I am working on a dissertation about self-documentation and social media and have decided to take on theorizing the rise of faux-vintage photography (e.g., Hipstamatic, Instagram). I want to start fleshing out ideas and will do so with a three-part series on this blog: I will post part two (“Grasping for Authenticity”) tomorrow and part three (“Nostalgia for the Present”) Thursday.

a recent snowstorm in DC: taken with Instagram and reblogged by NPR on Tumblr

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 (see parts II and especially III of this essay). 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.

Why Faux-Vintage Now?
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?

Is Picture-Quality the Reason?
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].

Susan Sontag

Poets and Scribes?
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.

In the next post, I will argue that the rise of faux-vintage photos using apps like Hipstamatic and Instagram is part of a grasp for authenticity. The photos evoke “a nostalgia for the present” that grants them a feeling of being more authentic and real. The third and last part of this essay will describe how the faux-vintage photo is indicative of a larger trend surrounding how our lives are increasingly always a potential document, and I will conclude the essay with a prediction about the future of the faux-vintage photo.

look out for part II tomorrow and part III thursday