Hipstamatic photographs © Amelia Shepherd

There is a massive cult among the young for dead media and outmoded appliances, although it rarely extends beyond displaying the image to actually using the bygone format or device.

One exception is the vogue for digital photography applications like Hipstamatic and Instagram, whose filters simulate the period look of photographs taken by vintage cameras. This creates a pre-faded ersatz-analogue effect of ‘instant nostalgia’.

Simon Reynolds (2011) Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction To Its Own Past London: Faber and Faber p.351

On 9 March 2012, The Wall Street Journal reported that the photo-sharing application Instagram was being valued on the stock market at around 500 million dollars.[1] Founded in 2010 by a pair of graduates from Stanford University, within two years Instagram has accumulated nearly 30 million users – all employing the app to post photographs online via their camera phones.[2] Over 150 million images had already been posted within the app’s first year of existence. In one respect, as with Facebook, Flickr and Twitter (those other online leviathans of the 21st century), Instagram’s success can be explained by its accessibility and ease of operation. Through the app, users take photographs and upload them (often to Facebook itself) as well as view other people’s photographs – which they can comment on, ‘Like’, and share.

However there is another element to the process, which may ultimately be of more significance than the app’s convenience. Before uploading their photographs, users of Instagram are actively encouraged to ‘edit’ their images by applying one of a range of pre-set filters. These filters simulate an array of film-types and print formats, primarily from the golden age of the mass popularity of analogue photography during the second-half of the 20th century, an aspect emphasized by the square format of the images. The resulting filtered photographs include such simulated effects as washed out or faded colours, film damage, and light leaks.

[ms-protect-content id=”8224, 8225″]

Instagram was not the first app to offer such filters. Hipstamatic predates Instagram by about a year, arriving in 2009 complete with an apparently fake ‘back-story’ about an actual camera called the Hipstamatic that failed to takeoff in the 1980s and that the design of the app mimics. Far better publicity came when photojournalist Damon Winter put down his SLR and used Hipstamatic on his iPhone to take more intimate, relaxed photographs of American soldiers stationed in Afghanistan. Winter’s pictures made the cover of The New York Times and later won an award. Since the success of Hipstamatic and Instagram, many similar apps such as Retro Cam (which makes images only in black and white) and Shake It Photo (mimicking Polaroid film) have flooded the market. There is now a vast archive of styles for the digital snapshooter to choose from – all of them based on film photography. The whole culture of these apps is summed up by Hipstamatic’s advertising slogan: ‘Digital Photography Never Looked So Analogue’.

So why is it that retro camera apps have come to dominate popular photography in the second decade of the 21st century? In his 2011 book Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction To Its Own Past, Simon Reynolds makes the distinction between “vintage” – that other contemporary buzzword – and “retro”. The primary difference, according to Reynolds, is that vintage means the actual objects from the past are engaged with (wearing a dress made in the 1950s for example), whereas retro means the simulation of a past style, rather than the thing itself.[3]

The physical objects associated with popular analogue photography increasingly seem like a thing of the past (although analogue is still a vital part of the professional industry). Kodak, the company that defined the look and use of snapshot photography from the late 19th century onwards, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in January 2012. Sales of cameras and related products had lost out to the popularity of digital cameras and camera phones and Kodak had failed to keep up. According to the UK Office for National Statistics, by the start of 2012 charges for developing and printing colour film dropped out of the top 700 items in the nation’s “shopping basket” that are used to calculate inflation rates.[4]

The saga of Kodak and analogue photography’s demise in the popular market over the last decade or so has been accompanied by a burgeoning trend for analogue cameras as a kind of photographic subculture. Sometimes this involves the use of “second-hand” vintage cameras themselves, however, more popularly, it has led to the rise of Lomography. In this case, a company revived the production of a genuine analogue camera (the Lomo, originally made in 1980s Russia) and encouraged users to celebrate the fact that the camera produced highly saturated, technically imperfect images and that users of the Lomo could not instantly view pictures they had made, but had to wait for the film to be processed. The Lomography company sells newly produced analogue cameras in old models such as the Diana and Holga, snapped up in increasingly customised limited editions by a generally youthful market. Specialist shops have opened across the world in the past decade which function as shrines to the materiality of analogue equipment and physical photographs, where T-shirts with slogans encouraging users to ‘leave the digital grind behind’ and to celebrate ‘the analogue future’ are sold as fashion items.

The use of the word “future” seems to deny that these vintage and retro objects are in opposition to the inexorable movement towards digital that photography has already taken. Nevertheless, while vintage photographic material is acquired at a subcultural level, the retro simulation of analogue photography seems to have been widely adopted as part of mainstream culture. Shake It Photo even includes the completely unnecessary requirement to shake your iPhone like a Polaroid picture in order for the image to appear. The proclaimed wish of Kevin Systrom, the CEO of Instagram, to blend the ‘instant’ check of the Polaroid photograph with the idea of sending a telegram (hence ‘Instagram’) suggests a combination of the adoption of digital accessibility combined with a nostalgia for analogue that seems to be shared by the majority of the public.

Reynolds notes that the term “nostalgia” was originally used in the 17th century to describe the homesickness of soldiers on military duty that were debilitated by a desire to return to their native land. Since then the term has come to mean a collective craving to return to the past. The difference between wishing to make a spatial and a temporal journey is essential because, as Reynolds notes, it is possible to go home, but time travel is impossible.[5]

Nostalgia in its contemporary form results from a perceived loss. Photography as a medium always contains some element of loss, because the moment photographed is lost to time. Reynolds, whose book focuses on a mania for retro in relation to popular music, makes a parallel between the ideas of Thomas Edison, who originally intended sound recordings to preserve the voices of loved ones before they died, and Roland Barthes’ ideas about photography in Camera Lucida. In both cases, sound or vision uncannily record the past and preserve a version of it. As such, sound recordings and photographs can be seen as ‘hauntological’ – a term coined by Jacques Derrida to describe how an apparently utopian past persists uncannily into the present.[6]

But the photographs adjusted via the filters of retro camera apps are hauntological in another way. The past is mediated through technologies whose decomposition comes to be associated with particular eras. On television or in films, for example, the simulation of old black and white movies always seems obliged to include scratches and jumps that would never have appeared on the films when they were first shown, while a recent retro trend in music reviving the 1980s involves simulating the distorted sound of ageing audio cassettes. Reynolds refers to this as each medium’s ‘specific rate of decay’.[7] In the case of retro camera apps, whose appeal seems particularly strong with those who can hardly remember a time before digital photography superseded analogue, the fading colours and washed out tones of the filtered images are a similarly obligatory part of the look of the medium. As such, these images do not simulate the look of photographs as they were in the past, they simulate the look of aged photographs as they appear to us in the present.

Most important of all is what the look of these images could mean. The manipulation of photographs through the filters on retro camera apps results in images where colours are washed out, tones are faded away, and simulated film damage and light leaks obscure our view. It may seem that these pictures preserve the appearance of popular analogue photography, but instead the opposite might actually be the case. The loss of information through washing out, fading away and obscuration in these multiplying spectres of dead media represents, over and over again, the irretrievable loss of popular analogue photography itself.


[1] Ante, Spence E. ‘Financing to Value Instagram at $500 Million’ http://online.wsj.com/article  9 March 2012

[2] Dean, Will ’27 million amateur photographers can’t be wrong’ The Independent 13 March 2012 pp.26-27

[3] Reynolds, Simon Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past London: Faber and Faber (2011) pp.183-201

[4] Cooper, Charlie ‘Out goes the stepladder, in come the iPad, Kristen Stewart and pineapples’ The Independent 14 March 2012 p.11

[5] Reynolds op.cit. pp.xxv-xxvi

[6] ibid. pp.326-330

[7] ibid. p.331 [/ms-protect-content]

Published in Photoworks Issue 18, 2012
Commissioned by Photoworks

Buy Photoworks Issue 18

Become a Photoworks Friend

Becoming a Photoworks Friend is the only way to receive a Photoworks Festival in a Box. Join now to get yours as well as a range of year round exclusive content, opportunities, invites and 20% off in our online shop.

Photoworks Opportunities

Keep up to date with our latest opportunities as well as ways to learn more about how to get involved with and support our work.

Sign up here

Become a Photoworks Friend

The only way to receive Annual 26 & get exclusive access to our events, content and a 20% shop discount