The misguided parallel between spontaneity and authenticity is often mentioned here. We, in general (and students in particular), not knowing how to address the issues of photographic representation, tend to evoke “spontaneity”, “purity”, “genuineness”, “naturalness”, etc. to qualify the truthfulness of the images. These words are part of the lexicon of authenticity, whether or not we’re aware of the strategies of such a discourse.

But instead of dwelling in authenticity, once again, I’d like to jump ahead and address the problem with nostalgia in photography. I recently read a very good essay on the subject: The Instant Past: Nostalgia and Digital Retro Photography, by author Gil Bartholeyns, in ‘Media and Nostalia: yearning for the past, present and future’, ed. by Katharina Niemeyer (2014). As he starts out by stating, the thing that attracts users to evoke the aesthetics of the past is “the warmth of these renderings [rather] than for the people and things they depicted”. As everyone knows, nowadays mobile phones can make available a bundle of photo filters that serve the purpose of simulating “the nostalgic feeling”, either by inscribing imperfections like vignetting, dust and scratches, either by combining the sort of colors that immediately transport us to the family album.

As far as I see it (and there’s really nothing original in this point of view) on the core of these visual discourses is the aura. Trying to inscribe uncertainty, unpredictability or imperfection is part of a strategy that wants to endow the images with an invisible presence. Instead of mentioning the aura, we could simply talk about time. Bartholeyns suggests the term “historicising filters”, which I think is very clever. Aren’t those “historicising filters” just layers of time that serve to legitimate the void of a representation without authorship? The passing of time not only legitimates, but it transports the elements in representation from the real to the unreal (or fiction). That distance and separation is at the core of the “nostalgic feeling”. As the author states:

Although technology rarely determines culture, it is quite clear that improvements in mobile phone cameras (rather than the desire to computerise old prints) were the precondition for an illusionist technology that would ultimately produce simulations of analogue photographs, which would be able to evoke the same emotional associations as the originals. Since it is deliberate and immediate, the metamorphosis of present into past has given rise to a new kind of nostalgia.

[…]

The nostalgia here is staged but it has no referent. It is not based on anything that came before. Rather, it is generated in a bid to render the present more poignant. This is achieved through the added emotional value provided by a temporal distance that is made visible by a dated aesthetic and by passing off photographs as older than they are.

@ Joshua Sariñana , from the project ‘Memory Reconsolidation’.
@ Joshua Sariñana , from the project ‘Memory Reconsolidation’.

This trend, which Bartholeyns calls retromania is everywhere, not only in digital imagery. It’s particularly present in interior design and in gastronomy, basically elements that easily trigger emotional associations and that promote not the creation of new realities but the invention of false memories. The immediacy of our daily lives and the dominance of technological apparatus seem to accentuate a disconnection between human beings and their time. As the author mentions:

Outmoded images fit perfectly into the contemporary culture of remakes, patinas and reuse, which has taken the luxury goods and design world just as much by storm as it has average consumers (Miller, 2009), the culture industry (Reynolds, 2011), supporters of economic de-growth and lovers of second-hand objects (Gregson and Crewe, 2003).

[…]

These images act in the same way for everyone because they exist in the present but bear the hallmarks of authenticity that suggest they also existed in the past: ‘the tense of the mythological object is the perfect: it is that which occurs in the present as having occurred in a former time, hence that which is founded upon itself, that which is “authentic” ’ (Baudrillard, 1996, p. 75).    

@ Joshua Sariñana , from the project ‘Synurbization’.
@ Joshua Sariñana , from the project ‘Synurbization’.

It’s impossible to keep addressing Bartholeyns’ view on the effect of mobile photography without remarking that I am an outsider in this game: I don’t own a mobile with a camera and I’ve never taken a selfie. Images taken by mobile devices are more than instantaneous; they sort of negate the very idea that a photograph is (or can be) a representation full of subjectivity. It’s as if the efficiency of the technology deprived the medium of its corpus (it could even be argued that those media do not enter the category of the photographic, but that’s just another story).

I guess the question that brings me here is: why do young people “miss” the past? Or: why do young people have a hard time connecting with the present? Has “nostalgia” turned into a gimmick without meaning, just a tool to dig into a place of immediate and emotional responses? Bartholeyns identifies two major practices of ‘nostalgising’: “Either the subject matter itself prompts the use of vintage filters or the apps encourage shots of older subject matter.” In other words: either we’re ‘fetishizing’ or ‘fetishizable’. Again, in Bartholeyns’ words:

There are two prime reasons why people hang on to things. The first is design, which is a major time marker because it often changes so rapidly. The second – judging by the impressive amount of old-style telephones, record players, rolls of film, old photos and even silver-process cameras displayed together in photographs – is technology. The still life with a predilection for mise-en-abyme is making a surprise comeback.

[…]

More than anything else, the aim is to bring back the atmosphere created by the thing seen. The flash of nostalgia may be caused by the object itself, and, indeed, this is often what triggers the reflex to take a vintage photo, but what the vintage visual achieves is the expansion of a given object’s nostalgic range with the image as its focal point.

@ Joshua Sariñana , from the project ‘Surface and Consciousness’.
@ Joshua Sariñana , from the project ‘Surface and Consciousness’.

Just the other day, while a student showed another example of this retromania, I kept asking him what was it that interested him in that sort of imagery. The response was as vague as can be. People don’t really know why they’re attracted to the nostalgic effect, but it’s my opinion that this “effect” or “feeling” occupies the place of connection and commitment. It’s almost as if “nostalgia” and “alienation” were inseparable; as if “nostalgia” was a form of entertainment… avoiding the “weight” of knowledge. Although I don’t agree with Bartholeyns’ conclusion, here’s an excerpt of his final words:

The emotion no longer comes primarily from immediate access to the ‘that-has-been’, the classic, Barthesian modality for the photographic emotion. It stems, instead, from the visual contamination of the subject photographed. Nostalgia used to depend on the denial of access to the subject, on its unreachable presence. Now, there is an effective formula to encourage nostalgia. The cult of the referent is being replaced by the cult of the reference, reference to an iconography that, in its form, is typical of memory. The indexical nature of photography is giving way to the power of fantasy (Bartholeyns, 2013b).

@ Joshua Sariñana , from the project ‘Representation of Hidden Communication’.

2 replies on “Why the past legitimates the present (retromania and the ‘nostalgising effect’)

  1. What an interesting post!

    I’ve often wondered about whether filters / referencing / referent, is not a way of searching for something we have lost… your writing and research echos a lot of things I’ve pondered over… thanks for sharing online.

    Hope you won’t mind if I refer back to it at some point.
    D.

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