“People follow me because they want to see Boston. There’s a lot of curiosity there.”
It’s pretty rare to hear of someone doubling their commute-time, every day, for the sake of a photograph; but that’s exactly what Brian McWilliams does, partially to satisfy his Instagram audience of 130,000, but also for no other reason than that he enjoys it: “It’s kind of fun to have the challenge of ‘how can I keep this fresh and find something new’… to not fall into my own clichés, and the clichés of the shots everybody else takes. So I mix up my route a little bit, and make myself walk on different streets.”
Brian’s commute is the reason he got into Instagram in the first place. Brian lives in Back Bay and walks to Beacon Hill for work, so every day he walks through a beautiful, scenic area of Boston. In 2013, during one of these walks, Brian thought to himself, “Why don’t I just snap some photos to pass the time?” Four years later, he’s grown his following to 130,000, and has posted over 1,500 shots.
He says that within these four years, his model hasn’t really changed: “Ninety percent of my shots are ones I take when I’m walking to or from work, and it’s just kind of spontaneous little visions and images I see along the way.”
Originally, Brian admitted he had no clue what Instagram even was; he just knew it was a place to share photos, and figured, “Why not put them up there, for a few family members and friends to see.” Nowadays, he doesn’t know most of the people who follow him.
Although his following is largely based on word-of-mouth and people stumbling across his account, Brian told me that Instagram also helped him out: In 2014, Instagram put Brian as one of their “suggested users,” and for the ten days he was posted there, his following grew from 10,000 to 50,000. Since then, he says it has returned to a gradual rise when people see his account and decide to follow.
When I asked him about whether he’s ever studied photography, he remained steadfastly modest: “I’ve taken photos throughout my life, like most people, on trips and that sort of thing, but I feel weird calling myself a photographer. I don’t know why, I just don’t feel comfortable with that term…” He trailed off for a moment, and then, like it had just occurred to him, said, “Maybe it’s because I’m pretty low-tech when it comes to photography. I started off with a phone, and for a long time it’s all I used, and I didn’t use any fancy editing software. Two years ago, I bought a little Sony camera… that’s good for me because I’m walking, so I can stick it in my jacket pocket,” He laughed.
He remarked that most “serious” photographers would probably laugh at his Sony, because it’s small and doesn’t have a big lens, but it’s truly all he needs.
Perhaps the appeal of Brian’s photos is just how real and true they are; in a world of endless filters-on-filters, it’s hard to uncover what anything really looks like nowadays. But that’s not the case on Brian’s account: he does all of his editing within the phone itself, with the help of VSCO and Snapseed apps. “Most of the photos I post, I post the day I take them, or even within an hour or two of taking them. I’m not uploading them to a computer and using Lightroom and Photoshop and agonizing over them for days. A lot of them are pretty spontaneous… My thing is, you know, it’s called Instagram… so I really want to capture what the day was like, or at worst, what yesterday was like. That’s my goal, aesthetically.” He added that he isn’t discrediting anyone who uses high-tech editing systems or puts extra effort into their photographs–that just doesn’t fit with his model.
A couple of years ago, Brian started another account with a few other moderators called IGBoston, an Instagram account meant to bring together Boston photographers and showcase their work in the spirit of community. He’s since stepped down from running it, but he said that he’s been impressed with Boston’s community when it comes to the level of photography talent.
He also credits Boston, partially, for his success: “If I wasn’t living in the city it would be harder to take photos, like if I was living in the suburbs. Also, Instagram is an international phenomenon, and these people [from Europe or Russia or the Far East], they know about New York, but they don’t think they know about Boston. There’s a lot of curiosity and I think a lot of people who follow me are pleasantly surprised that Boston is so beautiful.” He said that the pictures he takes outside of Boston don’t typically get as many “likes” as the ones of Boston.
He added that the four distinct seasons “make for potentially dramatic photos: like now, you get these incredible colors, and then everything goes black and white for a few months in the winter, and then we have the spring explosion of colors, flowers and green and everything.” For Brian, summer is the toughest time of year for him to take pictures; since he only takes pictures during the relatively small time-frames of walking to or walking back from work, he said the summer lighting is often too harsh for quality photos. And while Brian loves how green Boston is in the summer, he laments that the leaves often cover up his favorite subjects: the brownstone and brick buildings of Boston. Now that it’s fall and the sun sets early, he’s not able to take any photos on his walk home, “which is the saddest time of year for me.”
Brian acknowledges that without Instagram, he might’ve never tapped into this creative side; he also recognizes that having an audience helps. “I would probably take photos even if I didn’t have an audience because I like the art of taking photos and editing them, but it’s such great motivation to know that you can get this instantaneous feedback.”
Of course, there is a downside to anything, and Brian said for him, this same feedback can also be addictive. He cautioned other photographers and Instagrammers to be careful with that addiction: “It kind of ends up leading people to not really great places. Sometimes people think more about, Is this photo going to get a lot of likes?, rather than, Do I like this photo?, or, Was this a moment I wanted to capture?”
Brian does not think of himself as a brand, and recognized that although some people use Instagram as a platform to monetize their artwork, “it’s a part of Instagram–the commercial side–that I’ve never been comfortable with. So for me, I don’t feel pressure to grow my following and become a famous Instagrammer, because that’s not why I’m in it. There are certainly a couple things that have been nice because of it, like when a place has sponsored travel for me, because that to me is more organically consistent with what it is you’re trying to do as a photographer, which is take pictures of cool places. But if I have to put a bag of potato chips on Acorn Street or something like that, I’m not into that.”
That isn’t to say that Instagram hasn’t changed his life. A couple years ago, Brian said he wasn’t spending 60 percent of his brain power thinking about photography; he sympathizes with the concept that people burn out from Instagram, saying that it can become all-consuming to post a photo every day. “All that pressure, even if it’s self-imposed, can be strong.”
Regardless of the amount of time he spends on Instagram or thinking about it, he doesn’t see this ever becoming some sort of full-time photography gig. When asked to shoot a wedding or engagement shoot, Brian says no. He doesn’t do it because he wants to become a famous photographer or make money; he does it because “I like it, and it’s fun. If it ever stops being fun, I’ll stop doing it.”
In the meantime, Brian’s account is one of the sweetest reminders that our city is beautiful, even with #nofilter.