On Instagram’s Impact on Wilderness, and True Adventure Photographers

A conversation with Kyle Frost about outdoor photography in the Instagram age


San Francisco has been home to plenty of creative movements, from landscape photography to beat poetry and psychedelic rock music. The outdoorsy Instagram community also happened to find a home there, which is how Kyle Frost got involved with photography in the first place. The 27-year-old web digital product designer and adventure photographer “rode the wave,” as he put it, of early Instagram fame, and plugged in to a community of outdoorsy photographers in his then-hometown of SF before everything got, well, #sonorthwesty, or whatever. It was the golden age, before “tiny person, big landscape” became a common phrase and the outdoor experience became measured in likes and views. Eventually, exasperated by an outdoors community that was more talk than action, Frost moved to Boulder, Colorado two years ago, where he picked up ski mountaineering and a new respect for the unique challenges found where Instagram and adventure meet.

What sparked the move, and how has moving to Boulder changed your approach to photography and the outdoors?
I moved to Boulder from San Francisco because I got tired of driving three hours to Yosemite every weekend when I lived in San Francisco. I was tired of living in a place where I was kind of in the top 1% of people as far as the outdoors went, and it was kind of hard to convince people to drive 6 or 7 hours in a weekend just to go hiking. So that was the driver for me, that work/life balance. Being close to the mountains, close to bigger mountains, being around better, real athletes. People that push you to do bigger and harder things.

When did you pick up photography, and why? What do you shoot on?
I’ve always been shooting photos, I got a digital camera for my birthday when I was in high school at some point, but I didn’t really start taking it seriously, actually trying to improve my editing technique and all that jazz, until I moved to San Francisco and a friend who became my adventure buddy was a really good photographer. I shoot with a Sony A7, I’ve been on Sony basically since the A series came out. We both rode the original Instagram boom in 2011 or 12. It was just the start of Instagram being a vehicle for professional photography. It went through a couple years where everyone was all mobile-first and only posting iPhone photos gradually evolved into something that more mainstream photographers use to show all of their work. So it was kind of cool to be in San Francisco, in that big community based on  Instagram. It’s been a fun little ride.

What have you been up to in 2017? Any exciting projects?
I just got back from South America, where I was shooting for Thule, Under Armor, and Revo sunglasses. We were in Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, and did a bunch of climbing. So that was partly working but mostly, I took a break, my girlfriend quit her job so it was just a good time for us to kind of get off the grid for a little while. That was a pretty fantastic trip. Now, I’m focused on enjoying Colorado for a little while. Doing some ski mountaineering this spring, and maybe having some more shoots this summer. The nice thing about doing photography on the side is I don’t rely on it for income, so I can kind of pick and choose what I’d like to be working on and who I’d like to be working with.

What do those ideal projects and partners have in common?
They’re products that I actually use, good quality products, something that’s unique. You get a lot of people reaching out about a company you’ve seen a million times. I went to OR last summer and there are like 50 hammock companies. I’m sorry–what is so different about your hammock company compared to the next guy? It’s just not that compelling to me. The other thing is actual technical gear. There’s a wide range of people in the outdoors and I personally lean towards what I would say the true get-out-there side, not ‘wear my boots to a lake that’s a half-mile walk from my car’ kind of thing. Sorry, I can get a little—I’m not sure what the word is—judgmental about the Instagram community.

What about that Instagram community could be—or needs to be—improved? What are the inherent problems?
The thing is, you don’t want to criticize the whole industry. There are people making their living doing that sort of thing. It’s great that Instagram’s gotten more people outside and these brand shave gotten more people outside. At any level. That’s fantastic. But as a photographer it gets kind of old when you see the same shot over and over again, in the same places over and over again.

I’ve been thinking recently about whether Instagram is killing creativity and discovery in travel. I just went to South America, which, with the exception of maybe Patagonia, is a pretty low impact Instagram zone. I went to a lot of places that I have never seen before, heard about, or anything like that. At the same time, there are a lot of places I want to go to. Like, I’ve never been to Iceland—I’m the only photographer apparently at this point that has not been to Iceland. I’d love to go, but it just continually drops down my list because I feel like I’ve seen every single waterfall that’s there. I feel like I would go, and I’d be like, oh, I’m going to take the same picture that a million people have taken, that I’ve seen a million times. It’s just not that exciting anymore. A lot of people are planning their entire travels around creating content that is exactly like someone else’s. You go to Moraine Lake, you take the same picture. You go to Glacier Point, Yosemite, and you copy the freakin Chris Burkard skateboarding on the road picture. And again, it’s great that people are getting out there and exploring these places. But are we losing some creativity when everyone’s just going to the same places and taking the same pictures?

How do you, as a photographer, keep it fresh and exciting?
I’m going to be spending my spring doing a lot of ski mountaineering in Colorado. There are a lot of people in Colorado who are ski mountaineering, but there aren’t a ton of Instagram photographer-influencer people who are doing a lot of ski mountaineering. I’m not hiking 5 miles in Rocky Mountain Park, we’re doing a 15-mile ridge traverse and we’re the only people out there. It’s nice to actually get out there, and be places, and do things that not many people can do.

How do you think Instagram has changed wilderness travel—for better and for worse?
I’ve always said that in the last couple years the resurgence of interest in the outdoors that we’ve seen can be, especially amongst millennials, almost exclusively attributed to Instagram. And as someone who has a stake in this industry and works in the industry, I think that’s fantastic. The fact that we’re getting people to drive from SF to Yosemite to take pictures of glacier point? That’s amazing. That wasn’t happening four years ago. For whatever reason they’re going there, the fact that they’re there is fantastic.

Something we wrestle with all the time is increased traffic and increased access in balance with education. For all these people that go places, you get the ones that are walking on the Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone and going to court for it. With those increased numbers comes the bad apples that are there just to get the one shot, get the likes, get the views, and aren’t respecting the outdoors, the national parks, the rules, the conservation. From an Outbound Collective perspective [where Frost works as a designer], people sometimes think we’re destroying secret spots or giving away places. So we try to do as much education as we can, we push Leave No Trace practices on every adventure that’s out there on the site, and we try to be involved in conservation efforts. But it’s a fine line to walk. For us, at the end of the day, we’ve decided that it’s not our place to be the gatekeepers.

I know this is a problem in backcountry skiing, it’s a problem in surfing, its a problem in a lot of the outdoors. Local’s mentality. “Only I’m good enough to know about this spot.’ I think a mentality like that is unfortunate. The outdoors are for everyone, and improved access improves the number of people that are aware of and appreciate the outdoors. We’re not going to be the ones who decide if people deserve to know about a spot. We’ll do our best to educate, and make sure those people are prepared. But we’re not going to say “We’re not going to publish this on the site, because someone thinks it’s their secret spot.

How has your personal relationship with Instagram changed since those early years?
I feel like I’ve been able to strike a pretty good balance. I don’t post nearly as much as I used to, to be honest. I became less focused on building my Instagram persona, posting consistently, figuring out what time to post. I just kinda stopped caring. I don’t feel like I need to be playing the game, if you will. So once I dropped that, it’s been much easier for me. I still bring my camera 90% of the time because that’s part of who I am and what I do. I like taking pictures of people, I like capturing moments and having my camera on hand to do that. but I have felt less and less the need to post everything and post every day.

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Showing 10 comments
  • Gary Jones
    Reply

    You can take great outdoor photographs anywhere outdoors. Or with a view of the out of doors. Just like a good writer can write on any topic. The rest is mit schlag.

  • EB
    Reply

    One may imagine the best photos are the ones not taken. By trying to capture the essence of adventure one implies a will of there own on that adventure, never truly be present.
    Was Aldo Leopoldo concerned with such things?
    Did John Muir fret over how many likes he got?
    Did our parents?
    Did Edward Abby, Sir Edmund Hillary, our grandparents?
    Is it not enough to enjoy the natural world by ourselves? With our closest friends and loved ones?
    Must we always seek reassurance from the unknown stranger?
    Big adventure or little, stay safe out there enjoy the time spent!

  • Matthew Irving
    Reply

    for someone who complains about seeing the “same shot over and over again, in the same places over and over again”, it’s weird that he has the same tent shot posted 3 times on his instagram.

    • Kyle Frost
      Reply

      Haha, never said I was immune to that criticism. I’ve definitely posted dupes in 6 years of Instagram. Out of curiosity, which shot? What I am most interested in and potentially concerned about is not really the images themselves, it’s that people(photographers and non-photographers) have been seeming to gravitate towards VERY specific places/shots to check them off their Instagram/shot list, rather than exploring further or truly appreciating wild places.

  • Jay Long
    Reply

    Great read. Does come off a little whiny, but hey. Like “real” photographers are upset that everyone is taking too many pictures. Nevertheless, interesting stuff.

    • Kyle Frost
      Reply

      Tend to agree with you, I did come off a bit that way. These are some complex issues for sure, and I didn’t articulate some of my points particularly well via the phone. Glad you found it interesting though!

  • Nate Ptacek
    Reply

    This take on the general state of photography in the age of IG is absolutely spot-on. Refreshing to read.

  • Scott
    Reply

    Great job and great perspective, Kyle Frost.

    I feel like many people, myself certainly included, are beginning to lean towards the line of thinking you describe here.

    Cheers

  • G.G.S.
    Reply

    Think local mentality is more about appreciating and preserving a place as is. Everyone knows if you promote /expose a place and more people come almost certain some will be the “trophy picture” type. If my local park got 200% more visits it would technically be the same place but the joie de vivre would be different. And it’s totally not a secret there’s maps and roads(they even have postcards now).

    Think photography has turned into a bit of group think lately. Having said that I don’t think every shot needs to be some ground breaking technical artistic expression of life’s purpose.

    At some level I think it’s great people take pictures of about the same 5 National parks. And they are really neat but they can also handle the extra visits. If it makes people support the entire park system and public lands /the outdoors in general that’s great.

    Can’t believe you didn’t throw shade at all the touristastic Machu Pucci pictures lol. They are like the herpes of outdoor travel photos.

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