Filtered Presents

While I had a ‘negative result’ in searching for an article that used new media methods, I did come across an interesting discussion of Hipstamatic and Instagram smartphone applications.  Originally posted in May 2011, Nathan Jurgenson’s essay, The Faux-Vintage Photo, describes both how these apps work visually and how they function in digital and social spaces.  Jurgenson mobilizes on Fredric Jameson’s concept of nostalgia for the present to explain the appeal and popularity of faux-vintage photos.

The popularity of the apps themselves is fairly simple: having cameras built into phones that are (generally) immediately connected to the internet shortens the window between taking and uploading a photo.  In one fell swoop, I can now take a photo, augment it with a wide array of filters, and post it to any number of social media – including this blog.  Previously, my very convenient point and shoot camera would have required loading the photos onto my computer, fiddling with them in iPhoto, and then posting them.  The speed of this process, Jurgenson suggests, leads us to a viewing our experiences with an eye to potential documentation.  Every moment is a potential trace, a potential image for a burgeoning digital scrapbook.  This searching for soon-to-be memories isn’t limited to Instagram’s faux-vintage photos, but is part of a broader structuring effect of new social media.  In living with an eye to how we will represent ourselves, as the creators and curators of our personal archives, Jurgenson claims that we develop a documentary view – something that photographers develop over the sustained, trained practice of making photographs over time.  But, we are not just self-documenting, we are also are own archivists.  Rather than looking back at old documents, at other people’s documents, we have collapsed the creation and preservation into the same moment.  “We come to see what we do as always a potential document,” he writes, “imploding the present with the past, and ultimately making us nostalgic for the here and now.”

The real point of interest for Jurgenson is not simply self-documentary with an eye to the future, to recognizing the present moment as something we want to capture and return to (the box of childhood home movies in most of our parents’ basements likely attests to this).  It’s the faux-vintage style of the photos that is more revealing.  The filters available on Hipstamatic and Instagram allow for manipulating the saturation and definition of an image, for applying a scratched look or faded edges – all of which provide a ‘physicality’ that digital images lack.  Jorgensen claims this sense of physicality, this aged look provides a feeling of authenticity, which “places yourself and your present into the context of the past, the authentic, the important and the real”.  Actual vintage photographs posses this context because they are, in fact, old and from another time: faux-vintage is simulation.

It is this quest for self-documentation in an ethos of simulated history that changes how we experience our experiences and interactions.  While the faux-vintage trend in photographs may pass (Jurgenson acknowledges this likelihood), the structuring of present interactions with an eye to a very public, shared online documentary practice will like continue and intensify.  Rather than dismissing faux-vintage photo apps as lazy photography that abandons a concern with framing in favour of tooled-up saturation (which is not a misrepresentation of these apps either), Jurgenson helps us to look at what this mode of photography does and what it reveals about this emerging self-documentary point of view.

While I’m absolutely unable to theorize on the effects of this point of view, I can agree with Jurgenson’s assessment of the attraction of Instagram: I’m also hooked.  So instead of a dramatic theoretical statement to wrap this up, how about a filtered, blurred, Instagram-ed photo of a yak?



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