NPR logo Life, Photographed Through Filters From The Past

Life, Photographed Through Filters From The Past

A photo of a bucket of golf balls I took last month. Or 20 years ago. Sarah Handel/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Sarah Handel/NPR

A photo of a bucket of golf balls I took last month. Or 20 years ago.

Sarah Handel/NPR

A couple nights ago as I snapped yet another photo with my cell phone and showed it to my husband, he mused, "Isn't it funny how with all this new technology, all anyone wants to do is take photos that look like crap?" He's right — the Instagram and Hipstamatic apps haven't exactly taken over photography, but their popularity is undeniable. From Tumblr to Facebook to The Pioneer Woman, squared-off digital photos with various faux-vintage filters are everywhere.

But what's it all about? Nathan Jurgenson is trying to figure it out for an aspect of his dissertation on self-documentation and social media. He explores a variety of theories, but keeps coming back to one: It's about a nostalgia for the present. Borrowing the term from Fredric Jameson, he explains,

the momentary popularity of the Hipstamatic-style photo serves to highlight the larger trend of our viewing the present as increasingly a potentially documented past. <emphasis his>

He draws a parallel to the prevalence of MP3s, and the concurrent vinyl resurgence. Digital photos, like digitally-shared songs, lack the heft of the real thing. Applying a filter that makes your photo look like an old Polaroid, he theorizes, in some way restores some of that weightiness. But then, he goes on, the fact that the filter is artificial automatically negates authenticity. Dig in deeper to his thesis, if you like, here.

We no longer support commenting on NPR.org stories, but you can find us every day on Facebook, Twitter, email, and many other platforms. Learn more or contact us.