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 posted part one yesterday (“Hipstamatic and Instagram”) and tomorrow I will post the third and final part (“Nostalgia for the Present”). [Update: Read the full essay here.]
If you use social media then you probably have noticed the recent proliferation of faux-vintage photography, often the product of smartphone applications such as Hipstamatic and Instagram. I describe in part I of this essay posted yesterday 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? I will tackle this question today, and in part III tomorrow, will conclude that the rise, and potential fall, of faux-vintage photography illustrates larger points about social media in general.
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.
Faux-Physicality as Augmented Reality
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.
Nostalgia and Authenticity
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 their Hipstamatic 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.
What all this hints at– and this will be the topic for the third and final part of this essay tomorrow– is that Hipstamatic and Instagram are merely good examples of a larger trend inherent to all social media: that the rapid proliferation of self-documentation possibilities makes us increasingly live our present as a potential documented past.
*quote is from page 284 of Jameson’s Postmodernism: Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991.
Follow Nathan on Twitter: @nathanjurgenson
Bon — May 11, 2011
fascinating, and yes...i think the simulacra of vintage-ness has a great deal to do with nostalgia for the present, with the way it signifies authenticity.
there's more, too, that i keep stumbling into but can't quite find words for. i think it's partly about documentation and nostalgia but partly about performance, too. the use of vintage visuals and artifacts signifies knowledge...and it seems to me it has to be tied somehow to the particular eras and cultural styles that get referred to. digital technologies allow many more of us to see ourselves as photographers than was possible or likely even ten/fifteen years ago, so it makes sense that we perform our role by making and sharing work that signifies "art" rather than just "snapshot." old-school b & ws still carry the gravity of Cartier-Bresson, and the look that hipstamatic and instagram seem to cumulatively create is an early 70s look...as is the facebook piece above. childhood nostalgia of thirty & forty-somethings made ironic and therefore artful?
nathanjurgenson — May 11, 2011
bon, thanks, and i agree that "digital technologies allow many more of us to see ourselves as photographers than was possible or likely even ten/fifteen years ago, so it makes sense that we perform our role by making and sharing work that signifies “art” rather than just “snapshot.”" I discuss that in Part I when dealing with our role as both "poet" and "scribe" when taking a photo. however, why, when given the ability to edit photos and make them interesting, do we overwhelmingly choose to make them retro? and why does retro=interesting in the first place? that's where ironic nostalgia and authenticity come in, i think.
Mamie — May 11, 2011
This series is so interesting. Your project is going to be really nice.
As an anthropologist working with 19th-century materials, I see a number of similarities between what you describe here and the late 19th century decadence movement/trend in art, literature and fashion -- the importance of aesthetics, reveling in artifice, creating an image just past its prime at the moment of decay. Barzun credited decadence to a sense of loss of the possibility of progress. There's a fantastic summary of Decadence here, if you're not already familiar: http://notearama.blogspot.com/2010/01/decadence-symbolists-and-fin-de-siecle.html.
Based on this, I would argue that the faux-vintage movement in the US at least could be seen not as grasping for authenticity, but rather invoking and subverting the optimism and confidence of mid-century America. These photos could be nostalgic not (or not just) in the sense of creating a remembered present in the face of transient media, but (also) in the loss of a past in which there was confidence in progress and the stature of the US.
I'm really looking forward to your third segment!
Dave Paul — May 11, 2011
well it plays into hipsters really well. Hipsters have been theorized as those who romanticize their parents when their parents were their age (20s or so) [see the book "What was the Hipster?" published by the New School a few years back]. So people in their 20s now probably have parents that are baby boomers, hence the love of vintage photography. Its young people today, who are living away from home for the first time, often in unfamiliar cities, and they see their parents wearing crazy clothes in old photos with big hair and glasses and they say, "hey, im gonna be cool by dressing/acting like them."
Ismail Nooraddini — May 11, 2011
I get where youre coming from, but pulling from Aristotles notion of time, if the past is no longer, than it doesnt exist. I dont see how this is a representation of the past, in the form of a 'simulate nostalgia,' if the past doesnt exist. On top of that, again on the case of simulation, the consciousness does not understand whats "real, authentic, or fake," it merely perceives (sensory inupts) and its the narrative that sculpts that perception. What youre doing is creating a narrative, with words we've designated meaning to, to create a conscious image... but if the past doesnt exist, the simulacrum has no relevance, based on the notion of functionalism, then how does this how any impact aside from the narrative youre creating (keep in mind youre an academic with a vocabulary)?
In the case of performance, is this not a form of impression management? And in impression management do we not act in accordance with an agreed upon setting (narrative)? Taking thsi further, from a bio9logical perspective, man is by nature a social creature, for them to function they must act in cohesive coalitions,which will require the cooperation of each team member, again the agreed upon setting (narrative). Stryker even goes to far as to say we manipulate our environments to being upon salient identities, and these identities are social agreed upon structures as well (another narrative). These are all constructed symbols which arose one way or another through a negotiative factor. Through all of this, its words, symbols and meanings, but this notion of simulacra and nostalgia simply dont exist... for the mind only perceives, the origin of pereption is irrelevant.
christine — May 11, 2011
Have you read or seen John Berger's "Ways of Seeing?" I think some of his and ideas and thoughts may compliment some of your work on this subject.
The faux-patina of hipstamatic vintage layovers definitely helps the user (and viewer) feel like they are a part in a created memory, a landscape of nostalgia, really.
christine — May 11, 2011
And I just have to add this... sometimes I use these vintage photography techniques to simply cover up poorly rendered photos. I've take some horrid pictures that, when a vintage layover is applied, suddenly don't seem as bad. I think this plays into what Bon said--these apps give us knowledge which in turn gives us power and "skill." Suddenly we are ALL professional photographers.
Sarah — May 11, 2011
Agreeing with the other comments I'm seeing here regarding performativity; that's something else that came up when my husband and I were discussing this piece, and while any discussion of social media is going to implicitly refer to performance for the benefit of others, I think there could be more here to tease out in regards to that--unless that's part of what you plan to talk about tomorrow. But I think that people are creating these images to call up emotions in others, not just in themselves--making their documented presents/pasts look significant and authentic to the rest of the world, or at least the rest of the bit of it that is likely to see the images. I'm not sure where to take that--or if there's anywhere to take it--but yeah.
I also see a connection between this trend and the rejection of digital audio recording in favor of vinyl records--not only in terms of the idea that digital is somehow less authentic across the board, but an attempt to reach back to a time when music itself is perceived to have been more authentic and less commodified.
Do you think this is a new development, part of a larger cultural reaction against the perception of the digital as less authentic? Or do we always feel that artifacts of the past are somehow more authentic than the present?
Ismail Nooraddini — May 11, 2011
"... in illiciting a response. The response is then reacted to creating a negoiated interaction." **
sally — May 11, 2011
I'm going to go with marking theory (again) on this one. These days, people may crave what is "marked" as a way to "differentiate" themselves from the rest of the smart phone herd.
In this way, maybe it isn't about "fake vintage" at all. Maybe people use these apps just because they create something perceived as "different." When everyone starts using Instagram and Hipstamatic, then perhaps people will "revert" to the "days of yore" of straight up digital photography without the filters.
Not to dispute your research, but to add the notion that maybe its bigger. Maybe its about differentiation, not necessarily "vintage."
Though both apps offer a "vintage" filter--the apps offer other filters as well. Perhaps a good indicator would be to see how many people are using the "vintage" filter as opposed to the other options that the apps allow. In that way, you could get some numbers as to which filters are popular and be able to support your work even further.
sally — May 11, 2011
You can try to collect some data.
Take some random samples from the Instagram and Hipstamatic archives. Do people make their photos public? Is there a way to search for them on Flickr?
Replqwtil — May 12, 2011
Whew! Heck of a comment thread. Looks like you hit on a killer topic with this one Nathan. I really enjoyed your use of simulation here, and I honestly think that the whole topic can be placed squarely, and comfortably, in the structural law of value.
I think that this phenomena perfectly demonstrates the way that things no longer 'represent' anything, i.e. the flatness of the structural value system. In particular, I can see a possible link here with what Sally was saying above about Marking. It could be said that these faux-vintage photos do not 'represent' anything in the old sense of relating to a real, as simulations of authenticity and the past as you describe, but rather that they are Marks used to indicate a particular place or status for the photos within the user's social sphere. In that way it seems to me a fitting example of the Code which now governs the social system.
At the same time, this ties back in with the concepts of performativity raised above. Everything which occurs in a social system, which is the only system Baudrillard describes, must inherently occur with an audience. Thus marking, or encoding, of messages in particular forms is a way of signalling our social sphere. It is performative in the sense that it is a way to demonstrate something to our social system, of marking ourselves and being responded to accordingly.
Rather than representing something in the classical sense, it seems to be a way to demonstrate things. The difference being that representation harkened back to a real which is no longer current, while demonstration refers only to pure concepts. The Idea of authenticity, rather than a truly authentic thing, as you say. That, to me, is exactly what Structural Value is all about: The circulation of ideas, rather than the real. Replacing the real with the representation of the real, and then abandoning it completely in favour of those representations, taking them as the new real. Simulacra and Simulation.
Okay, I know that this may have been a bit scattershot, but those were my impressions after reading this excellent comment thread. Always delightful!
nathanjurgenson — May 12, 2011
yes, the comments have been extraordinary! i really do tend to agree with your points, and you'll see that this is really the direction i go in part III. i do mention bourdieu's concept of distinction, which seems quite relevant. but once we replace the real with its representation, as i agree we have with these faux-vintage photos, will that maybe portend the eventual decline of this style? for baudrillard, once reality goes it is gone. but it strikes me that we will dispose of this trend once we extract the authenticity from it (hipsters will be the first to find no remaining authenticity, their parents the last).
The SIP » The Faux-Vintage Photo Part 1: Hipstamatic and Instagram — June 2, 2011
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Dave — August 3, 2011
Loved reading these. Really thought-provoking stuff. There could be something useful for you in Roland Barthes' "Camera Lucida", if you aren't already using it as a resource.
There are parallel things happening in music production. Software plugins like Izotope's Trash, which -- on an oversimplified level -- is a distortion plugin with a vast array of presets (some that mimic sounds from classic recordings from a bygone era), but also has the depth of Photoshop (but for audio) if you choose to look under the hood. IZotope also has a free plugin called "Vinyl" that can add pops, hisses, scratches, etc, to make your music sound like it's on vinyl. Now I'm starting to sound like an advertisement. Really though, I think iZotope might be an ideal example to use if you want to throw in a footnote about how these impulses have manifested themselves in contemporary music production.
Looking forward to reading more as you continue writing!
The Faux-Vintage Photo Part 1: Hipstamatic and Instagram | SIP — September 28, 2011
[...] 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 [...]
David Xiao — October 30, 2011
Your work is terrific!
can you tie this in with marx's notion of commodity, or make sense of it as fetish?
could you perhaps explore authenticity in relation to 'late' capitalism?
or point me out the books I should be reading. replequtil makes some good points i would like to explore.
I was watching this video, and was so concious of this suddenly that i ended up discovering your work on google.
i'm sorry i have a cold, it's late and i'm extrememly muddleheaded.
David Xiao — October 30, 2011
There is a terrific article (in my opinion) by an obscure poet named Kirill Medvedev which outlines some of these things I am trying to articulate.
"Such notions as “sincerity” and “innocence” shape consciousness to an enormous degree nowadays. In all its dimensions (cultural, social, political, etc.) the present conjuncture is determined less by “glamour” culture, as common sense has it, and more by the “new sincerity” or, rather, by the “new emotionalism.” The new emotionalism is the cultural and ideological mainstream of our time"
"In culture, the new sincerity emerged in reaction to postmodernism, and, on the other hand, to the hang-ups of (post-)Soviet consciousness. At some point, direct statement and an appeal to biographical experience as a zone of authenticity were the weapons used to smash at least two discourses—the crudely ideologized discourse of Sovietness and the ascetic, incorporeal, cultish discourse of the underground"
The essay is here,
Please please please tell me what you think.
apodeictic — November 5, 2011
If you want to connect meaning to photographic materiality, check out Photographs Objects Histories: On the Materiality of Images, edited by Janice Hart and Elizabeth Edwards. Peter Buse and Geoffrey Batchen are two photo history theorists heavyweights who might also help.
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