The Reno InstaGrammys started as a joke at a party. One thing led to another, and now Reno has a snazzy annual awards show for pro and amateur photography.
Now that an estimated 2.5 billion people worldwide use smartphones, we’ve probably lost count of how many photographs are taken. One estimate from Resource Magazine put it at around a trillion last year. In any case, gone are the days when shooting photos meant lugging around equipment that was bigger than a pocket. A huge percentage of us shoot and post selfies, pet pics, travel shots, bowl-of-cereal shots, and shot upon shot upon shot of pretty much everything.
There are different theories on the effects that quantity and accessibility have had on photography. Some miss the days when the medium had a higher barrier to entry.
“It’s really weird,” photographer Antonio Olmos told The Guardian in 2013. “Photography has never been so popular, but it’s getting destroyed. There have never been so many photographs taken, but photography is dying.”
Try telling that to Chelsie Kern, Natalie Handler and Anna Kernecker, however. They’re the founders of Reno InstaGrammys, an annual photography competition and gala awards event. Where some might see the era of ubiquitous photos as an unwelcome barrage, they see it as opportunity.
“It is kind of boring to me to say that because something’s more accessible it’s being watered down,” said Kern. “There is a lot more happening, and you might have to sift through it a little bit more, but everybody can take beautiful photos, and that’s amazing.”Photographic memories
The InstaGrammys started with an offhand comment made between friends early in 2014.
“We were at a barbecue,” said Kern. “We were eating oysters. Somebody showed one of us a picture that our friend posted, and we were joking. We were like, ’Aw, that’s a good one. That should win an InstaGrammy. Kind of like making fun of ourselves a little bit, you know? But it was a really beautiful picture.’” The thought of merging “Instagram” with “Grammy Award” stuck immediately.
“[We thought,] ’We’ll have this little party and competition for our friends—and a few other people that might come,” said Handler. She was—and still is—on the board of directors at Holland Project, so she was obliged to come up with fundraising ideas for the all-ages arts group.
The founders skipped the “small party for our friends” stage and held the first InstaGrammys event in August 2014 at Southside Cultural Center. Kern recalled that it was a hot day, and there was no air conditioning.
“We had to bring in every single chair,” she said. “We were too broke, so we couldn’t rent 200 chairs. So we had to get, like, 25 chairs here, 50 chairs here.”
“Everything was sourced mostly through people donating,” said Handler. “Or us just being resourceful.” Despite the tight budget, the hot room and the mismatched chairs, they remember the evening as a success.
“The opening number was this crew of breakdancers that no one really knew about outside of their community of breakdancers,” said Handler. “People were already out of their seats from that first opening-number moment. … So, we packed that place and were over capacity. People were sneaking in, and we were like, ’Who sneaks into a fundraiser?’”Social media socialites
Here’s how the contest works: Professional or amateur photographers submit images via Facebook or Instagram and hashtag them with the name of a category such as #homemeansnevada, #urbanlandscape or #albumcover. There are 20 categories altogether. Initially, organizers conceived of the contest as being for locals, but they’ve since expanded the parameters to include anyone, anywhere.
“We had some submissions from out of state last year, but this year even more so,” Handler said. “We have people from Philadelphia, L.A., Salt Lake City, Portland.”
“Chelsie, Anna and I, all the cofounders, go through the nominee selection,” she explained, “because there’s, like, thousands of photos to look through, and we would never wish that upon anyone else.” The entries gets narrowed down to 100 finalists, five in each of 20 categories.
Handler laughed when she talked about not wishing the task on anyone, but she had a serious point to make, too. On one hand, it didn’t take long for the InstaGrammys to earn their official stripes of cultural validation—during the first year, then-mayoral candidate Hillary Schieve was a presenter, and the next year the event grew into the Pioneer Center. On the other hand, it’s important to the organizers that the InstaGrammys maintain an air of independence, and for that reason they plan to continue to think of the event as a labor of love more than a labor of time efficiency. Kern and Handler talked about the recent efforts by the city and local branding firms to project a polished image for Reno as an entertainment destination. They said it’s important to them to acknowledge different kinds of expression too.
“We’re kind of celebrating that, as a diverse population, we all have different values of aesthetics,” said Handler.
“I’m a marketer by trade,” said Kern, “but it’s different when we tell the world who we are, rather than having the [marketing] people tell the world who Reno is.”
Another priority for the InstaGrammys, Handler said, is to contribute to supporting a self-sufficient culture industry in Reno over the long term, as opposed to having the city be—for many artists and musicians who begin to make it big—a good place to grow up and leave.
“It’s important to support the artists here in Reno,” she said. “The hope in the future is to create industry for artists so they don’t have to move away from their home, or this place that they love.”The big night
Finalists and attendees—1,500 of them if organizers sell out the Pioneer Center, again this year’s venue—will gather for an awards ceremony, styled somewhat in the spirit of the Recording Academy’s annual Grammy Awards. The awards are handmade pieces of artwork, and they’ll be presented by well-known locals including Mayor Schieve, Recycled Records owner Paul Doege, neon-sign collector Will Durham and RN&R editor Brad Bynum.
Kern and Handler said they’re keeping much of the entertainment lineup a surprise. They did mention that some prominent neon pieces from Durham’s collection will be on view during the event—and they went into detail about the dress code.
“We want everybody to be comfortable, but this is an environment where you can get as formal and as fancy as you want and feel comfortable, or dress totally weird,” said Kern.
“You can wear a gown made of bubble wrap if you want,” said Handler.