It’s Gone, All Gone – Part 1: Instagram and the Faux-Vintage Photograph

by TylerJ

Not only is the photograph never, in essence, a memory, but it actually blocks memory, quickly becomes counter-memory – Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida


It’s Gone, All Gone is a three part investigation of the many instances of critical abuses of nostalgia. Specifically, I’ll be looking at how critically engaging something as an object of nostalgia is itself a nostalgic mode of thinking. Today: Instagram and the Faux-Vintage Photograph. Later: Part 2 will focus on social media and Part 3 on Simon Reynolds and Retromania. If you haven’t already, read the Introduction.

When I first wrote about Instagram six months ago, I concluded the following:

Instagram’s popularity is attributable to one primary factor: the ease of sharing one’s story. Instagram becomes a beautiful scrapbook of our daily lives, which we can instantly share with our friends. By choosing a filter for a photo, I am choosing how I would like to present myself to the world.

At that time I had been using Instagram for about four months and, while I was certainly aware of the retro-inspired origins of the filters, that retro-ness had very little to do with my interest in the app. In my mind, the primary function of the filters is and always has been to make photographs taken with subpar iPhone cameras look better. 

From the outset, Instagram and Hipstamatic have been criticized for being artificial engines of nostalgic production. In October 2010, Choire Sicha at the Awl wrote the following rebuke:

These are romantic and really somewhat infantile image techniques. They’re childish and nostalgic. They’re about sunny days and buzzing bees and reading books on a porch, and about road trips and romanticizing urban grime and being oh so gently alienated.

To Choire, filters like the ones found in Instagram create saccharine images that reflect the childish impulses of an overprivileged millennial elite. Applying a digital filter to a photograph is “beautiful,” “stupid,” and inauthentic. His argument never really gets past his title: “Your Beautiful Pictures Are Stupid.” The photographs are stupid, but why? What Choire’s critique really amounts to is a nostalgia for a time when photographs were authentic and unsullied by “infantile image techniques.”

Fenton, Roger. Valley of The Shadow of Death. Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin.

Worry about the authenticity of photographs is as old as the medium itself. Writers such as Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag, and Errol Morris spent a lot of time staring at photographs of unknown provenance while questioning their authenticity: is this photograph posed? is this a real moment? Authentic or not, the argument always takes place at the level of content. So, for example, Sontag contends a posed photograph such as Roger Fenton’s “Valley of The Shadow of Death” is drained of any effect it might have had with regard to war and death precisely because the content of the photograph was staged. Errol Morris, on the other hand, wonders “Why does moralizing about ‘posing’ take precedence . . . over moralizing about the carnage of war?” Authenticity is a question of content.

Damon Winter/New York Times

Interestingly, as we saw with Choire, with the advent of Instagram and Hipstamatic, questions of authenticity seem to hinge on formal concerns while completely ignoring content. The most recent example of this is New York Times photojournalist Damon Winter who was awarded third place from Pictures of the Year International for his picture story, “A Grunt’s Life.” Winter was embedded with the First Battalion, 87th Infantry of the 10th Mountain Division in northern Afghanistan and used his iPhone and the app Hipstamatic to document “long grueling days that are not pretty, not sexy, that the soldiers get through as best as they can.”

After winning the award Winter was attacked for using filters to alter his photographs. The strongest attack came from Chip Litherland, who claimed: “It’s now no longer photojournalism, but photography. That transition happens when images become more about the photographer and less about the subject of said photos.” Much like Choire, Litherland argues that the moment a photographer applies a filter the photograph becomes about the photographer, thus nullifying the content.

But does anyone actually believe that? Would anyone actually call a journalist risking his life in Afghanistan vain or childish because he used Hipstamatic filters? These are real soldiers. These are real guns. These are real battlefields. And as Winter’s explains, these are real stories:

We are being naïve if we think aesthetics do not play an important role in the way photojournalists tell a story. We are not walking photocopiers. We are storytellers.  We observe, we chose moments, we frame little slices of our world with our viewfinders, we even decide how much or how little light will illuminate our subjects, and — yes — we choose what equipment to use. Through all of these decisions, we shape the way a story is told.

The goal of any journalist is tell a story as accurately as possible, but as Winter says, “we are not walking photocopiers.” Every story is filtered through necessary decisions ranging from composition to equipment. Additionally, the journalist must be aware of the effect his or her presence has on the subjects. Indeed, Winter found that “Using the phone [was] discreet and casual and unintimidating.” For the soldiers, the iPhone represented a familiar form of snapshot photography. That familiarity allowed Winter to obtain shots that would not have been possible with a larger DSLR camera, which would have caused the soldiers to, as he says, “scatter.”

The dispute boils down to this: Are Winter’s shots less authentic because he used Hipstamatic filters? Or are the photos more authentic because the soldiers were more comfortable–more likely to act naturally–in front of Winter’s iPhone? More broadly: What exactly is the difference between using a real snapshot camera (Polaroid, Instamatic, or even a regular old 35mm ) and an iPhone camera app that appropriates the aesthetic from said snapshot cameras?

Nathan Jurgenson (who provides what might be the most thorough theoretical investigation of Instagram, Hipstamatic, and the faux-vintage photograph) writes that using filters to alter an iPhone photograph is “an attempt to make our photos seem more important, substantial and real.” In other words, what Choire finds so cloying about the “trendy” use of vintage filters, and what Literland finds so anti-journalistic, is precisely this “attempt to make our photos seem more important.”

Part of the indignation surrounding the faux-vintage photograph is attributable to the unmistakeable aesthetic. It’s easy to see how attempting to “seem more important” might come off as dissembling and pretentious. After all, the only thing worse than attempting to seem more important is being seen as attempting to seem more important. It makes sense then that Jurgenson sees faux-vintage filters as primarily an “existential move that is deployed because conjuring the past creates a sense of nostalgia and authenticity.” In Jurgenson’s view, applying a filter to a photograph grounds it in the safety of an authentic aesthetic, “because, previously, vintage photos were actually vintage.” If the aesthetic is authentic, then so too, we hope, must the content.

However, I’d like to put some pressure on the idea that “vintage photos were actually vintage” because there’s plenty of evidence that suggests photographers throughout the history of photography have looked upon choices of film, camera, and lens as aesthetic choices. In fact, there has never really been a singular photographic aesthetic. From the very beginning different techniques and equipment provided significantly different image results.

"Abraham Lincoln" by Nicholas H. Shepherd, 1846 (daguerreotype)

"Thomas Duncan" by Robert Adamson and David Octavius Hill, 1844 (calotype)

As it became easier for consumers to combine different film types and cameras, it was possible to reproduce the world in new and exciting ways. By the 1970s, photography was dominated by the Polaroid and the Instamatic. The Instamatic was a low-cost, portable camera that was easy to use, but required lengthy film processing. The Polaroid, on the other hand, offered immediate gratification, but required necessary workarounds to compensate for limited focal range and unpredictable colors. As it gained popularity, The Polaroid was understood to be good for some things and terrible at most things. Surprisingly, these limitations quickly became a sought-after aesthetic. Walker Evans, for example, found the Polaroid particularly well-suited for portrait photography (the hopped up reds made everyone look flush and full of life, while the bright flash formed a pleasing darkness around the subject).

It’s important to realize that a daguerreotype is not a “vintage” photo; and a photograph snapped with a point-and-shoot 35mm camera in 1980 is not a “vintage” photo. When we speak of “vintage photos,” what we really mean is a photograph of a very particular time and place–specifically snapshots taken in the 1970s with either an Instamatic or a Polaroid camera. For that reason,  “Vintage” refers to a particular aesthetic and thus it is important to remember that a “vintage” photo is just a photo–and like every photo is subject to the lighting, the composition, the timing, the framing, the film choice, the camera choice, the photographer’s height and steadiness, the humidity and a list of a thousand other variables.

Consider the following thought experiment: If I were to take a photograph today with a Polaroid camera, would it be a vintage photograph? Using the definition elucidated above, the answer is most certainly yes because the vintage-ness of the photograph is tied not to the content or the age, but to the aesthetic. But is that photograph somehow more authentic, as Jurgenson would contend, than a photograph I might have taken with Instagram?

One of the problems with talking about authenticity is that it tends to divorce the physical photograph from the act of taking the photograph. So while Jurgenson might say that by adding a filter on Instagram is founded in a desire for authenticity, I want to take a step back and say that the act of taking a photograph is itself already a desire for authenticity. In other words, it’s not the filter that’s the “existential move” that announces I’m here; it’s the photo. In Alexis Madrigal’s Atlantic article, “The Triumph of Kodakery,” he argues that Kodak’s legacy will not be its cameras, but will instead be the culture it created:

Kodak pitched its cameras, through a series of different ad campaigns, as vehicles for capturing good times, good memories, good stories. Not war, but the letter a soldier would read to comfort himself while in the trenches.

Duke/Library of Congress

As Madrigal explains, Kodak was pushing the idea that “if you don’t take a picture, it’s not as authentic as if you did.” But it’s a peculiar kind of authenticity because by encouraging people to capture “good times, good memories, good stories,” Kodak is instructing consumers to leave out the bad. Shortly after the release of the first consumer Kodak cameras, people began curating their lives into scrapbooks and photo albums, securing memories into a coherent and happy narrative.

By the 1970s, cameras were nearly ubiquitous and more people than ever before were beginning to document their lives and capture the good times. One of the people instrumental in bringing snapshots to the masses was the inventor of the Polaroid camera, Edward Land. What’s surprising is that while Land knew people would love the immediate gratification that Polaroid offered, he discovered shortly after the release of the SX-70 Polaroid camera in 1972 that people didn’t just want to capture moments, they wanted to share them. In a remarkably personal, albeit grandiose letter, Land shares his surprise:

“We could not have known and have only just learned–perhaps mostly from children from two to five–that a new kind of relationship between people in groups is brought into being by SX-70 when the members of a group are photographing and being photographed and sharing the photographs: it turns out that buried within all of us–God knows beneath how many pregenital and Freudian and Calvinistic strata–there is latent interest in each other; there is tenderness, curiosity, excitement, affection, companionability and humor; it turns out that in this cold world where man grows distant from man, and even lovers can reach each other only briefly, that we have a yen for and a primordial competence for a quiet good-humored delight in each other: we have a prehistoric tribal competence for a non-physical, non-emotional, non-sexual satisfaction in being partners in the lonely exploration of a once empty planet.”

The SX-70

Perhaps Land is overstating the case, but what he discovered was that photography called attention to a “latent interest in each other.” Taking and sharing photographs makes us feel less alone, but more than that, taking and sharing photographs engenders an appreciation for the world by encouraging respites from everyday life.

Choire, Litherland, and Jurgenson criticize Instagram and Hipstamatic because the digital filters reveal photography’s inherent artifice. Choire finds it nostalgic and childish; Litherland vain; and Jurgenson a nostalgic struggle for authenticity. But to label this nostalgia is to imply there was a moment when photography wasn’t childish, vain, or a struggle for authenticity. To criticize Instagram as nostalgia is to fall prey to the pitfalls of nostalgic modes of thinking. By focusing on the past these critics disregard the present and fail to examine how Instagram is actually used.

Nostalgia hides simple truths:

  • By a wide margin, the most popular filter used on Instagram is no filter at all (48 percent). The 2nd most used filter is “Earlybird” at 14 percent.
  • Instagram is not about the filters; it’s about the sharing. From Instagram’s About page: “Instagram came from that inspiration—could we make sharing your life as instant and magic as those first Polaroid pictures must have felt?”
  • Fact: Most photographers take terrible photographs. Instagram filters can turn a boring photograph into an interesting photograph, but a bad photograph is a bad photograph. Roland Barthes put it best: “Polaroid? Fun, but disappointing, except when a great photographer is involved.”
  • The filters are not just aesthetically “vintage,” they’re aesthetically complicated–and, let’s face it, a lot of fun.

As we proceed in our “lonely exploration,” it’s important to find and share moments, ideas, and objects to lessen the distance between friends, family, and strangers. In the tradition of Kodak and Edward Land, Instagram makes it easier than ever to share one’s story, to find delight in one another, and, if we’re lucky, feel a little less lonely.