Arts Issue - Connecting photographic dots

Creative minds behind @WhyILoveATL and #weloveatl tell city's story

It's a Saturday morning, and Christynne Papinack's getting ready to start her shift working in #weloveatl's pop-up gallery in Ponce City Market. Papinack, a full-time physical therapist who moved to Atlanta from New York, is probably better known by her popular Instagram handle, @WhyILoveATL. Thanks to #weloveatl, the crowd-sourced photo gallery founded by photographers Brandon Barr, Tim Moxley, Aaron Coury, and former collaborator Keith Weaver, some 10,000-plus Instagram users like Papinack have been able to help tell stories of Atlanta via cell phone cameras.

Creative Loafing sat down with Papinack, Barr, and Moxley to talk Henri Cartier-Bresson's notion of "the decisive moment," #weloveatl's curation process, and dog photos.

When you hear that phrase, "street photography," what comes to mind? Is it a negative reaction?

Tim Moxley: I think for photography, it's just natural to photograph what's on the street. So you walk around and you're inspired by what you see, and it just makes sense to photograph things that you see.

Brandon Barr: Most people don't understand the historical significance of street photography — moving all the way back to Henri Cartier-Bresson. I think for a long period ... street photography was sort of considered to be a documentary form of photography about life on the streets — candid photos of people on the streets. ... It's just become a broad term for "I take photos on the street of Atlanta." For me, it's one of the strongest and more present forms of photography.

Christynne Papinack: I think it's probably one of the more difficult forms, to capture organic moments within a moment outside. I love the city of Atlanta, but as far as street photography goes, I think it's very difficult.

In terms of Cartier-Bresson and "the decisive moment," how does #weloveatl's use of social media, specifically Instagram, lend itself to that?

TM: Talking about the decisive moment, the Bresson concept, that was a game-changer in photography. It changed the way people made photographs. I feel like people were always taking photos. I think we just gave them an outlet or a place to put them where they could add the proclamation #weloveatl, to basically describe those photos. And also, it puts them in that pool where they can look at other people's photos, and the online community starts to grow.

BB: I think it's more about the connection of those people taking photos. People have been taking photos for years, but they've been in negatives and people's shoeboxes and in art galleries, and they've never really been in the middle ground. Even with things like Flickr, there was no really close connection to people. So I think that for me, what Instagram did, and I think what we were able to capture in Atlanta, was a way to connect all those people and to really let them all see what each other is doing, and then reflect back what we thought was the best of that, which inherently then changes what people are looking for, and what they're taking photos of. I think that every time you post a fantastic skyline shot or really quirky way to look at a building, that inspires someone else who sees it to then go on their walk and look up at a building in a way that they haven't looked up at it. Every time you get someone taking a really interesting street scene in Atlanta, it maybe encourages someone to get out of the car and ride MARTA to work or to park three blocks from their job and walk in.

Christynne, is that what you're looking for when you go out and shoot —different ways to look at Atlanta?

CP: In New York everything is very condensed, everything is right there, and Atlanta is very much spread out; there's a lot of nooks and crannies. I've really enjoyed seeing other people's reaction from me just getting in these random places. Like, "That's downtown Atlanta? Where is that?" I want to find something that no one else has ever seen. I like what Brandon said; it's encouraging to walk and to get out and to find these spots. I've probably learned Atlanta better than I ever would have because I've been able to go out, and I want to try and find some neat spots to capture.

Tim and Brandon, how much of what we're talking about now goes into your curation process?

TM: We sort of have different aesthetics, and I think that's by design so that the curation process stays well-rounded and the pics stay diverse. I think for me, when I'm looking at photos, I'm looking for something that tells a story about the city, first of all. I'm obviously looking for something that has some kind of emotion or that speaks to me in a unique way that other photos, that are just slightly different, don't. I think we try to keep things diverse. We want there to be a lot of people photos. We want there to be — there's a lot of architecture, a lot of dog photos. I think that there's an idea about the city. I mean, it's a city of trees. For me, I have these themes that kind of occur over and over in my head, and when I see them, I'm sort of inclined to pick those and maybe tell that story.

BB: I think that there's just a certain kind of vibe that we all have. Like, I used to pick a lot of the street photos, photos of people. And Tim, you just sort of picked everything, and Aaron Coury picked a lot of architecture shots. But for me, it comes back to the same thing. It's telling interesting stories or uncovering interesting perspectives. There's an energy happening in town in Atlanta that permeates a lot of the work that we pick.

CP: There's been a snowball effect of just a lot more people getting involved, getting the hashtag, starting to connect. The community is coming together, and stuff like the 45 x 45 project — it's amazing how you guys have been able to give people that outlet to start connecting. And even for myself, some of the fellow Instagrammers I've been able to meet through the #weloveatl hashtag will end up being like, "Hey, are you guys shooting tonight?" It's connecting people that would not necessarily normally be connected.

BB: I think the thing that's been really gratifying for me is to see the community that we create in a very defined way. We have monthly Instameets. But then, to see groups going and shooting, or impromptu meetings at the Jackson Street Bridge, which happens tons — to see those sort of things happen, to see a lot of people go from the #weloveatl community into Instagram-suggested users and get their own big sort of followings — that to me is what's been really interesting, and I feel like that's what's been happening, particularly, in the last year. This whole movement has always been bigger than what we've set out to do, and I like the fact that it keeps spreading in crazy, random ways.