The museum was technically closed, and it would be another hour before the doors opened to the public.
But at 9 a.m. on a Sunday morning, the top floor of Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art was bustling with 20 or so photographers, all fiddling with cameras or smartphones. Clustered in small groups, they worked their way slowly through the museum’s exhibit “Nari Ward: Sun Splashed,” aiming their lenses at various pieces and filling the space with the chatter of their craft.
“I just can’t get my settings right.” “I’ve got to put my other lens on.” “I really love black-and-whites.”
There was a time when photography was generally viewed as a solo pursuit, like reading or writing. But that was before the rise of the so-called Instameet, where users of the popular photo-sharing app Instagram gather to photograph together in an intriguing setting — turning a typically solitary endeavor into a team sport.
“People enjoy feeding off of other people’s creativity,” says Jeff Kelley, founder of the Western Massachusetts Instagram group @IGers413. “There’s a different dynamic when you’re in a group. You can see what people do, how they shoot, what they’re using.”
As some grumble that our addiction to social media has made us, paradoxically, less social, the Instameet stands as a notable exception, that rare digital movement aimed at fostering actual face-to-face connections.
These days, you’d be hard-pressed to find a major city without a group that hosts regular meet-ups.
Instagram itself holds a Worldwide Instameet, selecting a theme and encouraging users to get together in real life on specific days to put their personal spin on things.
“YouTube and the Internet and all these social media [platforms] have allowed these new venues of education, so that people can learn these things very fast, on their own, and at their own speed,” says Stephen Sedman, president of the Professional Photographers Association of Massachusetts. “Then they want to get together to practice what they’ve learned, because there’s nothing like doing it in real life.”
Interest has been particularly strong around New England, which supports, by some estimates, more than a dozen different Instagram groups.
The group @IGersBoston, which hosted the recent ICA event, is the largest, boasting an online following of nearly 90,000 and drawing as many as 250 people to meet-ups. But they’re far from the only group out there.
Many have a specific focus. @PortraitMeet, for instance, focuses on portrait photography. @FollowingBoston highlights the work of individual Instagram photographers through a complementary documentary film series.
So robust has the community become that dedicated photogs can pack three Instameets into a single weekend.
For many of the participants, joining forces is an easy choice. In addition to the collaborative benefits — the sharing of tips, tricks, and equipment — affiliation with a group can also open doors, sometimes literally.
In the five years since forming IGersBoston, for instance, Javier Mejia has negotiated special group access to the Museum of Fine Arts and Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, among other locations. Further west, Kelley’s group has congregated at an abandoned theater in Holyoke and the Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary in Easthampton.
At the moment, Kelley adds, “we’re trying to coordinate with the owner of a yo-yo business.”
It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement. While photographers gain access to interesting spaces, images from the events —
It has also led to the formation of a surprisingly tight-knit community.
In Boston, for instance, group members have grown so close that they know when fellow members get promotions at work or when each others’ kids have upcoming birthdays. Some have even helped land jobs or internships for fellow members.
“I’d say a lot of these folks are some of my closest friends now,” says Erin Defuria, 37, of Winthrop, who attended the recent IGersBoston event at the ICA. “I’m just constantly hanging out with them.”
Others get together for smaller, less formal meet-ups.
Not long ago, Sue Flaherty and Oscar Alvarez were part of a seven-person group that left Boston at 4:30 in the morning with their cameras, making the two-hour drive to Portland, Maine.
The purpose of the trip?
“We literally went just to [capture] the sunrise,” says Alvarez.
And while there remain plenty who prefer to venture forth alone, a growing number enjoy getting out into the world in packs.
This was evident enough during the recent Sunday morning at the ICA.
For an hour or so, the photographers had the run of the fourth floor. Some lugged hefty camera bags (while many Instagram users take photos with their smartphones, some do so with actual cameras, then transfer them to the app). Some experimented with props.
Others, throughout the course of the morning, would serve as models for their fellow photographers, posing in front of windows or particularly interesting pieces of art.
When their time was up, they gathered for a photo in front of a wall-length exhibit, then said their goodbyes — though, for some, it would be a brief separation.
In just a few hours, at the Public Garden, another Instameet would be starting.Dugan Arnett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @duganarnett.