Metro, Top Story, Features, Boston

Boston Vision: The Man Behind The City’s Favorite Instagram

Brian McWilliams has more than 7,700 followers on Instagram—but just like everyone else who has ever downloaded the social media app, he first thought it was a waste of time.

“My wife was on Instagram before I was,” he said, sitting in a Starbucks on Boylston St. “I thought it was ridiculous.”

By last year, however, the app had become such an integral part of his life that he decided to help bring Boston’s Instagram community together through a membership-based organization called IGBoston—with the handle @igboston—which currently has around 4,000 followers.

McWilliams’s personal account @brianmcw remains more popular, but the daily photos that he and three other moderators choose to post on the IGBoston account are a testament to the diversity of ways in which members of the organization choose to view the city.

“The best Instagram is almost like photojournalism.” – McWilliams

Bright colors and sunsets dominate some—others are grittier, black-and-white night shots. At IGBoston, such diverse points of view are encouraged—to join the ranks of the organization’s 200-plus members, a photographer has to take a “challenge” photo assigned by the moderators, usually with the charge to capture something that differs from what McWilliams calls their usual “bread and butter.” Someone who typically takes photos of Boston’s skyline, for example, might be challenged to grab a shot that operates more at the street level or picks up on one of the city’s small natural details.

“A lot of people—if they’re really good—like to have the challenge,” McWilliams said.

At night, four moderators launch an email chain in order to discuss the photos posted that day by IGBoston members, deciding which photo to post on the general account. Sometimes they disagree, given that each of them has a distinct taste.

But for a guy who spends so much time posting photos on Instagram, McWilliams hardly spends much time looking at the world through a filter.

“The best Instagram is almost like photojournalism,” he said.

His own posts reflect this aesthetic. His photos are almost always colorful, yes, but he avoids heavy-handed editing, and, unlike some Instagram users, he does not go to any bizarre lengths to create a sense of immediacy when there isn’t one—like claiming a photo of a sunset to be one of a sunrise.

“I do have some journalistic roots,” he said. “Part of me wants to capture reality.”

Originally from Minnesota, McWilliams was the only member of his family without a yearning for a career in music, and so words became his first medium. He studied English in college and got sucked into writing marketing communications in the computer industry for 15 years, climbing onto the career conveyor belt.

“You just get carried along,” he said. “You got to just keep paying the bills.”

He managed to transition into technology journalism during the 1990s, writing for publications like Computerworld and Wired, eventually specializing in coverage of the underground hacker culture, a demographic that McWilliams said was not really looking for the attention—he himself was hacked several times, and one jocular hacker invented a small computer game called Shoot Brian McWilliams, which the game’s titular target got a kick out of playing himself.

“I still feel like, to some extent, I’m still discovering Boston.” — McWilliams

Now, McWilliams works as an investigator for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts—a job for which he endured a two hour commute from New Hampshire each day. The decision to move to Boston shrank his commute down to a walk, about a mile and a half through the Back Bay and the Public Garden toward the State House. McWilliams was stricken by the beauty of his commute.

“I have this phone in my pocket,” he thought one day. “Why don’t I snap a few photos along the way?”

By April 2013, McWilliams was “Instagramming” in earnest during his walk, listening to music through his headphones—almost always jazz—while incessantly taking photos, sometimes wandering over to the Esplanade if he left early enough in the morning.

While many of his followers would know his appearance only from his small Instagram profile picture and the scant selfies he’s posted over time, his constant effort to take photos on the street has occasionally made him recognizable.

A tall man, McWilliams was once conspicuously stooping down to grab a photo that incorporated a puddle—dubbed a “puddlegram”—when a nearby man caught sight of him and recognized him as the man behind the popular Instagram account.

“It’s pretty cool to have that virtual world come into reality,” McWilliams said.

The sense of the wonderfully mundane—that this is just an average guy’s view of the world—is part of the charm of McWilliams’s Instagram personality. His decision to only use his phone, though he does eventually hope to purchase a nice camera, is consistent with that online image.

“I walk through a beautiful part of Boston,” his Instagram bio currently reads. “All phone pics.”

McWilliams has a hard time imagining himself still doing this 10 years down the line. His wife, who is the star of some of his nature landscapes, already wonders at the amount of time he spends in Instagram’s world. But for now, his goal of capturing Boston in little square photos remains incomplete.

“I still feel like, to some extent, I’m still discovering Boston,” he said.

Featured Image by Maggie Powers / Heights Photo Illustration

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that McWilliams only used his iPhone to take Instagram photos. He uses a Samsung phone.

November 19, 2014