For quite a while now I’ve been fascinated with pseudo-vintage photography as popularized by Instagram, Hipstamatic, etc. For those of you who’ve never heard about them, those are (smartphone) apps that make your photos look as if they’ve been taken with a Polaroid or other pre-digital technology.
They come with light filters, add noise and scratches, imitate a paperframe around the picture, etc. In other words: They let you take a photo and make it age – without the waiting.
But it’s not the pictures themselves I’ve been fascinated with, although some of them create nice and/or eerie atmospheres.
The following essay is a reflection of this phenomenon in cultural terms:
What I’ve been wondering about was why this retro-photography suddenly became so popular. The times of lo-fi photography are over. Anybody can take high quality photos. So, why are those lo-fi photos suddenly so popular? Is it the same as buying brand new expensive jeans that are artificially aged?
Maybe. But the difference between pseudo-vintage jeans and pseudo-vintage photos taken by smartphones is that the former is something we’ve seen for many decades while the latter is a form of expression almost exclusively found on the Internet or Social Media platforms. Those are immaterial artefacts. Infinitely reproducible. Mass-produced by software. Only made to look as if they were printed on physical paper.
My thesis is that in the same way torn jeans were an expression of (different kinds) of post-war countercultures, rebelling against societal structure, modern day vintage-photography can be understood as a rejection of the structures and implications of the Social Media or Internet society.
Nathan Jurgenson who wrote an interesting essay on the topic of faux-vintage photography, as he calls it, notes that there is a
larger trend whereby social media increasingly force us to view our present as always a potential documented past.
Put more simply, the moment you “share” something online it is immediately stored somewhere, archived, filed away. It’s past.
Example: You eat a strawberry. The sun is shining in your face. You are happy to be alive.
Now, the moment you go to Facebook or Twitter and write “eating strawberry, sun is shining, happy to be alive”, you have killed the moment. Sounds too drastic?
Do you remember Goethe’s Faust, when he contracted the devil and in return promised him that:
If ever I to the moment shall say:
Beautiful moment, do not pass away!
Then you may forge your chains to bind me,
Isn’t this exactly how it happens with Social Media? The moment we share our present moment online, we have given over control. We are no longer experiencing it. And while we may not be consciously aware of it, we still intuit the loss of the present moment – the sense of immediate enjoyment, the simple pleasures of being.
And the problem is that we can’t go back. This is worse than nostalgia.
It’s the sense that technology and documentation are invading our private lives to such an extent that our basic Lebensgrundlage is threatened.
“We are creatures of the present moment.” – It’s a cliché found on every hipster’s coffee-table Zen accessoires. Nevertheless, it’s true. You don’t need to dress yourself in Eastern garbs to get it: There is no direct experience outside of the immediacy of the present moment.
To illustrate it:
Imagine monks tweeting from a silence-retreat. Pilgrims sharing pictures on Facebook. Yogis checking into Nirvana on foursquare.
Something is very off about all of that. And not just the fact that religious practitioners and social media addicts don’t mix so much.
But apart from religious or new-age connotations, the same situation can also be pictured in the extreme situation of a couple making love while one of them is “live-blogging” the event.
Something is terribly “out of phase”!
Put differently, the problem here, is again the split of Report vs Reported which may turn out to be one of the most defining characteristics of our time:
We are never just living. We are always documented and documenting. Increasingly so.
From taking home-videos and shooting polaroids we went to self-documentation on Social Media platforms, moment by moment, strawberry by strawberry.
In the midst of this, taking (otherwise boring) pictures of everyday stuff and running it through a retro-filter gives us a temporary relief of feeling in tune with our experience.
By artificially projecting our present experience into the past, it is easier for us to develop emotions and a feeling of authenticity, as Jurgenson puts it.
Because, what we do in the present, we don’t experience. Not anymore.
Because the time we say “Beautiful moment, do not pass away!” – it is already mediated – and the moment is gone.