It’s hard not to be a little bit envious of Joel Flory, one of the founders of VSCO, a startup best known for its award-winning camera app. Fresh off finishing runner-up for Apple’s coveted “App of the Year” in the 2013, the company has spent the better part of the new year rolling out new features, including an in-app social network called VSCO Grid.
VSCO–short for Visual Supply Company, but pronounced “VisCo”–formed in 2011, when Flory and his cofounder Greg Lutze started a business designing WordPress templates for photographers. VSCO Cam’s suite of photo filters, which do an excellent job of approximating the color saturation and feel of old-school film cameras, initially started off as an in-house editing tool.
“I started realizing that I was creating photos that weren’t timeless,” Flory tells Fast Company. “They were very seasonal. Even though I was shooting digital, I still wanted to recreate a film look.” Eventually, the team realized they had something special on their hands. In 2012, when VSCO Cam launched for free on iOS, the photo editor quickly became the company’s most popular product, amassing over a million downloads in its first week alone.
VSCO, which is now available on Android, bills itself as by creatives, for creatives. And the startup owes much of its success to Instagram, where the overwhelming majority of its sublimely edited photos are shared (often brandishing the hashtag: #VSCOCam). This year is poised to be a big one, too, as Flory and Lutze look to expand. (They’re hiring, I should add).
VSCO Grid in particular is the app’s most compelling new feature. Think of it as a mini, in-app social network that allows VSCO users to follow one another. Grid gathers together photos from your follow list, and compiles them in an easy-to-browse, reverse chronological stream of images, which cascade up your iPhone with a thumb flick.
If that concept sounds familiar, it should: At first glance, it looks just like Instagram.
Flory, though, doesn’t see VSCO Grid as a direct competitor to Facebook’s billion dollar photo app. Rather, he (perhaps optimistically) envisions the two photo-sharing platforms coexisting side by side. “We love Instagram,” says Flory. “We’re active members of the Instagram community. I think Kevin Systrom is brilliant. But at the core they’ve built a communication tool, a way for the world to communicate visually.”
Unlike Instagram, where selfies hold currency and mimosas are standard fare, Flory envisions Grid becoming a platform for creatives to show off their best work–a highlight reel that rewards artistic merit and unsung talent. “We like to see VSCO Grid as a museum, where you’ll only share your best,” says Flory. “We’re not really concerned about the numbers. A user might post 100 images to Instagram, but we want them to post their five best photos to VSCO Grid.”
In many ways, VSCO Grid is an anti-social social network: You can’t leave comments. You can’t click a heart icon or “like” something. All you can do–for now–is follow photographers whose work you admire. Discovery is curated, not automated: VSCO’s team handpicks and recommends other photographers for you to follow. Flory stresses that images will always be attributed to the original creator (unlike, say, Tumblr) wherever they are posted. And about the only written information you can glean from a photo caption is the stuff typically relegated to the realm of metadata–things like F-stop, ISO, and filter used.
In that sense, it puts what’s valuable to content creators front and center. Whereas Instagram and its echo chamber of hashtags and follow-back spam can feel noisy and crowded, VSCO Grid is designed to strip out excess, allowing the images to speak for themselves. “When you walk into a museum, you wouldn’t see someone writing next to a piece of art or adding stickers next to it,” says Flory. “Our goal is to evoke a connection, but not in a way that’s like, ‘I love this photo. Awesome! Great! LOL. Art.'”
That attitude runs deep throughout the company’s DNA. One of the cooler perks of running a photography startup known for its impeccable taste is regularly renting and testing all the latest camera gear: Prosumer DSLRs, lenses worth more than your car–you name it. When asked what kind of cameras he shoots with in his spare time, Flory says he often finds himself returning to the simple pleasures of a Holga: A bare bones, plastic, analog camera that you can get from Amazon for $25. It looks like a child’s toy.
The camera’s most compelling feature is, maybe counter-intuitively, that it has almost no features. It is also deceptively powerful; using one requires a photographer to subscribe to an ardent kind of minimalism–the kind of minimalism that, in a way, informs VSCO’s mission, from the way the brand markets itself to the way its apps are designed.
Grid is no different. It thoughtfully removes whatever can be deemed inessential to the mysterious alchemy of the creative process, putting the focus squarely on admiring and creating cool images. “We want the focus to be on the photographs and the photographer,” adds Flory. “Quality will forever be in style.”