Office Romance

by Gus Donohoo

And I Don’t Need 37 Pieces of Flair to do It
“I’m a natural candidate for the hyper, speeded-up, adrenaline-pumping Instagram phenomenon.”

For Kathy Ryan, Director of Photography for The New York Times Magazine, things never drag: “My life, by definition, is in overdrive.” Yet in her still moments she steps sideways from the beehive bustle of a major newsroom and captures iPhone glimpses of her “muse,” Renzo Piano’s New York Times Building. “I am drunk in love with it,” Ryan says.

“It’s the quality of light,” she continues. “I come in on the weekends so I can wander around without the distractions.” Ryan’s dalliance is not the usual office affair—there are no awkward arrangements over post-work drinks, no heavy petting at the Christmas party (and certainly no pressed-hams against the photo-copier)—it’s an affection for a shared space, a lover’s tribute to a structure that emerges from the New York skyline like an obelisk, with an effervescent quality that is born from the white ceramic rods that sheathe it.

It is this architectural scabbard that has enchanted Ryan. Shapes shift and dissolve in her images, interceding between the vast metropolis and the plays of light and shadow which “change according to the day, according to the hour, according to the season—and they’re fleeting, so if you spot them, the heart pumps a bit faster because I know it’s just a matter of minutes before they’re gone.”

Her tool for sharing these captured instants? Instagram—a technology that is transforming the face of art. Ryan’s book Office Romance—a published collection of her Instagram photos taken inside the New York Times Building, which will see release via Aperture in Octoberis a testament to this reshaping. It’s a remarkable indication of the pluripotent nature of the medium that Ryan—a senior figure in the established world of print photography—has so wholly embraced this highly decentralized, ubiquitous photo technology.

“Instagram has managed to change the photo viewer’s experience,” Ryan says. “Instead of having to open a magazine, go into a gallery, [or] look in a book, you just look at this thing in your pocket and can see images as fast as people are posting them.” The art gallery follows you anywhere with a phone signal, and that gallery also serves as a camera and a darkroom.

In 1936, Walter Benjamin—the maestro of obtuse impenetrability—penned his thesis that the mechanization of the modern world would dissolve and deface the value of art, since, if everyone can own a Mona Lisa tea towel, what then is the value of da Vinci’s original? His dire prophecy perhaps came closest to finding its realization in the Pop Art wave of the 1960s when Warhol and his contemporaries stormed the beachhead with mass production, low effort, infinitely reproducible works.

Whatever truth there was in Benjamin’s thesis, it seems that the mechanization that was contemplated wildly underestimated the exponential power of technology and the human love of light and space, and “Instant visual exchange from like-minded people,” according to Ryan.

Ryan’s work is anchored to the building she loves (“It’s a memoiristic body of work I’ve been doing. It’s my life.”), but the nature of Instagram—allowing users to rapidly collate and share a visual diary of the events of their lives—creates a platform for the building’s interior that’s entirely disconnected from the foundation of Renzo’s architecture. And while numerous major artists have embraced the technology, those that haven’t still become captured and recaptured and possessed and repossessed by Instagram users, who share these flickers of inspiration. Because of this, the ownership of both the images and the works portrayed has shifted. Willing or unwilling, we’re all participants in that elusive cloud.

Despite this, counter to Benjamin’s prediction, the value of the original has not become lost, rather it is the currency that is transformed—and the publishing of Office Romance is a testament to this. Money and possession were always dubious qualifiers for defining artistic merit. Instagram glorifies the personal response: it creates art, it transmits art, it critiques art, it distributes the ownership. It heralds a new intimacy with aesthetics that is a further step from the privilege to which high culture was for so long wedded.

Welcome to the new romance.

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