As you scroll down your Facebook news feed, you see a yellow-tinged photograph: a beach scene, the water green and foamy, mom and dad half-asleep on a purple beach towel, throngs of people just out of focus. The photo looks like a family outing that happened 30 prior, but in reality it was taken two hours ago. Before it was uploaded from a smartphone, the photographer altered the image with a retro-camera application to make it look like it was snapped on a finicky, analog camera. The confluence of social media, thirst for nostalgia, powerful palm computing, and heightened individual self-importance, argues Nathan Jurgenson at OWNI, has created a surprising bubble in faux-vintage photography.
Applications like Hipstamatic and Instagram manipulate digital images in a number of ways once championed by darkroom hobbyists and toy-camera enthusiasts; they can, at the swipe of a finger, “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.” The washed-out sheen of a Polaroid, the double-exposed ghostliness of a hand-wound lomography camera, and the supernatural hues of expired film have changed from quirky effects to “filters.” “[P]hotos in their Hipstamatic form,” writes Jurgenson, “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.”
Jurgenson fits the popularity of retro-camera apps into Susan Sontag’s “poet and scribe” theory, first posited in On Photography, her collection of essays published in 1977. He explains, “[W]hen 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.” More than a time capsule, Hipstamatic allows us to rewrite history in real time—or at least edit it—as we see fit. “And, ultimately,” Jurgenson continues, “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.”
The apps themselves are most popular in the realm of social networking, a place where trends are born and die in a flash. “Most damming for Hipstamatic and Instagram is that these apps tend to make everyone’s photos look similar,” Jurgenson concludes,