Manufacturing Meaning

No doubt you have seen your friends posting photos on various picture sharing sites that look like they were taken with an old 70s camera, or a polaroid. But you were in the photo. You know they used their iphone to take that picture. What’s the deal?

Due to the popularity of smartphones, there has been an explosion of “faux-vintage” apps that apply a filter to pictures you taken and make your normal looking photographs look vintage. I have commented several times how much I loathe these fake photos. We all are very interested in how many megapixels our cameras and cameraphones have so that we can get crisp, true, vivid images. Then we run them through filters so they look crummy. Beyond that simple gripe, it also seems to me there was something desperate about trying to make our pictures look interesting, maybe because we felt they weren’t important or interesting enough on their own.

A dissertation essay (stay with me – its really cool, I wish my dissertation was half as interesting as this) discusses the phenomenon of Faux-Vintage Photography and tries to examine why these apps are so popular.

The author comes up with two theories, but equally intriguing.

Grasping for Authenticity

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.

He argues that technology has made taking pictures and cataloging our daily lives with photos has become easier than ever. I am willing to bet you have a camera within 3 feet of you right now. Therefore, because it is so easy to take pictures, especially compared to the past, we have a desire to make our photos stand out. We can do this by adding these vintage filters. For one, it changes the image from just the normal static image you see in most pose-smile-click photos. Second, it make the photos look like those old style pictures. The kind you had to take to a photo shop and wait an hour to develop. You only took photos of important things, because you had film that ran out. And you had to go pay to get it developed. We are trying to impart that same importance to our largely disposable pictures.

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 wereactually vintage. They stood the test of time, they described a world past, and, as such, they earned a sense of importance.

The two problems with this are that, of course, they aren’t authentic. They are imitating authenticity. They are, like the author writes, like those 50s style diners that crop up in suburbs now. An imitation of a bygone era, trying to briefly grasp a cherished time in a way that is too self aware.

Nostalgia for the Present

His other argument is a bit wider in its implications. He describes how as a society, we are constantly cataloging our lives, not really living them anymore. I am guilty of this myself. Instead of enjoying a moment, a sunset, a good meal, a concert – we take a picture, or check in, or tweet it, or record it.

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.

The faux-vintage app helps us to reclaim a bit of this. It reminds us of the analog limitations of life. It makes things imperfect.

His closing is an especially interesting point – and is often the crest and downfall of all trends. Eventually those things that make us “different” and “cool” become mainstream. Enough people have them, and you no longer are set apart, but a part of the crowd.

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).

Do you use these apps, such as Instagram or Hipstamatic? Why do you use them?

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One thought on “Manufacturing Meaning”

  1. Brilliant article Jonathan.

    It is our need to hang on to the past that has made these photo programs so popular. While it may keep things interesting for us, it will be mighty confusing for generations, say, about a 100 years from now. It’s a sheep behavior, a fad, and hopefully a passing trend.

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