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,
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).