Social media increasingly force us to view our present as always a potential documented past.
Nathan Jurgenson is working on a dissertation about self-documentation and social media and wrote this essay for his Cyborgology blog.Find the original post here. It is replicated on OWNI with the author’s permission.
This past winter, during an especially large snowfall, my Facebook and Twitter streams became inundated with grainy photos that shared a similarity beyond depicting massive amounts of snow: many of them appeared to have been taken on cheap Polaroid or perhaps a film cameras 60 years prior. However, the photos were all taken recently using a popular set of new smartphone applications like Hipstamatic or Instagram. The photos (like the one above) immediately caused a feeling of nostalgia and a sense of authenticity that digital photos posted on social media often lack. Indeed, there has been a recent explosion of retro/vintage photos. Those smartphone apps have made it so one no longer needs the ravages of time or to learn Photoshop skills to post a nicely aged photograph.
In this essay, I hope to show how faux-vintage photography, while seemingly banal, helps illustrate larger trends about social media in general. The faux-vintage photo, while getting a lot of attention in this essay, is merely an illustrative example of a larger trend whereby social media increasingly force us to view our present as always a potential documented past. But we have a ways to go before I can elaborate on that point. Some technological background is in order.
The first very popular app that made your photographs instantly retro was Hipstamatic app. Instagram is even more powerful with its selection of multiple “filters,” that is, different flavors of vintage (a few not-so-vintage filters are available, too). Instagram also features a popular social networking layer that allows users to contribute and view a stream of Instagram photos with “friends.” Other retro photography applications are available as well.
What do these apps do? Among other things, they fade the image (especially at the edges), adjust the contrast and tint, over- or under-saturate the colors, blur areas to exaggerate a very shallow depth of field, add simulated film grain, scratches and other imperfections and so on. And, importantly for the next post, the photos are often made to mimic being printed on real, physical photo paper. And many of our Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, etc. streams have become the home to one of these vintage-looking photos after another.
This trend was made possible due to the rise of smartphones because smartphone photography has at least three important differences from the previous (and increasingly endangered) point-and-shoot digital cameras: (1) your smartphone is more likely to be on you all the time, even while sleeping, than was even the most portable point-and-shoot; (2) the smart phone camera exists as part of a powerful computer-software ecosystem comprised of a series of applications; and (3) the smartphone is typically connected to the Internet in more ways and more often than previous cameras were. Thus, the photos you take are more likely to be social (opposed to for personal consumption only) because the camera is now always with you in social situations, and, most importantly, the device is connected to the web and exists within a series of other apps on your smartphone that are often capable of delivering content to various social media. Beyond being social, the applications make it far easier to apply different filters to photos than did point-and-shoot cameras or using photo editing software on your computer.
But the question I am asking with this essay is not just about the rise of digitally manipulated social photography, but why these digitally manipulated photos showing up in our social media streams are manipulated specifically to look vintage.
Why do so many of us prefer to take, share and view these faux-aged photos?
Perhaps, as another blogger noted, it is the low quality of phone cameras that has lead to the rise of faux-vintage. Maybe the current quality of smartphone cameras tends to produce stale photographs which are then made more interesting when given a faux-vintage filter? Photographers have long known that, depending on the situation, a gritty photo can be as good as or better than a technically perfect shot, and now everyone with a smartphone can take an interesting picture with just one additional press of a button. But, this explanation does little to explain why we equate vintage with interesting in the first place. [Also, many current smartphone cameras are of high quality].
Another reason for the rise of faux-vintage photography might be that these apps allow us to be more creative with our photos. Susan Sontag in the wonderful On Photography discusses how photography is always both the capturing of truth as well as a subjective creation. In this sense, when taking a photograph we are at once both poets and scribes; a point that I have used to describe our self-documentation on social media: we are both telling the truth about our lives as scribes, but always doing so creatively like poets. So, if “photography is not only about remembering, it is [also] about creating,” then the rise of smartphones and photo apps have democratized the tools to create photos that emphasize art, not just truth. But, again, this explanation would only explain why we might want to manipulate photos in the first place. It does not explain why so many of us have so often chosen to manipulate them into looking specifically retro/vintage.
When taking a photograph we are at once both poets and scribes
So far I have described what faux-vintage photography is and noted that it is a new trend, comes primarily from smartphones and has proliferated on social media sites like Facebook, Tumblr and others. However, the important question remains: why this massive popularity of faux-vintage photographs?
What I want to argue is that the rise of the faux-vintage photo is an attempt to create a sort of “nostalgia for the present,” an attempt to make our photos seem more important, substantial and real. We want to endow the powerful feelings associated with nostalgia to our lives in the present. And, ultimately, all of this goes well beyond the faux-vintage photo; the momentary popularity of the Hipstamatic-style photo serves to highlight the larger trend of our viewing the present as increasingly a potentially documented past. In fact, the phrase “nostalgia for the present” is borrowed from the great philosopher of postmodernism, Fredric Jameson, who states that “we draw back from our immersion in the here and now [...] and grasp it as a kind of thing.”*
The term “nostalgia” was coined more than 300 years ago to describe the medical condition of severe, sometimes lethal, homesickness. By the 19th century the word morphs from a physical to a psychological descriptor, not just about the longing of a place, but also a longing for a time past that, except through reminders, one can never return to. Indeed, this is Marcel Proust’s favorite topic: the ways in which sensory stimuli have great power to invoke overwhelmingly strong feelings and vivid memories of the past; precisely the nostalgic feelings that faux-vintage photos seek to invoke.
One important way in which the digital photo does this is by looking like it is not a digital photo at all. For many, and especially those using faux-vintage apps, photography is primarily experienced in the digital form: snapped on a digital camera and stored and shared via digital albums on computers and websites like Facebook. But just as the rise and proliferation of the mp3 is coupled with the resurgence of vinyl, there is a similar reclaiming of the aesthetic of the physical photo. Physicality, with its weight, smell and tactile interaction, grants a significance that bits have not (yet) achieved. The quickest way to invoke nostalgia for a time past with a photograph is to invoke the properties of the physical, which is done by mimicking the ravages of time through fading, simulated film grain and scratches as well as the addition of what appears to be photo-paper or Polaroid borders around the image.
This follows the trend of what I have labeled “augmented reality”: the fact that physical and digital are increasingly imploding into each other. And by making our digital photos appear physical, we are attempting to purchase the cachet and importance that physicality imparts. I’ve noted in the past this trend to endow the physical with a special importance. I commented on the bias to view physical books as more “deep” than digital text. I also critiqued those who label digital activism “slacktivism” and those who view digital communication as inherently shallow. Why would we grant the physical photo special importance?
Perhaps the answer is because the physical photograph was scarce. Producing a photo took longer and cost more money prior to the advent of digital photography. This is one of the main differences between atoms and bits: the former is scarce and the later is abundant; something I have written about before. That an old photo was taken and has survived grants it an authority that the equivalent digital photo taken today cannot achieve. In any case, that the faux-vintage photograph aspires to physicality is only part of why they have become so massively popular.
I submit that we have chosen to create and view faux-vintage photos because they seem more authentic and real. One does not need to be consciously aware of this when choosing the filter, hitting the “like” button on Facebook or reblogging on Tumblr. We have associated authenticity with the style of a vintage photo because, previously, vintage photos were actually vintage. They stood the test of time, they described a world past, and, as such, they earned a sense of importance.
People are quite aware of the power of vintage and retro as carriers of authenticity. Sharon Zukin’s book Naked City expertly describes the recent gentrification of inner cities as the quest for authenticity, often in the form of grit and decay. For those born in the plastic, inauthentic world of suburban Disneyfied and McDonaldized America, there has been a cultural obsession with decay (“decay porn”) and a search for authentic reality in our simulated world (as Jean Baudrillard might say).
The faux-vintage photos populating our social media streams share a similar quality with the inner-city Brooklyn neighborhood rich with authentic grit: they conjure authenticity and real-ness in the age of simulation and the vast proliferation of digital images. And, in this way, the Hipstamatic photo places yourself and your present into the context of the past, the authentic, the important and the real.
But, of course, unlike urban grit or the rarity of an expensive antique, the vintage-ness of a Hipstamatic or Instagram photo is simulated (the faux in faux-vintage). We all know quite well that these photos are not really aged with time but instead by an app. These are self-aware simulations (perhaps the self-awareness is the hipster in Hipstamatic). The faux-vintage photo is more similar to a fake 1950′s diner built many decades later. They are Main St. in Disney world or the fake checkered cab in the New York, New York hotel and casino complex in Las Vegas. These are all simulations attempting to make people nostalgic for a time past. Consistent with Baudrillard’s description of simulations, photos in theirHipstamatic form have become more vintage than vintage; they exaggerate the qualities of the idea of what it is to be vintage and are therefore hyper-vintage.
The very thing that a faux-vintage photo provides, authenticity, is thus negated by the fact that it is a simulation. However, this fact does preclude these photos conjuring feelings of nostalgia and authenticity because what is being referenced is not “the vintage” but “the idea of the vintage,” similar to the simulated diner, modern checkered-cab or Disney Main St.; all hyper-real versions of something else and all quite capable of causing and exploiting feelings of nostalgia. Therefore, simply being aware that the authenticity Hipstamatic purchases is simulated does disqualify the faux-vintage photo from entering into the economy of the real and authentic.
The rise of faux-vintage photography demonstrates a point that can be extrapolated to documentation on social media writ large: social media users have become always aware of the present as a potential document to be consumed by others. Facebook fixates the present as always a future past. Be it through status updates on Twitter, geographical check-ins on Foursquare, reviews on Yelp, those Instagram photos or all of the other self-documentation possibilities afforded to us by Facebook, we view our world more than ever before through what I like to call “documentary vision.”
Documentary vision is kind of like the “camera eye” photographers develop when, after taking many photos, they begin to see the world as always a potential photo even when not holding the camera at all. The habit of the photographer involuntarily framing and composing the world has become a metaphor for those trained to document using social media. The explosion of ubiquitous self-documentation possibilities, and the audience for our documents that social media promises, has positioned us to live life in the present with the constant awareness of how it will be perceived as having already happened. We come to see what we do as always a potential document, imploding the present with the past, and ultimately making us nostalgic for the here and now. And there is no better paradigmatic example for this view of the present as always a potential documented past than the faux-vintage photo (why I have chosen this as a topic for essay). The faux-vintage photo asks the viewer to suspend disbelief about the authenticity of the simulated nostalgia and to see the photo–and who and whatever is in it–as being authentic and important by referencing at least the idea of the past. While, technically, all photographs, indeed all documentation, conjure the past, the faux-vintage photograph serves to vividly underscore and make even more clear our efforts to display our lives in the present as already a past to feel nostalgic for.
The faux-vintage photograph is self-aware of itself as document. If regular photos placed on Facebook walls document that we exist, the faux-vintage photo is this but also more than this: it is also a reference to documentation itself. This double document–a document of documentation–becomes further proof that we are here and we exist. The rise of faux-vintage photographs, snapped on smartphones and shared via social media, is centrally an existential move that is deployed because conjuring the past creates a sense of nostalgia and authenticity.
But the ultimate irony is that while these tools, just like all of social media, help us reinforce to ourselves and others that we are real and authentic, but they do this by simultaneously divorcing us to some degree from experiencing our present in the here and now. Think of a time when you took a trip holding a camera and then think of when you did the same without the camera; most of us have probably traveled both with and without a camera in our hands and we know the experience is at least slightly different; some might claim radically different. With so many documentation possibilities (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Yelp, Foursquare and so on), we are always, both literally and metaphorically, living with the camera in our hands. When discovering a new bar or a great slice of pizza we might think of posting a review on Yelp; when overhearing a funny conversation we might think to tweet it; when hanging out with friends we might create a status update for Facebook; and when at a concert we might find ourselves distracted by needing to take and post a photo of the event as it happens. When the breakfast I made the other week looked especially delicious, I posted a photo of it before even taking a bite.
My larger dissertation project will be to explore these points and demonstrate specifically how this newly expanded documentary vision potentially changes what we do. Does knowing that you will check in on Foursquare at least slightly influence what restaurant you’ll choose to eat at? In what other ways is our online documentation not just a reflection of what we do but also sometimes (or always?) a cause? To go straight to the extreme case, I once overheard a young inebriated woman on the subway around 2am state that “the real world is where you take pictures for Facebook.” She was, I thought, the smartest person on that train.
Let me conclude this all by coming back to faux-vintage photos specifically. I think they might be a passing fad.
Faux-vintage photos devalue and exhaust their own sense of authenticity, which portends their disappearance because, as I described in part II, authenticity is the very currency by which they have become popular; there is an inflation as a result of printing too much currency of the real. For instance, the faux-vintage photo will no longer be able to conjure the importance associated with physicality (another point made in part II) if the vintage look begins to be more closely associated with smartphones than old photos. The novelty begins to wear off and the nostalgia fades away.
Most damming for Hipstamatic and Instagram is that these apps tend to make everyone’s photos look similar. In an attempt to make oneself look distinct and special through the application of vintage-producing filters, we are trending towards photos that look the same. The Hipstamatic photo was new and interesting, is currently a fad, and it will come to (or, already has?) look too posed, too obvious, and trying too hard (especially if the parents of the current users start to post faux-vintage photos themselves).
To be clear, photographic techniques like saturation, fading, vignetting and others are not essentially good or bad (for instance, I love these faux-vintage shots). But when so widely used they seem less like an artistic choice and more as if they are merely following a trend (what Baudrillard called the “logic of fashion”). The ironic fate that extinguishes so many trends built on suggesting and exploiting authenticity is that their very popularity extinguishes that which made them popular.
The inevitable decline (but not full disappearance) of the faux-vintage photo will be our collective decision that the style is beginning to appear increasingly posed, contrived and passé, and thus negating the feelings of authenticity that were the very reason we liked them in the first place.Another retro-looking photo of a sunny country road, a dandelion, or your feet?
*quote is from page 284 of Jameson’s Postmodernism: Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991.
Credit for the snowstorm image: http://tballardbrown.tumblr.com/
Credit for the Disney castle image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/chel1974/4578467229/in/photostream/
Credit for the Hipstamatic photogrid: http://www.myglasseye.net/
Main photo: Flickr CC Βethan
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