Rediscovering Instagram

After years of self-exile, one IGer readopted the platform, honed his style, got focused and propelled an unlikely career


Rising Instagram star Cory Maryott has followers in the double-digit thousands but he wasn’t always so visible or so admired. Here’s what he has to say to Polarr about returning to the popular photo sharing app and how he’s made it work for him.

Polarr: How long have you been on Instagram?

Cory: Technically, three years or so. If you scroll down my feed, you’ll see that my first photo was posted 184 weeks ago, but I got “serious” about using Instagram in March 2014 when I more or less “rediscovered” it. If you scroll back far enough, there’s a clear defining line where my feed ceases to include white framed photos and instead includes only square cropped, and that’s when I started using Instagram again.

P: How long were you making photographs prior to that?

C: I had a basic, basic point-and-shoot, but I never really used it much. When I first started with my iPhone I really was just messing around and taking photos of whatever crossed my path. The old photos are still up there if you want to scroll down and see that mess! Three summers ago, between my sophomore and junior year, I took an introduction to digital photography class at UC Berkeley — “how to do portraits”, “how to shoot landscapes”, etc. That class really interested me and I really enjoyed it a lot, so I’ve almost never put my camera down since.

P: Is Instagram more a place to showcase and promote your work or is it more of a community and social network for you?

C: Definitely both. Very equally — it’s not leaning one way or the other for me. I use it as a way to share my work, but its also so much about the community to me.

Lately, I’ve been posting to Exposure a lot — it’s essentially a site for sharing longer photo narratives. To promote my work there, I’ll use Instagram to post certain photos from my photo narratives and caption “Hey, I just posted to Exposure, go here to check out the full story.” So, in that case I am using Instagram a little bit as a promotional thing. Of course I publish unique content to Instagram as well. The two platforms cater to different types of content, but they are really great complements to one another.

But, of course, Instagram, to me, is definitely about community. Photo to me would be nothing without the Instagram community. I’ve met really close friends, really amazing creative people through Instagram and some of my most enjoyable adventures have been through Instagram.

P: Has that helped you with your professional career? I saw you’re doing some freelance photography work.

C: Yeah! I graduated from Berkeley in August, and after that I wanted to take a break for a while and catch my breath. It’s not like I was just laying on the beach, you know, I worked a lot in the photo realm on personal projects, doing a lot of Instagram in that time. At one point, I got suggested by Instagram, so that’s how I got a larger following. I was really starting to build up my photo presence there.

“I never compromise what I post for the sake of what I think will be popular or what might lose me some followers.” — Maryott

Up until last summer, photo had always just been a hobby for me, something that I really love. I never thought about doing it as a career or even as a side job. I actually remember last year at this time a lot of my friends would ask to hire me to take their graduation photos, but I was adamantly against it at the time. I was more interested in shooting my own personal work.

C: In the last few months using Exposure and Instagram a lot, some professional photographers who I look up to — people that I really admire — have been kind enough to praise my work. It’s one thing to hear from your friends- “oh, you’re so good!”- but hearing it from photographers that I really admire, is a whole different story. After that I started thinking maybe I actually can do this as a job?! So now I more readily think of myself as a freelance photographer, not just a hobbyist, and I’ve been picking up some random jobs here and there.

So, to get back to your main question… Instagram has definitely been a great way for me to showcase my work and make professional connections.

P: Do you think the fact that you’ve entered photography out of pure passion (as a non-career photographer), has affected how you approach the form?

C: Totally. I’m not so much worried about shots that will sell, or about taking photos that will get me a large following, so I’ve been able to focus on the work itself. I’ve been creating photos that please me and that I have fun making.

My approach is to be very authentic in what I present and I want to say that’s the reason why I’ve been able to see some traction. I definitely keep standards for what I post, but I never compromise what I post for the sake of what I think will be popular or what might lose me some followers.

P: How has Instagram changed the way you think of photography and take photos?

C: I got super sucked into the Instagram world and now find myself often shooting with Instagram in mind. Instagram, of course, is square-cropped photos, and I’m personally quite adamant about keeping to the square crop. There are a lot of people who will format and post different ratio photos by adding white to their photos. I personally don’t. No anger towards them by any means. (In fact some of my favorite accounts post non-square photos.)

Also, I’d say 8 or 9 out of 10 photos on my Instagram are taken on my DSLR. When I’m shooting on my DSLR — there’s been a switch where I go from seeing the entire frame in my viewfinder and saying “here’s the photo I’m composing” to having to approach it like “okay I have to take this photo as a rectangle knowing that I’ll probably crop it to a square.” Thinking about what works on Instagram has kind of shaped the way I take photos now. For example, one of my friends on campus is really good at getting these dynamic perspective shots with wide-angle lens.

“8 or 9 out of 10 photos on my Instagram are taken on my DSLR.” — Maryott

I used to shoot a lot with wide-angle lenses, but I think moving to Instagram and trying to create work that resonates with me and also resonates with the Instagram aesthetic, which tends to favor more flat, straight-on shots. So, being so used to shooting for that kind of look, I realized last week that I haven’t been taking these dynamic perspective shots as much. Instagram has very much influenced how I’ve been shooting lately and I’m trying to break out of it a little.

P: Are you inspired by other Instagrammers?

C: Yes! So many of my friends, some people I’ve never even met in person before but I’ve just interacted with through the app. Oh man, it’s amazing. There are people across the world I follow. One that comes to mind is Noah Stammbach. I’ve been chatting with him for a while, he posts really awesome photos. His handle is @Zeebachi. He lives in Australia, and I’ve been following his work for a while now.

Too many inspiring accounts to name, but I definitely would recommend checking out @emmafineman, @atsuko12, @hamadahideaki, @iiimono, @eslee.

Even just my friends that I hang out with — we’ll go to the same place at the same time together, but everyone will take something totally different, a totally different view, or a totally different interpretation of what’s happening.

P: How did you get popular on Instagram — was it just when you were suggested?

C: Instagram will suggest or feature people from the community. The timing depends, but I think mine lasted about a week. I don’t know how to get to it now, but there used to be a way to find people to follow. I was on that suggested users list — when that happens, your follower count dramatically shoots up. The number went up by a 1,000 each day.

Before that, I had about 1,700 followers. I think maybe 500 of them were just friends I had from before I really started getting serious. I started going out, meeting people, doing the Instagram community thing, going to Instameets and starting to slowly gain some audience, and then when Instagram featured me is when it got pretty popular in terms of follower count.

P: I know you said follower count is a vanity metric, but do you ever try to get more followers?

C: Oh, definitely. Follower count isn’t the most important factor though. For example, I’ve got a friend of mine in New York who has less followers than I do by probably half, but his engagement is way higher than mine.

That being said, I still want my work to be seen by other people, I want people to be inspired by my work. I always want to grow my audience, especially because it now also leads to some other jobs sometimes.

There was someone I saw recently posting to Twitter about how he doesn’t have enough Instagram followers, that he’s not cool enough for Instagram and I was like, no, you’re totally thinking about it the wrong way — let the vanity metrics come later. Focus on the work, focus on the community, have fun with it first and if you get followers, awesome. If not, it’s really not what I think is the true fun thing about Instagram.

P: Could you tell me a bit more about Instameets?

C: An Instameet, as the name suggests, is just people getting together who are connected through Instagram, and it can take different forms. Often, it’s just people hanging out, taking photos. Sometimes the photos don’t even happen, people from Instagram hang out and eat food together or just end up talking and catching up so much that we kinda forget to go take photos. The size can vary, sometimes it’s as small as five people.

“Good minimal photography is hard to do.” — Maryott

Here in San Francisco, we have a large Instagram community, so some of the larger ones can get to be in the hundreds. I think maybe twice a year there’s a worldwide Instameet that Instagram promotes. There was one during October and there was just one in March. Usually those are really big, but smaller ones happen all the time. It’s a lot of fun, it’s great to hang out with people who have similar interests. I’ve hosted two now and plan to host another one coming up soon.

P: I’ve read on one of your posts that Instagram helped you get out of your comfort zone.

C: It’s funny because now I think of Instagram as my comfort zone. I’ve become so used to it, very acclimated to it. I remember when I first started in the Instagram community, going to Instameets. These people that I saw that had a “k” after their follower count — I was so amazed. I was like “Oh my God, these people are incredible, how do they have so many followers, they must be celebrities.” I was a little bit uncomfortable at first, I guess it took me a little while to approach people and be like “Hey, let’s hang out.” Now those people are my friends and now that I’ve been featured as well, I’ve realized that it’s not even that big of a deal.

In other senses, I think Instagram has kind of helped me to go new places that I might not have had the gusto to go to. My friends will want to go take a day trip down to Carmel and I’m like “okay let’s do it” and we go and take photos on the way.

There was a celebrity author visiting from Japan, Marie Kondo. She wrote The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and her book was crazy popular in Japan. It’s starting to get really crazy popular across the world, it’s sold millions of copies. Actually, last month she was named by Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people. I read her book a few months back and I saw that she was coming to the bookstore Kinokuniya in Japantown in San Francisco. I was like “ oh my God she’s gonna be here, I love her work, I’m a huge fan of her philosophy, I can’t believe she’s gonna be doing a little book signing event,” so because I have the photo thing, I just emailed the management of the store and I was like “hi I’m a huge fan of Kondo and I’m a photographer. I would love the chance to meet her, and also I’d be happy to take event photos for you.” You know, I think in the past I’d be so scared to reach for that kind of opportunity, but they were totally on board with it. So I got to take event photos and I got to meet her and I was just totally starstruck.

I say she’s an author, but to kind of put it in context, she’s gotten so famous in Japan that she can’t take the train anymore and they made a sitcom based off of her and her book. It was definitely a big deal, I was kind of fan-girling the whole time. So I think Instagram and photo have kind of helped me not to be afraid to reach out for those kinds of opportunities, like asking to meet her.

P: Do you have a favorite hashtag?

C: That’s a hard one. That’s a really tough one, actually. I really really like portrait hashtags, so there’s one, #PostThePeople, that I use a lot. #MakePortraits is one that I use a lot, mostly because I really like to take portraits. I also really like #OnTheTable — it’s a hashtag that’s pretty popular. It’s just those aerial shots of things on the table, so it could be like food, clothes, anything, you know. That kind of aesthetic is really popular. I think it’s fun to work with composition in that.

There is one more. It’s called #WhiteAddict and it’s just very clean, elegant photos usually with white backgrounds. I really admire that aesthetic. I think some people have been very critical of the minimal, especially since it’s become somewhat of a fad lately. They’re like “it’s so simple, it’s a cop-out” but I think good minimal photography is hard to do.

P: How do you feel when people say things like Instagram or cell phone photography is degrading the art of photography?

C: I definitely have to say that some of the best photographers I know are so beast with their mobile phones. They can take incredibly stunning photos that blow me away, ugh, so when I hear people who kind of talk down mobile photography I’m like “Dude, you probably don’t even know what you’re talking about,” you know?

It’s actually getting so good lately; the quality of the photos you can get with your phone is just amazing. I’m sure you’ve probably seen them around, but Apple did the whole “Shot on iPhone 6” campaign. They put those photos up all around the world — some of them are incredibly stunning photos, so I think it’s a shame that people look down on it just because it’s not like a $3,000 piece of equipment.

The best photographers have said for the longest time is that the best camera is the one you have on you. I think mobile is a whole new world opening up for photographers and it’s making photography really accessible to other people, too. I don’t think it’s a downgrade or a degradation to the art by any means. If anything, I think it’s introducing new creative ways to think about photography and new ways to approach the art. I think the same is true for all different forms of art — I think, probably, when digital painting came out with pen tablets, I’m sure some people were like “this is not art, that’s not real paint,” but there are so many digital artists who are painting with Photoshop and using a pen tablet to create stunning works of art that people love. It’s the same kind of thing — new technology just means new ways of expression.

P: How do you feel about censorship policies on Instagram and the Free the Nipple movement?

C: I’m not too up-to-date on Instagram’s censorship policies. It is a weird double standard that we have in our culture where men can show their nipples but for women it’s like “oh put that away!” Or if a woman wants to breastfeed in public it’s a problem. I personally agree with, from what I know, the Free the Nipple movement.

P: Thank you so much for your time with us.

C: Thank you!

Interview conducted and edited by Polarr — Pro Photo Editor Made for Everyone. Follow us on twitter and try our products when our startup is still alive : ).