View Source: Richard Prince’s Instagram Portraits

installation shot of Richard Prince, “New Portraits,” photo: Rob McKeever, via Gagosian 980 Madison
They’re getting more attention now because they’re on canvas and at Gagosian, but Richard Prince’s Instagram Portraits have been circulating for a while. Do we think of them differently than when he was assembling them in the spring and summer? When they were printouts on the floor instead of canvas on the wall? Or when they were $12 a sheet at karma in the Hamptons, or a couple hundred dollars a box at Fulton Ryder’s B-List book fair?

There’s a tension generated by the medium and platform shift. We look at images on Instagram differently than in a gallery. The images’ metadata and informational context–username, timestamp, likes, comments, emoji–set our expectations as surely as a white cube and a wall label.
And what’s missing, what Prince cropped, is as notable as what remains. These are not straight screenshots. Here’s a screenshot from Prince’s iPhone photostream, with his own narrative caption in the tweet:

Prince has zoomed in and cropped an old Sports Illustrated cover photo which he’d saved into his own photos. The composed screenshot as rephotography, his iPhone as his dumb camera. The phone’s UI indexical fact presented with Prince’s autobiographical fiction kindles suspicion for his whole tweetstream. But no more than any other; how true a portrait can anyone’s tweet be? Or anybot’s? Should we trust a social media platform anymore than we should trust a picture? Should we even read the comments, much less believe them?
These Instagram portraits have no phone or app UI; they’re all content, no interaction. You can look, but you can’t like. They look like just-the-facts screenshots, but they are composed. Cropped and composited in some way that doesn’t immediately register. So I began to wonder about them, and where the facts and fiction were. I tried to track down each original IG user’s image, and Prince’s comment.

Sure enough, the first pic I searched for wasn’t there. The portrait on the far right in that installation shot up top is credited to an Instagram user named Rasfotos, but the image isn’t in Ras’s stream. Prince has made them all up, I figured, we’re being played, Dylan-style, by an army of conceptualist Instagram sock puppets.

Except that all the other pics I looked for did check out, and their owners are variously and appropriately surprised and bemused at their 15 minutes of appropriated fame. The timestamps and likecounts vary, but most of Prince’s images seem to have been made in the spring or early summer, 14-24 weeks ago. My guess is Ras, a professional photographer, took the image down after the print-on-the-floor study was released, and he and Prince cut a licensing deal.1 updated below

Which reminds me, Prince is forever deleting his own IG stream, treating it less like an archive and more like a temporary exhibition. [Maybe it’s hard to feel too attached to a platform that censors, scolds, boots and reinstates you over their corporate nudity and art policies.] and everyone’s vantage point is defined by their own social graph, their hashtag gatherings, and the people they surf across and follow home. This social structure is nearly invisible on Instagram’s blinkered, one-screen view. And it’s even harder to see from the outside; we won’t be mapping or decoding Prince’s IG relationship secrets without his (or corporate’s) complicity. Which all means it’s hard to unearth historical evidence and origins, much less meaning.

Here’s an interesting tweet from April:

Of course, advertising was Prince’s breakthrough editorial.
And what the hell is going on here?
Someone who’s seen the Gagosian show tell me if this print made it in. It’s not in any of the installation shots. Did Prince’s idea for “New Portraits” really come from James €£¥%ing Franco’s “New Film Stills”? Would it be better or worse if it came from a Franco #regram of a “self portrait” of Franco in front of “Franco” by Klaus Biesenbach? “So many layers”?? It’s layers all the way down, bro! The timing may fit, but this can’t be right.
And yet. Something Prince said in his Cariou deposition comes back to me. Asked to explain his interest in Rastas, he’d basically said, “because I wanted to be them.” Actually, it was

RP: I think maybe I liked the way that they were so different.
Q. Than what?
RP: Than myself. I don’t have dreads. I wish I could. I mean I think that was some of the thinking or some of the — perhaps it goes back to the girlfriends.The reason why I took the girlfriends is I wanted to be a girlfriend.

Did Prince recognize something of himself through Franco’s[!] layers of mediated desperation [Klaus’s (?) term], not just an artist, but a Shermanesque shapeshifting master? Did he see Franco’s and these other kids’ Instagram personas and want to get in on it? Did he want to be a Nightcore? Or worse, did he want to be a Franco? Is this the lifestyle envy that fuels the whole thing? Or is this just one more image, one more comment, one more layer of media we’re supposed to question but probably won’t?
Untitled (Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman), 1980

And then this:

[drops mic]

1 update Or maybe not. Hyperallergic reported Oct. 23 that the photo is part of #wishingpelt, a social media series by artist Sean Fader. Who is not street photographer rasfotos. I can’t find any immediate connection, but maybe it was a friend, a job, or a legit regram. But from the facial hair/setup, it seems the rasfotos pic was taken at Fader’s #wishingpelt performance at Pulse. The Prince version has no caption or hashtag, so it’s either in the wild, or he removed them.
update after the update Fader, who turned Prince’s appropriation into a curatorial credit line on his own CV, is also showing his own now-better-known-as-a-Prince IG photo as, once again, his own work. The evolving piece is included in an appropriation-centered show at Denny Gallery through Jan. 2015.
APRIL 1, 2015 UPDATE: The stuff about Prince, Klaus and Franco was actually part of a project, a portrait I made titled Untitled (richardprince4), which I submitted to a competition at the National Portrait Gallery solely for the purpose of having it seen in private by juror Jerry Saltz.