Why I Like to Instagram the Sky

The real meaning of a plain blue square.

Ivan Alvarado / Reuters

For the past few years, I have made a regular habit of photographing and posting to my Instagram account a type of picture I call Sky Gradients. Each of these is an abstract picture of a square blue swath of sky that I take with my phone whenever the sky is clear and I am seized with the whimsy to do it—a confluence of circumstance that happens more frequently than you might expect. I’ve taken these photos at various times of day and seasons of the year. There are some variations, but most are the same general type of picture: the normal shaded blue of a cloudless sky.

Like many serious projects of mine, it all started as a joke: the dumb idea that a “summer gradient” would be a better name for a farmer’s tan. During a week at the beach later that summer, I photographed my own arm to illustrate this joke, before realizing that nobody—not even me—wants to see a photo of my hairy arm. Instead I tilted the camera up and took a photo of the clear blue sky over Hyannis to be my “summer gradient” instead. And then I promptly forgot about it, until about a year later when—on another vacation—I formalized the rules for this little exercise:

1.     The photo should just be of the plain sky and nothing else; no trees, no buildings, no clouds, no airplanes (although sometimes I have noticed a stray bat or plane when it is too late).
2.     The photo should not use any filters or have its color adjusted in any way.
3.     The photo should always be posted with the season (ie, Winter Gradient), the date, and the location where the photo was taken (but exact geocoding should be avoided, because this is not a photo of a specific place but the sky above it, and I take a lot of these near my house).

Summer gradient

A photo posted by jacobharris (@jacobharris) on

From this moment, a silly joke became a serious habit. Thus far, I have taken over 70 of these photos. I freely admit to being influenced by Dogme 95, the list of artistic restrictions for film directors that emphasized that no special lighting, filters, or special effects should be used. Dogme was a technological movement as well as a stylistic one, embracing the lower fidelity and artifacts of handheld digital cameras. I still remember being thrilled by the graininess of a candlelit scene in Thomas Vinterberg’s Dogme film Festen. Of course, digital film quality has advanced enormously since then, making many of Dogme’s restrictions moot. But I now carry the equivalent of those early cameras within my iPhone, whose CCD does well enough photographing a high-contrast scene, but often stumbles when pointed at a smooth patch of sky. The flaws make these pictures real in the way a perfect gradient is not and I adore the light streaks and grainy dithering that mar some of the gradients. This exercise is innately digital—it would be wasteful to take these photos with photographic film—but they remind me of failed exposures and accidental shutter snaps I used to find when I had rolls of film developed after taking a vacation in the era before digital cameras.

Winter Gradient 2016-01-02 Hillandale, MD

A photo posted by jacobharris (@jacobharris) on

There are other artistic antecedents for this exercise. I am hardly the first person to look up and want to capture what I see. You can’t have a landscape without a sky above it after all. Still, skies have mostly lurked nonchalantly in the backgrounds of Western art, except when rendered by a master like Joseph Turner or Maxfield Parrish. Photography also has its own history of cloudscapes—a portmanteau of landscape and cloud—exemplified recently by artists like Rüdiger Nehmzow and Tzeli Hadjidimitriou as well as all your friends on Instagram posting photos of that awesome sunset over Manhattan right now. These are depictions of something specific, taken because there is something remarkable to be seen in them. I suppose I should also cite the work of those abstract artists like Rothko or—more recently—Pieter Vermeersch who aren’t depicting the sky but use broad swaths of color to evoke awe and emotion. There is also the work of digital artist Cory Arcangel who printed large gradients built in Photoshop and found his cloudscape in the background of Super Mario Brothers.

I am particularly impressed by two pieces that combine both traditions in depicting in the sky. In the 1920s, photographic pioneer Alfred Stieglitz took over 220 photographs of the sky for his Equivalents series in which he often purposefully omitted the horizon, hung them in the wrong orientation, and did a few other tricks to transform clouds and sky into brooding abstract compositions. More recently, sculptor James Turrell has been building “sky spaces,” each a small room with benches around the perimeter and a large oculus in the center ceiling for observing a swath of sky since the 1970s. These seem like obvious inspirations, except I will admit I was completely ignorant of both of them. But I don’t really consider myself much of an artist or this project as art. Instead, I do this as a means of meditation.

I don't just take these photos on vacations. Indeed, most of them were taken outside my home or office or some other place in between the two; almost all of them are of the skies over Washington, D.C. At least a dozen of these photos were taken on those spare minutes where I am waiting for the school bus to arrive and I don't feel like checking Slack or Twitter. This might seem like yet another example from our modern era of how to apply advanced technology to boredom, and that is sometimes enough to spark an impulse. But there is often a motivation greater than boredom that impels me to post these photographs. These are photographs—not a game of Dots—and like any photograph, I take these not to kill time but to memorialize it, albeit in a pointedly abstract way.

In the end, these are essentially pictures of nothing, not anchored to a specific place or time. Every picture omits a wider world outside its frame—Instagram Husband is just the most recent iteration of the same tired joke about this—but these photos of bare sky elide everything. There is nothing of the world below reflected in the gradients above. An exciting whale-watching trip yielded only a nondescript blue frame while the dramatic gradient of a dusk sky was taken from a suburban IKEA parking lot—context I only know because these are recent enough that I remember taking them. But for most of these photos I no longer have a memory of what I was doing and why I particularly decided to photograph the sky at that particular moment. Indeed, until I wrote this piece, I had no idea how many of these gradients I had taken or assembled a collection of them all. The whole point was to post the pictures – their longevity afterwards is irrelevant – and this is the key to understanding why I find these photos so affecting.

Dusk Gradient 2015-09-11 College Park, MD

A photo posted by jacobharris (@jacobharris) on

Like almost anybody who has been online for a while, I am enamored with how simple it is to share things with the whole world and also frightened by how easily I can destroy my privacy in the process. And so I project a goofy but guarded version of myself online. My public Instagram account features many silly pictures and so many photos of my sleeping dog, but doesn’t include what would be far more important pictures of my wife and children. Life isn’t always a carnival of silly photos however, and there are sometimes moments of sadness—and moments of private happiness too—that I want to commemorate briefly in some small way. Much like writing it down in a journal or throwing a stone into the water, to mark the moment is also to let it pass. I often don’t have a pen, and I’m usually not near rocks or ponds. But I always have my phone. And sometimes even when I am sad, it's still a beautiful sunny day. I reach into my pocket for my phone and point it towards the sky. I exhale and take a photo.

I know that at some point I will likely forget the details for the few gradients I remember. This doesn’t bother me, since the rules practically guarantee I will forget the details. It’s possible I will eventually neglect this entire project, or a future phone’s camera will make future gradients perfectly boring. I sometimes imagine I might one day forget entirely what motivated me to keep all these weird pictures of the sky instead of deleting them like any other digital mistakes. But I hope there will be cloudless days then too, and what I will remember is the joy of standing under the sun.