Florence, Italy is known as the birthplace of the Renaissance, but it also is where the Instagram app was born. Kevin Systrom, the co-founder of Instagram, was a Stanford junior studying abroad in Florence and, like many before him, the lovely city changed the way he saw the world. While taking a photography course, his teacher took away his expensive SLR camera and insisted he use a cheap plastic one instead. Systrom fell in love with the camera’s square format, the soft focus,“the beauty of vintage photography and also the beauty of imperfection.”
Systrom told Time Magazine the story in April 2012:
When I studied abroad my teacher set what I do know in motion by saying, “Give me that camera of yours.” He took my camera away and gave me a little, plastic camera. I was studying in Florence at the time and he told me that I wasn’t allowed to use my camera for the rest of the class. I had to use this plastic camera with a terrible lens. He said I was too focused on sharpness and “I feel like you’re more artsy than that.” He said, “I want you to use this Holga,” this plastic camera with a plastic lens that had this cult following in the ’80s and ’90. I was blown away by what it could do to photos. My photography teacher was totally right. I was too focused on being meticulous with these really beautiful, complex architectural shots. It helps to see the world through a different lens and that’s what we wanted to do with Instagram. We wanted to give everyone the same feeling of discovering the world around you through a different lens.
The Florence experience also may have saved Systrom from taking the wrong direction later in his career. In 2006, he chose to work the espresso machine at Palo Alto’s Caffé del Doge instead of taking a job offer by Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook. Zuckerberg wanted Systrom to build a photo app for the new social media website, which would certainly have earned him millions of dollars in stock options. Only someone infected with the love of Florence would choose perfecting cappuccinos over riches. [He also turned down a high paying position at Microsoft and later quit a job at Google.]
Living in a cheap beach house in Baja California, he began to write the software that would recreate the effects of his cheap camera. It was Instagram’s first filter. Many more would follow. In 2010, Instagram was launched as an Apple app and 25,000 people downloaded it in the first 24 hours. Today, it is estimated that more than 100 million people are using it. In April 2012, Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook returned and bought Systrom’s company for $1 billion in cash and stock.