September 4, 2014

The Work of Nostalgia in the Age of Instagram

Following the insights of the German critic Walter Benjamin, Susan Sontag once observed that photographs acquire the aura of a work of art by their own visible deterioration. With the advent of mechanical reproduction, artistic images had broken free of the aesthetic regime which once made their value synonymous with their singularity as works of art. No longer context bound, any image can be cropped and made adjacent to any other image. For Sontag, writing in the 1970s, photographs and reproduced images had become so common that they had developed their own type of aura: that of the vintage photograph.

That same aura, the aestheticization of decay and deterioration, is perhaps even more recognizable in its current manifestation on Instagram. With its clear focus on the now, digital photo-sharing has had to evolve in order to accommodate the nostalgic desires of its users. Echoing Sontag’s observation about the acquired aura of the faded photograph, we select from a range of vintage-style filters before posting pictures for the eyes of our Instagram followers. Nathan Jurgensen, writing for The New Inquiry, argues that the filters are a way of coping with the overabundance of images that typifies social medial. It’s a way of convincing ourselves that our photographs are just as worthy of nostalgia as if they belonged to a finite archive from the past. As artificial memory storage becomes more efficient, we are producing more than most of us would deem worth remembering. But this overabundance has not curbed our appetite for images.

Instagram’s filters are meant to instil a sense of nostalgia for the present, a condition of scarcity that digital photography has long surpassed. But, as Jorgensen writes, “Merely making your photos evocative of photo scarcity doesn’t make them actually scarce or make others covet them.” Snapchat, by contrast, he argues, is built upon the idea of real scarcity, where images and videos, once the viewing has started, exist up to ten seconds before disappearing forever. No external memory, no archive. A singular aesthetic experience.

A year before Sontag’s first essay on photography was published in The New York Review of Books, John Berger’s influential documentary about the history of European Art, Ways of Seeing, aired on the BBC. Like Sontag, Berger was deeply indebted to Walter Benjamin’s writing on art and sought to provide his audience with the means to connect the art of the European tradition with contemporary media, advertising, and power structures. Equally impressed with the way images seemed to saturate modern life, Berger argued, “In no other form of society in history has there been such a concentration of images, such a density of visual messages.”

Not surprisingly, Berger’s work has also inspired some timely reflections on the aesthetic discourse of Instagram. In his article “Ways of Seeing Instagram” the art critic Ben Davis begins with a Google trend chart showing that “Instagram” has eclipsed “art” in terms of popular searches. Photosharing on Instagram (or, for that matter, Tumblr, Pintrest, even Flickr) has become a dominant way of seeing, and like all ways of seeing reflects certain social interests. The tradition of oil painting, observed Berger, could credit its subjects (nudes, fruit, and other commodities) to the presentation of a privileged, often opulent lifestyle. The continuities between advertising photos and still lifes, between classical nudes and pin-ups, are laid bare. Despite differences of social and historical context, Davis, like Berger, draws out the similarities between the art Berger works to demystify and the various genres of Instagram photos. Although current technologies have seemingly democratized the image-making that used to exist only at the behest of aristocrats, Davis argues, “images retain their function as game pieces in the competition for social status.”

But social status comes in many forms. It isn’t all just fine dining and selfies. Having a past worth sharing, and a past that’s accessible through other processes of archiving, is what many of us are now flaunting on Instagram. And we do so on a weekly basis. Nostalgia has finally been reconciled with Instagram’s presentism in the form of the hashtag, throwback Thursday (#tbt). The hashtag has existed for over a year, but it’s only recently become a constant in the feeds of our friends and followers. The #tbt image can come in any format, though the proper distance between the image and its posting date remains a mildly contentious topic. For me, and likely for most of my generation, the most enjoyable images tend to be those of old photographs rephotographed. The past returns again, and I don’t have to wait for someone’s wedding slideshow to see their pubescent class photos or an unself-conscious work of art from elementary school. For those who started snapping photos during the internet age, Throwback Thursday is another chance to mine the recent past for a flattering photo; for the rest of us, it’s an opportunity to reassert the aura of an old photo that hasn’t yet been digitized.

I can’t say I dislike seeing the young faces of my friends crop up on my Instagram feed. Bad haircuts, awkward family photos, and the like. And despite the well-publicized “rules” for how one should participate in #tbt, I was also sort of impressed when I saw Barack Obama tweeted, “Throwback to last week when a woman—not her boss—made her own decisions about her health care. #TBT”. The past has its uses. Even a form whose sole purpose is nostalgia can be a way of politicizing the past. More than anything, though, Throwback Thursday reflects a collective sense of nostalgia that runs deep enough to be ritualized, a way of remembering that isn’t likely to be forgotten, whatever the future brings.

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