Photopanic: Instagram and Nostalgia

While my research isn’t headed towards analysing Instagram and other smartphone-based digital photography apps, I keep coming across articles about it.  Initially, these articles intrigued me because of their mention of nostalgia, and its attractiveness to a typically-young user group.  The attraction of the nostalgia of tints and filters that aim to reproduce the visual style of specific analog cameras of the past rests in a desire to produce a past that doesn’t exist, to create a context tied to a sense of authenticity.  But, as Nathan Jurgenson argues, the nostalgia of Instagram’s faux-vintage photography is tied to a greater trend of self-documentation in social media and a user obsession with creating an archive of oneself.  The faux-vintage aspect of these apps speeds up the move from taking the photo to producing memory, he claims, by importing a sense of past-ness through different editing options.  As I’ve mentioned in a previous discussion of Jurgenson’s essay, the most interesting function of these apps is the way they prompt users to view life as a cycle of of memories-to-come.

Since writing my earlier post on Jurgenson and Instagram, I’ve come across a series of brief articles that touch on similar themes.  Most of them lack the theoretical approach Jurgenson takes, and mostly spend their time hand-wringing.  There seem to be three key concerns: the relationship between Instagram and professional photography (I, II, III), the plague of filters, and the implications of Instagram’s sale to Facebook.

The concern about whether professional photographers ought to use Instagram and, relatedly, whether the app itself is destroying photography as we know it sounds eerily familiar to concerns raised during the rise of digital photography.  To be fair, digital photography has changed photography: it’s faster, its more manipulable, and it’s more accessible.  And the majority of viewers in the western world are aware of the possibility that anything can be photoshopped.  But, the possibility of manipulation hasn’t eroded the indexicality or evidentiary quality viewers tend to attribute to the photographic image (more on this in a future post).

The concern with filters seems related in many ways to the concerns with the manipulability Photoshop enables.  The perceived problem with Instagram’s filters is that they are instantaneously available for on-the-fly editing and that their basic function is to “soften all the ugly, too-real bits, to make plainly composed images more compelling” (Petrusich).  The filter, it seems, replaces a trained eye.  I don’t really disagree with this argument, I just don’t think it’s the most interesting aspect of this debate.

What continues to bring me back to concerns about Instagram and its effect on photography is how it changes our relationship to the image and, by extension, how we see ourselves.  The ‘we’ here is not professional photographers, but the producers and consumers of an ever-increasing digital album of vernacular photography.  Self-curated stories of everyday occurrences, from the much-maligned but ever-popular food photo to snapshots of pets and kids to neighbourhood flora and fauna, can be read in a positive way: maybe it’s refreshing that we are stopping and noticing our world.  Instagram may indeed be instant, but it also requires the user to notice a moment and actually take the photo.  And I don’t think that stopping-and-thinking is a bad thing, even if the stopping is brief and the thinking is quite shallow.  However, the less-forgiving interpretation is that it speeds up and deepens a path toward a narcissism fuelled by social media

A photograph is no longer predominantly a way of keeping a treasured family memory or even of learning about places or people that we would otherwise not encounter. It is now mainly a chintzy currency in a social interaction and a way of gazing even further into one’s navel (Estrin).

The relationship between nostalgia, particularly the brand available through faux-vintage photography, and narcissism is one that bears further study.  A conversation about narcissism and self-documentation seems inevitable and necessary.  And yet, I’m not entirely sure of where to start.  If Jurgenson is correct and the self-documentation rampant in social media profoundly alters our orientation toward the world, making all presents into future-pasts, what does this do to our narcissistic psyches?  The obvious answer is that it makes it worse: we are all the stars of our own documentaries, of which we control every aspect of production.  This knot of self-documentation and self-narration is one that I”m going to try and untangle, at least a bit, going forward.

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