Retros of Instagram
Technology changes society and all of society’s habits so quickly. We moved from a time where people reflected over old photo albums and tangible scrapbooks, to people reminiscing over past pictures on Instagramfeeds and other forms of digital media. I think Instagramis worth exploring because of the relevance it has in our society today, and the popularity it has with the younger generation. Studying how people present their images to the world is interesting because we see how certain trends in photography have not died, and we also see how people associate originality and authenticity with series of imperfections that they fabricate, ironically further adding to the fakeness of the photo. It can be noted that generally the older a picture seems, the more realness we associate it with.
Looking back at the history of Instagram, and the purpose for which it was made, we see that it was created to communicate to others through images. These images are meant to be instantaneous, hence the name “Instagram,” a convergence of the two words ‘instant’ and ‘telegram.’ Instagrambegan as an app that could just share images in a simple square format, with just one photo, a caption, and the option of a border, such as a polaroid-like border, or other creatively inspired ones. As more users engaged with the app, the platform grew larger. The social media platform began to evolve to meet the desires of the Instagramcommunity. Fast-forwarding to now, we see how the app has evolved to allow users to post multiple images instead of one, and the change in proportions that are now accessible i.e. different height by length proportions; not to mention videos, livestreams, post hashtags, longer captions, etc.
The surprising element is that even with all of the new features available to the users, the original purpose for Instagramhas stayed the same. One chooses a photo, edits and selects a filter for it, captions it, and posts the image for the world to see. It is surprising how such a simple purpose led to such massive influence, but lensing in closer to the real reason Instagram became so popular is the nostalgia for the present that people have, along with the authenticity that people search for through filters and alterations. The important question remains however: why did fake vintage photography become so popular?
Social media expert groups have created a way for mobile apps and social media to be accessible and have made it to where every person can have a presence on the platform, free to create their own artistic photos, and look back on memories as they please. \Studying how authenticity plays a role in how people choose to present their images to the world can bring about an understanding as to why people apply filters to digital photographs, or associate certain filters with a nostalgia. People want to be unique- people want to stick out, and show the public audience that they are real or original. Bysharing memories with others, users get to show their experiences through images, develop identities through their ‘feed,’ and save images so that they may look back on old memories.Photo trends have always stayed the same, trying to bring the concepts of memory and nostalgia together. Nostalgia, or a wistful longing for something, is what Instagram thrives off of. Michele Zappavigna explains in her Visual Communication essay, that while Instagram has celebrity profiles and professional photos on the website, it is important to mention that the focus that Instagramhas is on “vernacular photography, or in simpler terms, home and social photography” (1-2). Vernacular photography includes photographs made by nonprofessionals in a private environment. The reason vernacular photography is so stressed, is because of the fact that this type of photography is ignored, and not seen by large audiences of people. It is kept close to the heart of those who produce it, and is shared with those dearest to us. With the ease of accessibility of taking photographs, came the wave of people taking pictures of everything in sight, whether artistically driven or not. Users have taken a delight in attempting to mirror vintage photography through their own home or iPhone photography. As soon as technology had reached making images seemingly perfect, people began to use it to simulate vintage photography through over-exposure, vignette, etc. The manipulation of these photos most likely resembled photos from the original ‘Brownie;’ polaroid camera, using old aesthetic practices prevalent to the past, in a form of faux-vintage photography.
The rise of faux-vintage photography can be associated with an attempt to create nostalgia through photographs, more specifically a “nostalgia for the present,” (Jurgensen 2.1) as described by Jurgensen in his essay for The Society Pages, an analysis pertaining to grasping for authenticity. He describes how people strive to attach strong feelings such as nostalgia to their lives in the present, by creating a longing for a past time that one can never return to, except through sensory stimuli. These sensory stimuli can include everything from familiar music, or smells, or photographs which target our senses to create a wistful longing feeling. An article from Neurology Timesfurther explains how, “Nostalgia is often triggered by sensory stimuli, but it can be elicited by conversations, and even by self-directed memory recollection” (1). Such nostalgic triggers target the brain and invoke nostalgia, a very powerful force comprised of strong emotions and vivid memories of the past. It is no wonder that vintage photography became so popular, due to the powerful force that nostalgia grasps society with.
Photographs become almost instantly nostalgic once posted on the app, which seems to be the driving purpose that Instagram was striving for. In an interview with the company Inc, Systrom (the creator of Instagram), revealed that the reason for making the social network was for the community of people who want to ‘remember.’ One example that Christine Lagorio (interviewer) used was how through Instagram, one could “turn a straightforward snapshot of a housecat into what looks like a weathered Polaroid time capsuled from 1977” (pp.4). The aesthetics of ‘vintage’ and ‘retro’ photography reflect through many aspects of the mobile app, including the logo, format of the web site, and filters available to the users. The logo of Instagramis meant to mimic a Polaroid-like analogue camera, since Instagram is meant to combat the problem with “mobile photos not looking as good as the ones taken on digital cameras,” (pp.3) as described by Systrom. The filters that are available serve the purpose of altering the photos to make them more appealing, and mimic images taken by digital cameras, with some filters in the past even including borders. To expand upon that, even the format of the site places images that people post against a white contrast background, appearing like the photographs have a Polaroid ‘frame,’ or border.
Instagramfilters serve more of a purpose than just altering the photographs that people take. Asides from making pictures look more appealing, they also serve to add qualities of retro aesthetics to the photographs.As described by the platform itself, users “choose a filter to transform the image into a memory to keep around forever.” Jurgenson explains the process of adding retro aesthetics to photographs by stating how the filters Instagramprovides “fade the image (especially at the edges), adjust the contrast and tint, over- or under-saturate the colors, blur areas to exaggerate a very shallow depth of field, and add simulated film grain, scratches and other imperfections...and are often made to mimic being printed on real, physical photo paper” (pp.5). All of these aspects contribute to the ‘retro photography’ and grasp for authenticity that people are aiming to achieve through their photos. It is interesting to see how people associate these qualities with tangibility of a photograph, along with a form of aesthetic.Society has become so reliant on technology to save its memories. Most of us do not even have a photo album to keep our photographs safe, much less do we take the time to print them out. We either save our photographs to our digital photo albums on laptops or smartphones, or we post them on some form of social media as a form of safe-keeping. The overall medium for photography had changed, but surprisingly, as of recent, tangibility of photographs is making a comeback. A popular way that photography accomplishes nostalgia for the present is by not looking like digital photography, and by mimicking physical form. The concept of the immortalized moment is appealing to the audiences of Instagram. Tangibility is realness; even if a photo just reflects being tangible through a filter, resemblances to authenticity bring a sense of nostalgia to the owner. One of the things that the app fails to do is reproduce the materiality of vintage photography. Photographs created through apps mimic analogue photography, but despite the resemblance are still digital, and merely pixels on a screen. They do not exist in material object form.
There is a strong nostalgia that comes from reminiscing on past times. When people look back on memories, whether it be years or months ago, emotional strings are pulled. Users that have had the Instagram app since 2010, when it first came out, can look back at memories from years ago that have been saved on their ‘feed.’Social media has gained the role of archiving our memories, especially mobile apps like Instagram, that are completely image-based and thrive off of memories. Becoming too reliant on technology to keep our most precious memories safe can begin to pose as a problem when we start to think about whether or not our smartphones or laptops will still work years into the future.
One of the reasons that Instagram has been so successful as a photography app is their aim for the old-fashioned aesthetics. The changing market in photography has shifted its focus from normal photos to photos that reflect faux-vintage nostalgia through filters. During the editing process, filters change lighting, shadows, tones, etc. Photos may look more authentic and hold qualities that make them appear vintage, in an effort to make us feel nostalgia.
People inertly have an unsaid desire to experience things that they have never experienced before. Such experiences can include time periods, i.e. the 80’s., that perhaps people are too young to have lived through. The desire to live through these moments is satisfied through filters that reflect photos from that time period. Adding imperfections to one’s photographs that resemble real camera mistakes or bad angles are what make the photographs look older, or ‘more authentic.’ Instagram is most famous for their mirroring of the analogue photograph style that make photos look authentic or unique. While using certain filters, consumers feed their nostalgic desire with a self-fabricated image. These self-fabricated images reconstruct the memories of the moment. Not only do people’s attitudes towards the past change, but so do the memories themselves. A memory that was bittersweet could down the line years later be seen on either side of the extreme, with the person recalling it as completely terrible or the memory having been manageable. It proves to show that the popular phrase, “Pic or it did not happen,” in which people need evidence to believe something happened, is true. Documentation of memories play a heavy a role in our lives and in our memory.People tend to see the present as a ‘potentially documented past,’ therefore use photographs as a way of capturing the little moments. We do not remember the same way every time, which is why people place such a high cultural value on photographs. Through photographs, experiences can be preserved, and saved for a future time.
Visuals have a deeper connection to memory. By adding our own imperfections to photographs, we leave it to our own control to decide what the picture ends up looking like. What stays in the picture, along with what does not, ultimately change what the original memory actually was. By having the power to decide how a finished product of a photograph will look like, people also have the power of attaining a refined identity or brand- an ideal self that is constructed through photographs, put on a feed, and presented to the public. Identity is formed through images based on central themes on a person’s feed, along with filters, what type of pictures a person takes, what they wear, what they are doing in photographs, and other aspects.
The popularity of then iPhoneography sharing app, Instagram, comes from people’s ‘nostalgia for the present,’ and the desire to make pictures feel more valid by applying different filters or effects for a more original look, which ironically fabricates the image even more. The renaissance of old features has brought a wave of nostalgia among Instagram users. As we progress and with how fast technology continues to move, I wonder if society will maintain the aesthetics of faux-vintage photography, or shift yet again to a different form of photography, or new medium on which it will be produced.
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