Instagram’s most popular posts are awful garbage, but that’s not a good reason to condemn the service

If you think Instagram sucks, it's probably your own fault.

Instagram is currently in the midst of celebrating an anniversary. In just a few years, it has gone from a fledgeling startup app to one of the most prominent forces in the mainstream photography world.

As an ode to the service, several blogs have been posting the most popular images uploaded over the course of the company's history. In short: all the most popular photos are poppy celebrity garbage, that use the Andy Warhol principle of photography in which the best photos are "in focus and of a famous person doing something unfamous."

Using that information, it’s easy to see a picture of Justin Bieber and Will Smith staring dead-eyed into a smartphone camera racking up millions of likes and say, “Instagram is stupid.” If that’s how you’re going to use Instagram, then you’re right, it’s stupid. But, there’s a lot more to be found on Instagram and if you’re letting the trite celebrity nonsense get in the way of it, that’s on you.

A few months back, Instagram made some rather significant changes to the way the Explore tab works in the app. Previously, accidentally clicking into that tab was painful. It was populated with just a few images, most of which would inevitably fulfill the dreaded Instagram cliches, like photos of coffee or a selfie taken by a doe-eyed teen who “woke up like this.”

Now, the Explore tab is much more robust. Of course, there’s still plenty of cliche nonsense to be found, but it’s also much easier to stumble across someone who is actually talented when it comes to making pictures.

I recently came across the whimsical diptychs of Stephen McMennamy, which are carefully crafted and clever.

Thanks for the shot @este57 @fotocarenyc don't worry we were holding on @saks

A photo posted by Mark Mann (@markmannphoto) on

Commercial shooter Mark Mann uses his Instagram account to post behind-the-scenes photos from high-profile magazine shoots, which can be extremely interesting. Sometimes you get a peek into the life of a high-end professional photographer, and if you’re a nerd like I am, you also sometimes get to see the lighting setups they’re working with.

Some photographers use Instagram to share entire projects, like David Guttenfelder’s artifacts from North Korea which I find completely fascinating. Others use an Instagram to represent a giant organization like NASA, which posts awesome space photos at regular intervals.

This list could go on for a long time, but the simplified point is that there are lots of creative people doing very interesting things with images on Instagram. When it comes to all the cultural flotsam, that’s just a byproduct of Instagram’s massive scale. That’s what a huge portion of the population is looking for. It’s the same way you’re likely to find endless copies of 50 Shades of Grey at the front of the book store. You’re not going to walk in the door, see that display and declare that “books are baloney.” You’re going to walk in (or click in, if you’re buying your books on the internet like everyone else) and find the stuff that you think is worth looking at.

Of course, there’s a discussion to be had about how Instagram’s “fast food-style” image consumption is changing the way we experience photography, but the much more common criticisms are based on the cloying filters and the piles of vapid teen nonsense and disregard the fact that it can be a fantastic tool for both marketing and artistic expression for image makers that might otherwise go completely unnoticed. News agencies regularly find first images on Instagram now, and sometimes photographers even get their break, like Devin Allen who ended up on the cover of Time Magazine for his shots of the Baltimore riots earlier this year.

So, while Instagram is absolutely not without its issues, to write it off wholesale is a mistake, even if the majority of its content is visual chum. There are strong undercurrents of photographic talent that are worth searching for. And chances are, once you find them, you’ll start to see more great images and fewer Kardashians.