A painter once pointed out to me that my iPhone doesn’t really show millions of colors. Its minuscule pixels produce exactly three — red, green and blue. Anything else is an illusion. I decided to switch off my color display for a while, and when I turned it back on, I was astonished at how tacky and monotone the images looked. Since then I’ve gone back and forth, but the experiment left me especially interested in artists who find ways to make the best of those discreetly repetitive pixels.
Recently, I went looking for examples on Instagram, and I found four photographers and a sculptor who manage to slip work that feels organic and real through the flickering noise of a digital screen. Some do it with palettes that remain recognizable as overall patterns even when the colors themselves are off, others simply by means of that infinitely variable old standby, black and white. These are my current favorites; other New York Times critics will be posting their own every week.
“Almost every photograph I take in the studio or the world,” Rachel Stern, a native New Englander, says, “I also shoot on my phone, both to make a note and to check the composition. It’s almost never a perfect match to the film image, and I take my phone seriously as a camera, so they’re also their own things.” Scrolling down her extensive feed, you’ll encounter Instagram versions of several discrete analog projects, as well as such entertaining one-offs as a portrait of her sister with baby carrots in her nose. But lately Ms. Stern has taken to shooting gable roofs, gravestones, treetops, and fish-clutching birds of prey in a washed-out and gentle black and white that makes me think of charcoal rubbings. Quiet and loosely spiritual, the images are a welcome balm for the time of the pandemic.
Micaiah Carter makes everything curvy. An up-and-coming photographer from Southern California now living in Brooklyn, and contributing to The New York Times, Mr. Carter posts a mix of commercial, editorial and gallery work, but you see the same vibrant curve in all of it. A portrait of the rapper Megan Thee Stallion in a futuristic pale blue background with one knee lifted, about to climb right through your screen, is the most obvious example. But there is also the little boy in the denim matching set, holding aside his blue Power Rangers helmet to gaze past the camera with an expression of sage concern. Something about the way he’s seated emphasizes the billow of his oversize clothing around his little body, so that it’s not their cut you notice so much as the way they move. Even the concrete steps behind him sag a little, like bowstrings, as if to suggest that the precarious energy of human life enlivens the very ground we stand on.
Like most photographers of her generation, the 35-year-old Canadian Sara Cwynar is fluent in digital imagery. Her faux “behind the scenes” shots of portrait subjects on set, or elaborate collages of consumer products mixed with art-historical references, glitter with a seductive alternation of insight and self-consciousness. More to the point for Instagram, though, her feed — which includes a careful sprinkling of candids, selfies, and art works by other people as well as plenty of in-situ shots of her own print work — largely sticks to the distinctive, otherworldly palette she’s developed. It’s an unforgettable mix of rose, red, gold and electric green.
If I were a visual artist, I’d model my social media feed on Simone Leigh’s. She provides steady glimpses of the African diaspora cultures that inform her monumental installations and ceramics, along with images of the work itself, both in progress and in the gallery. There are also art works that inspire her, including a lithe D’mba headdress at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Atsuko Tanaka’s glorious “Electric Dress” (1956); moments of political outrage and advocacy; and the occasional family photo. Recently those influences have included powerful video clips of the poets Victoria Santa Cruz and Sonia Sanchez, or a photo of a 1927 meeting of African-American women in Chicago. It’s as if she’s found a way to make visible the aura of memories, allusions, and impressions that hang around her sculpture — or, to put it another way, she’s giving an open-ended artist’s talk you can drop into whenever you want.