And I think that also photographers are people who are interested in memorializing things or who don't want to lose moments or feelings. The whole thing for me is about not wanting to lose touch with the feeling that the image gave me in the first place.
AP: Why did you start to create a digital photo archive, and choose Instagram to do it?
HA: It's probably because I can see it at once. You can see it almost as a kind of magazine that you can make instantaneously, and then you can write something, a caption. It's also sharing things that you love, and archives. Whether it's Barbara Epstein's bookcase, who was one of the co-founders of the New York Review of Books, or it's a picture that I find of my mother, or [being] enamored of Elton John again or Faye Dunaway in Chinatown, or dinner with friends. I want the emotional content to remain high, as high as the visual content.
AP: Do you remember when you started posting?
HA: I don't remember, but I think that it was Thomas Beard who runs Light Industry, which is a beautiful film collective, who recommended it to me as a format. I was always taking pictures and I wasn't really doing much with the pictures, and he was like, There's this thing called Instagram. He was the person that inspired me.
AP: You’ve curated several photography and art exhibits. Do you consider your Instagram a curation?
HP: It's a kind of gallery. It's my own little museum, right? It's super important to me to wake up and have an idea. I'm thinking about certain artists like Robert Rauschenberg, who would use whatever was around. I think photography gives us that kind of freedom, too. We can make a photographic image of anything. And it's really about the eye and what the eye sees as opposed to constructing space. It's a wonderful, flexible space to show things. You don't have to pay any rent on it. There’s no staff.
AP: I learn a lot from what you post—you share a lot about writers and artists, which to me does serve as a magazine-y kind of coverage. It’s a little bit of a who's who in the art world.
HP: Oh yeah, the culture is different now. Things are sort of a known quantity as opposed to being introduced. That’s one of the reasons I love this [Instagram], is that I get to introduce things. I get to introduce ideas or phenomenon that wouldn't necessarily get the attention that they deserve.
AP: When you go out in the world, what's interesting to you these days as a photographer?
HP: I've always been interested in photographing a weird kind of intimacy, occurrences that happen—moments that are beautiful and unremarkable at the same time. I think that the juxtaposition [of Instagram] makes them remarkable because in and of themselves, some of the pictures—or occurrences, I should say—are pretty ordinary. And then when you put it side by side, it goes back to that idea of, how are we placing it, how are you putting it?
AP: It seems like you have a high output on Instagram, whereas I think many people are consuming content in a way that leads them to feel anxious about how they use the platform. Beyond thinking of it as a gallery, do you use Instagram as a way to connect with people, or is it more like your own diary?
HA: Sometimes I'm doing it to give people information about what's happening to me and sometimes I'm doing it just to record in a diaristic way. Sometimes it's to try and be with someone. I don't know who they are, but it's like taking a walk with friends that I don't know. You know Robert Walser, his wonderful way of communicating with people was to communicate with himself. I think it's a way of talking to myself that is much more expansive than talking to myself.
AP: And why is that important to you?
HA: Because I like people, in the end. I think it shows I have a kind of love for my fellow humans. Despite the sometimes awfulness of us, in the world and world of power, I really do believe that there's something good and constructive in us.
AP: I definitely have noticed the spirit of generosity towards people in your captions. You really build people up, and I appreciate that—it isn’t always the case on social media.
HA: Thank you.
AP: I wanted to ask you about new visual platforms, too. Are you on TikTok?
HA: I’m not on any of that stuff. Twitter, nothing.
AP: So why not?
HA: Oh my god. I think that there's so many hours in the day. I just think that I would start feeling crazy. The Instagram is rich and varied enough for me.
AP: Makes sense. Do you follow other people on Instagram whose images you enjoy?
HA: Isn't it awful? I'm so absorbed in my own thing that I only go to other people when people send me stuff. I don't search it, unless somebody sends me something kind of extraordinary.
AP: What’s extraordinary to you?
HA: This whole conversation about Justice Thomas and his wife Ginni, I think that's fascinating. I think that there are also wonderful conversations that happen with people that I've known in magazine world for many years, like Jimmy Paul, he has a wonderful archive. I like that mostly all of it is accidental for me. I come across something that I really very much like and then I'll follow it or send myself a note to look up that person's work or whatever.
AP: I think that approach is more freeing. As I mentioned, I think a lot of people have anxiety about consuming social media and that seems like a healthier way to go about it.
HA: I agree.
AP: I'm glad it's working for you. I’ve noticed that your posts often have a white border like an instant photo. Do you take Polaroids and then use your phone to take pictures of them?
HA: No. Sometimes it's an app, sometimes it's the real thing.
AP: What appeals to you about the framing of a Polaroid?
HA: Oh, it's such a strong frame. It's such a strong way of communicating with people, if you have a particular lovely kind of way of seeing things. The framing device does a kind of edit, it edits a lot of junk out. It's fascinating.
AP: Do you think it offers a kind of constraint as you're looking at stuff?
HA: I like limitations, and I like that I have to think about the tension between the things that I see and the thing that the camera will do.
AP: Do you have any other real-life photography exhibits coming up?
HA:I don't. But if you know anybody who wants one, you can put me in touch.