Nostalgia, Inc: Photography and Analog Defiance in the Age of Instagram

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Old technology in a new century: An antique film camera is not a mere tool for creating photographs, but an object unto itself, worthy of preservation and marvel. And yes, it takes gorgeous photos.
Oddly enough, as the turn of the last century fades into memory and we sink our teeth fully into the meat of this mad new era, my generation sometimes seems to be looking only backward.

Consider the hipster, that enduring (if not endearing) Brooklyn- or Beirut- or Bangkok-dwelling icon of us older Millennials. Globally, there are many variations. The most stereotypical one—the American male version—patronizes classic barber shops, sports a (faux-)vintage wardrobe heavy on flannel, rides a fixie, listens to vinyl, subsists on artisanal latt├ęs and craft cocktails and organic produce, and meticulously grooms his lumberjack beard. And of course, if he owns a camera other than his treasured iPhone, it's sure to be an antique film camera.

Our cohort's animating ethos, if one could boil it down, seems simple: The good old days have never looked better.

Why Us?

What exactly drives all these anachronistic choices, this obsession with yesteryear? While poised at the cusp of the future, why is our ultra-connected generation so profoundly fixated on the past?

Advertisers have long known that the silver-haired set is easily lured by appeals to nostalgia, but youth have tended to be more forward-looking. I see two primary sets of motivations leading our generation in the opposite direction: call them a push and a pull.

First, the push, in which the excesses, abuses, and affronts of the present drove us away. The Iraq War's devastating idiocy and waste of life, the greed and neglect that brought us the Great Recession, rampant injustice in our faces every day on social media, the slowly unfolding disaster of climate change and accompanying ecological calamities small and large, all these pushed us to reject the present moment—and its masters, the Baby Boomers. (Irony of ironies, the forms we chose for our rebellion often closely resembled those the Boomers themselves wielded in their own youth.)

Second, the dislocation of our modern world pulled us back in search of more authentic times. Civil society has been eroding for decades, as have religiosity and the communities it once fostered. We're "bowling alone", playing more fantasy football than flag football, clicking online petitions rather than joining real protests, and prioritizing Facebook over actual face-time with friends. Social media, particularly Facebook, has brought out the worst in our public discourse while leaving each of us feeling increasingly isolated. The lightning-quick arrival and upheaval of the Internet empowered our generation, but also unmoored us. Desperate to cling to any scrap of the past, we have gobbled it up with the consumerist fervor so typical of our present era. (Sometimes we swallow it whole and sometimes we remix or repackage it, but never so much as to taint its "authenticity", that most cherished of currencies.)

Sociologists with more qualifications and more time on their hands will someday write the definitive story of our generation's cultural trajectory, but that's my take for now.

The Appeal of Instagram

Though we Millennials may often appear obsessed with the past, we're no generation of historians. We're not sincerely delving into the olden days, mining history for life lessons or undiscovered grains of wisdom. Instead, we're doing what every other generation before us has done: exploring the present moment while filtering it through the lens of the past. Our filters just happen to be Instagram filters.

And that brings us to Instagram, the platform which is, in every way, the embodiment of our generation’s aesthetic: the perfect marriage of our vain insecurity with our desperate flail into the past. Launched in 2010 with a logo designed to recall an old-time film camera, initially obliging all users to take classic square photos, and popularized thanks to filters that could give any mediocre cellphone snap the retro look of the family photo albums on your grandma’s bookshelf, Instagram is now used by over 800 million people each month (of whom 80 percent are outside the US). As for me, I joined in 2014.

Exactly why has this platform found such strong appeal? Instagram has boomed because it gives us all the opportunity to live in the modern world while imagining ourselves in a Valencia-filtered retroscape—a fantasy land where the conveniences of the present and the authenticity of the past can coexist in perfect harmony.

Film Is Not Dead

Let's not forget, however, that that world is largely artificial (or, while we're at it, that Instagram is warping our travel priorities, driving us all to take the same photographs, or causing environmental damage).

But at least for some of us, the world we depict on our Instagram feeds is not so artificial. I'm talking, of course, about us film photographers.

That’s right, the rumors of film's death have been greatly exaggerated! Much to the surprise of older generations, our quest for authenticity is pushing thousands of Millennials worldwide to embrace a technology that has been declared "obsolete" for years now, but which never actually disappeared. And go figure, many of us use Instagram to swap inspiration and admire each other’s works, fancying ourselves the genuine article on this nostalgia-driven platform.

Though we came of age in the digital era, we have turned to film as part of our broader embrace of the past, motivated by the push and pull factors I outlined above, but also by a more basic desire: the urge to take better pictures.

My Analog Initiation

Back in 2013, I dusted off my dad's 1951 Rolleicord camera that had been sitting, unused, in the family attic for decades. At first, just having it was a delight. When I peeled open the camera's upper hood to peer down into the frosted glass viewer, a unique smell wafted up into my nostrils. I could smell the attic where the camera sat, undisturbed, for decades. I could smell the old canvas tents that had been stacked all around it, that recalled childhood summer camping trips with my dad in rural Pennsylvania. And I recalled my father himself, a small part of whom also resides in that smell.

While my fascination with the device itself had prompted me to try it out, what really hooked me was the quality of the first roll of film I shot. Through a decade of taking digital images, I had never snapped a photograph as good as those first few test shots I made with the Rollei. I set aside my digital camera that day and have (almost) never looked back.

At first, there was a steep learning curve, and I made a lot of mistakes—expensive mistakes, given that the full cost of buying, developing, and scanning medium-format film works out to about $2 an image. (The days of "spray and pray" digital photography are long gone for me!) But from the very first days, I could tell that that struggle was making me a better photographer.

And the images just plain looked better! What is it about film photos that stirs our romantic side and tugs at our souls? The soft textures, the romantic colors, the gentle blur of bokeh and camera shake and manual focus... the Rolleicord was practically a nostalgia engine. As one friend observed in those early days of my foray into analog, "These pictures aren't so exact. You get all the fuzziness without the detail. It looks the way your memory of that time and place looks, not like a photograph of it."

Since that fateful first roll, I've dragged my Rolleicord all over the world, snapping some 4,000 analog shots on the sea, in the snow, and deep in the Sahara. Last year, I even doubled down and bought myself a high-end Rolleiflex. Consider me converted.

A Film Renaissance

Analog is regaining popularity precisely because so many Millennials are seeking to reclaim all that was lost as our society embraced the cold, soulless, pixelated look of digital photography. I love my Rollei photos for the pleasing simplicity of the square format, the warm hues of the film emulsions, and the precision and level of detail that still surpass any DSLR. And I'm willing to give up a lot to get them—auto focus, a review screen, capacity for thousands of shots, built-in metering, flash, GPS... the list is long.

When I use one of my Rolleis to snap a portrait of someone, they seem to feel a rush—after all that fiddling of knobs, it's done! But then the letdown comes. As they look at me expectantly and I shake my head, they deflate, remembering that there is no seeing the picture, no checking to confirm whether they blinked or not, whether I got their good side or not. Film is a different beast, and one I've learned to cope with, but my subjects, rooted firmly in the digital era (even the old ones! already so changed!) want instant gratification. My method is increasingly out of sync with the world around it; maybe that's part of what I like about it.

More and more young photographers are happily embracing these trade-offs and taking up film. In a recent client survey, British film producer Ilford discovered that "30 percent of film users were under 35 years old, and 60 percent had only started using film in the last five years."

The corporate world is taking notice and responding. Millennials have helped bring instant Polaroid film back from the dead, spurred Kodak to restart production of films it had discontinued just years earlier, and propelled vintage camera prices sky-high worldwide. To be sure, today's film market only constitutes a tiny fraction (2 percent, by one recent estimate) of its peak circa 2003, but the sales data show that it's a growing market, driven largely by Millennials.

In the photography world, this turn back toward the old way even has a name: "analog defiance"!

The Future of Photography

Celebrating and practicing analog photography—and the nostalgia it feeds and is fed by—is especially important when one considers just how fast photography is evolving today.

Within the next few years (or decades at most) it will be possible to carry with you a small, lightweight, inexpensive device with effectively unlimited storage that will take photos in a wholly different way than even today's cameras. It will record continuous photograph-quality video, allowing you the photographer to come along afterward and select the precise second you want from among thousands of possible seconds, call that your picture and toss the rest. (Given recent leaps in video resolution in consumer DSLRs, this technology nearly exists today.) At that second, your camera will also have simultaneously recorded images at many different focal lengths, allowing you the photographer to also select your desired depth of field, to get the subject's face in perfect focus or blur the background, or highlight fore and background equally. (That technology is now on the market and will presumably spread.) And why not lighting too? Select from a series of different ISO settings and exposure balances to get the lighting of different objects just right. (Consumer cameras features are approaching this eventual stage.)

What's left? Well, maybe we'll still have to remember to occasionally charge the batteries. Maybe. But other than that, photography will become a wholly different art—largely a desktop-based, after-the-fact process of sifting through a raft of digital information to compose the perfect image, nearly every time.

While that future sounds intriguing, I think I and many others of my generation will still always enjoy coming back to film. But I might be wrong. After all, what could a guy so hopelessly stuck in the past possibly know about the future?

Recommended further reading:
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