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). To start fleshing out ideas, I am doing a three-part series on this blog: part one was posted Tuesday (“Hipstamatic and Instagram”) and part two yesterday (“Grasping for Authenticity”). This is the last installment.
With more than two million users each, Hipstamatic and Instagram have ushered a wave of simulated retro photographs that have populated our social media streams. Even a faux-vintage video application is gaining popularity. The first two posts in this series described what faux-vintage photography is, its technical facilitators and attempted to explain at least one main reason behind its explosive popularity. When we create an instant “nostalgia for the present” by sharing digital photos that look old and often physical, we are trying to capture for our present the authenticity and importance vintage items possess. In this final post, I want to argue that faux-vintage photography, a seemingly mundane and perhaps passing trend, makes clear a larger point: social media, in its proliferation of self-documentation possibilities, increasingly positions our present as always a potential documented past.
Nostalgia for the Present
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.
What Will Become of the Faux-Vintage Photo?
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?