Some time in between the post-baby belfie heard round the world and the most important Vogue cover ever, Kim Kardashian started adding white borders to all of her Instagram photos. It’s a small tweak, but looking at her page as a whole, the consistency closes the gap in some way between the selfies and and the fashion and paparazzi photos she routinely shares on the network. They’re all equally worthy of virtual matting and framing.
This is not earth-shattering news, but where Kim goes, so goes the internet. And her move mirrors a trend I’ve noticed over the past year among the fashion and art types I follow on Instagram. More and more, users are bucking Instagram’s signature square format, adding white borders to preserve the rectangular aspect ratios of cell-phone snaps and film photography alike.
I’m guessing the trend originated with professional and fine-art photographers, and those who promote their work, like Andy Adams, the editor of online-photography blog FlakPhoto. Since the beginning of the year, Adams has been teasing the art featured on his blog on Instagram, using Photoshop to add the white space necessary to render the photographs in their original dimensions. To him, the rise of the white border implies “photographers of all levels” — i.e., those who can make photographs without their cell phones — are “recognizing Instagram as a powerful tool not just for making but for talking about and sharing photographs.”
Apps that retrofit rectangular photographs with white borders — like InstaFit and Squaready — allow photographers to take advantage of Instagram’s audience-building power without cropping and compromising their compositions. But they also allow an amateur to look like the kind of person who won’t modify her lifestyle for Instagram’s tyrannical format (and to stand out in a stream of everyone else's square photographs). For this user, there is already a one-stop app, Afterlight. The popular photo editor allows users to take a photo, add white borders, and send to Instagram with three clicks.
Nylon fashion market director Rachael Wang began using Whitagram, another border-adding app, during the middle of a photogenic weekend in Bellport almost a year ago, on the recommendation of a friend (a photographer, she now guesses) whose rectangular grams she had admired. “I guess at a certain point (this probably coincides with my overall normcore lifestyle evolution), I decided that I wanted my pictures to feel more ... well, normal,” she explains. “Mundane even, in a nostalgic way. And the classic rectangular shape of photos seemed to lend itself to that end.”
And it’s not exactly surprising that the rectangular snapshot would suddenly feel nostalgic. Instagram started out with its own retro associations — evoking pre-digital medium formats like Polaroid and Holga, offering users a return to black-and-white and sepia — but their novelty gave way to ubiquity. (More than 20 billion photos have been shared on Instagram, after all.)
If Kim’s square butt selfies were #nofilter, the white-bordered rectangular gram might be anti-filter. The borders quietly signal that the user does not rely on post-production tricks to make her life look good, and her likeness has a lifespan that transcends the social network. (She didn’t just do it for the Instagram.)
I can imagine a moment when the saturated square photograph will appealingly recall the early days of Instagram, but according to Wang, it has yet to arrive. “The rebel in me tried to go back to the OG square format when I noticed that ‘everyone’ was using the white bars,” she says. “Alas, it didn’t look as good.”