Instagram released its first printed annual this summer – IG1 a full scale bookazine showcasing its global reach and creative push into the new world of advertising and brand building. It features an interview with me by Scott Mowbray – the co-author of my book, “The Unforgettable Photograph”. The interview talks about my ideas around how brands can use Instagram to tell stories and identifies what makes a brand truly special and unique. It gives tips in communicating more intimately and creating photography that feels more like a conversation with a friend. The position as the first Artist in Residence with Creative Shop at Instagram was built around my ideas involving appreciating all of the things in our lives that we often look right past, and creating new ways of sharing on Facebook and Instagram.
GEORGE LANGE started taking pictures in Pittsburgh at the age of 7, with a little Kodak camera. He attended the Rhode Island School of Design, then became an assistant to legendary photographer Annie Leibovitz. In his long career, Lange has photographed Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, as well as movie stars, musicians, fashion designers and choreographers for magazines. He has shot national advertising, marketing and brand campaigns for many companies, including Cardinal Health, IBM, TLC and WhiteWave. Throughout, Lange has made his own life the subject of his personal work, producing intimate photos of family and friends around the world.
Lange now lives in Boulder, Colorado, with his wife, Stephanie, and their two sons, Jackson and Asher.
Here, Lange is interviewed by Scott Mowbray, co-author of his 2013 book, The Unforgettable Photograph: 228 Ideas, Tips, and Secrets for Taking the Best Pictures of Your Life.
SM: Instagram passed 400 million users this year.What do you think that’s about? Not the capital “I” brand, but the phenomenon?
GL: For years when people asked me what the best camera was, I always answered, “The camera you have with you.” But for a lot of people it was a hassle to lug a big SLR around, or remember to grab their point-and-shoot. Smartphones changed all that, and Instagram appeared as this elegantly simple platform for us all to share the power of our images. Now we’re inspired to take the pictures we never took, share ideas we never thought to share—with an audience of more than 400 million.
SM: What kinds of work do you like on Instagram?
GL: I love pictures of supersmall things, of details, which let little things be the story. If you start by telling really small stories, they can become metaphors or anecdotes in ways that are unexpected. I want to learn about things I never knew, to see the world in new ways.
SM: Share some examples of who you follow.
GL: Many of the people I’m following, who blow me away, are not professional photographers. I love my friend Wally Krantz’s feed:@wkrantz. Wally is the creative director of Landor, and every day he inspires me to appreciate the world in new ways.
@kathyryan1 is a gift that the brilliant New York Times Magazine [Director of Photography] Kathy Ryan gives to her followers each day, with an almost giddy love of light. @alancummingsnaps took us backstage when he was doing Cabaret on Broadway—I love that privileged, insider kind of feed. The suspended-in-space body poetry of @rockadeezy is great fun. @local_milk, from the great food blogger Beth Kirby, has the tonal grace of Vermeer—and she’s from Tennessee, where my wife is from.
Then there are community feeds, which are like communal acts of kindness, passion, or witness. I follow @everydayafrica, for example. I have no idea who these people are; it’s just a brilliantly curated feed, with a really clear human message. On a completely different note, I love the @steelers feed because they capture my hometown’s passion for its beloved NFL team
SM: What about trend-and brand-related feeds?
GL: There’s so much opportunity on Instagram for brands to really tell their story. My friends at @onekingslane do an inspired, very well-curated feed that their customers love. I love the cool hunter feed from @hypebeast, which gets me to spend money on new kicks.What’s fascinating is that local brands can gain a global voice on Instagram—two examples from my hometown of Boulder are @alpinemodern and @mountainstandard, both really well produced. @tableonten, from a small restaurant and inn in the Catskills Mountains in NewYork State, is just pure visual poetry of the highest standard, created byJulian Richards.
SM: What is the first question that a brand needs to ask itself when trying to tell its story on Instagram?
GL: How can the brand use this platform not as a billboard but as a discussion between itself and its audience? Instagram allows a very intimate conversation held close, consisting in the moment of just one picture on the screen—the viewing distance is literally from your hand to your eye. Brands have been so wired to tell a story from a very wide angle. Now they have a platform that lets them zoom in.
SM: It can be tricky for a large company, though, to narrow its gaze.
GL: It’s tempting for big companies to go big and flashy. Many brands are often overproducing pictures—as they would for a different platform like television—and then trying to edit down for Instagram. But the problem with overpackaging for social media is that it rarely works. Instagram is one of the most powerful social platforms out there, and it just doesn’t tolerate BS. On the other hand, pictures have to be good. Some companies get an intern or their lowest-level employee to shoot for their feed, just because they think that’s how social media works. I don’t mean those folks can’t have talent, but they have to have talent.
If we’re telling any story to our children, to our partner, we don’t make it complicated. We make it simple and emotional and we want to communicate how passionately we feel about it.When you take all those qualities out of the storytelling and make it too flashy or overproduced, it loses its authenticity. Instagram is there to help humanize it all.
SM: It sounds like you’re telling companies to get in touch with their feelings, maybe hire a visual therapist!
GL: The last time I took my child to the pediatrician, I watched as the doctor put his stethoscope up to my son’s chest to listen to his heart, and it occurred to me that this is what I do with companies. In my career, I have traveled the world photographing for top brands in health care, tech, entertainment and the arts. I am listening for the heartbeat. Sometimes I hear it in the personal stories of employees, as people stream in from parking lots, head to cubicles, desks, distribution centers, factory lines. Many stories I find are extraordinary for being so obvious. I am always trying to find the place where soul meets commerce. I am obsessed with how we are all connected.
SM: It sounds risky.
GL: Powerful human storytelling demands vulnerability. The picture can’t be perfect or overproduced. That’s not to say it can’t be thoughtful and high quality, but I’m very much into things that feel authentic and human and real.
It’s often a question of the difference between how things look superficially and how they’re experienced. Think about light and what light does.When I speak about photography, I tell a story about being at a beach house recently. My son Jackson ran down the stairs saying, “Dad, you have to see the light in my room! The sunset’s on my bed, it’s on my wall, it’s on me!”
Everyone’s taking pictures of sunsets, but not many are really getting at the heart of their own experience. What Jackson did was make that sunset part of his experience.
In a sense, that’s what a brand needs to do: really show us what makes a product or service unique, what makes it something that each of us can experience.
SM: I know that one technique you use is to reverse the polarity on things, to change perspective, to look out rather than look in.
GL: Yes. I take Jackson, who’s 7, to the school bus every day where the parents wave at their kids once they have boarded. The problem is the windows are so heavily tinted that you can’t really see your child unless they are right up against the window in the sun—which is rare. So the last week of school I wondered, What is the experience that these kids are having?
I decided to get on the bus with the kids and see out from their side. It was a very cinematic view of a scene I saw every
day from a completely different angle.
The pictures were emotional in a totally different way, seeing all the parents waving and blowing kisses through the windows. It unveiled a scene I was a part of daily but could never really see.
The next day some of the parents asked if I had actually gotten on the bus. I told them how special it was. They said they wanted to go on but didn’t think they were allowed. I said it’s just three little steps and you’re on the bus. Three little steps and you can see your daily life in a completely different way.
The difference between companies clinging to the wide-angle view or really communicating intimately can be just a few steps.
SM: How can a brand get started?
GL: The process starts with a deep dive into discovering what makes a brand unique at the most human level. At IBM I photographed extraordinary people last summer across the country who work on ideas that are truly changing our world for the better. But a company has to go into the discovery process with a clean slate—forgetting brand-speak for a moment—and allowing what truly makes a company great on a daily basis to shine.
CEOs are often tasked with humanizing their company beyond the earnings reports. I find that their personal stories are often a perfect takeoff ramp for that process.
Basically, companies need to do what we all do on Instagram: share the small moments of their lives, share intimate observations in pictures we have never seen before.
SM: What creative frame of mind is required to get these intimate pictures?
GL: I compare it to what Keith Jarrett, the jazz musician, does when he goes onstage. He completely clears his head of any notion of what he’s going to play. Then he sits behind the piano and just feels it. It can seem crazy to talk about that kind of a process in the corporate world. But for me, there’s no downside to exploring ideas this way.
SM: Is traditional marketing threatened by this less controlled, more emotional way of telling stories in social media?
GL: Maybe, but it’s actually liberating. Agencies are perfectly positioned to take advantage of the opportunities the Instagram platform offers. They already know how to produce great creative and how businesses communicate. When they understand what Instagram offers and start their process there, it can lead to the reinvention of brand storytelling.