Instagram! Instanalysis! : The Victory of Nostalgia

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February 17, 2012 by The Editor

Last Sunday morning I spent half an hour installing Instagram on my iPhone.   It shouldn’t have been as frustrating as it was, but in the end I was victorious. Or was I? Instagram is a free downloadable “app” that allows the user to take photos using their iPhones which can in turn be saved using one of 18 “filters.” The filters change tone, color, focus and other qualities allowing the user to achieve an effect they desire. The photos are then shared with other users that follow your photos and can be shared on a variety of social media.

I was quite taken with Instagram the first time I saw an image come across my Twitter account from an old friend traveling in Morocco, who I had been out of touch with for years. The photos had an airy quality and the format seemed so original that I wanted in, right away. It is not very often that I am so taken by technology but in this instance, I saw the possibility of combining an existing tool with an intermittent interest in photography and being able to share that with others.  The photos streaming into my social media accounts began to strike me as playful and immediate, yet artistic and original. It seemed a great example of how digital tools can build on one another, expanding the possibilities for communication, for sharing, and especially for creativity.  I thought, ‘how very clever.’

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The very name “Instagram” hearkens back to the “Instamatic” cameras that were produced beginning in 1963 when simple point and shoot cameras fell into the hands of people everywhere. These people went on to produce countless family photo albums full of “snapshots.” Looking back on photos from that era I see colors fading, photos bleached from sun or acidic paper, tape melting or hardening around white edges that declare the date of development and scribbled identities. Now I’m scanning a lot of those images and sharing them electronically. They prompt conversation, remembrance, melancholy, and above all, nostalgia.

Instamatics, whose 110 film would be developed through the agency of the local supermarket camera counter, were a cheap entertainment device that brought memories back into the home in a week or so, to be shared for months to come. Polaroids were even more immediate yet always disappointing. A hilarious junk camera; bad film for immediate gratification. We loved it. Now Polaroid is having a repeat moment in the sun, as old cameras are bought and sold on eBay and the Impossible Project produces a new high-quality instant film.  The romance of certain old cameras inspires us to collect our thoughts and create!  It is the victory of nostalgia: we’ve taken the past and made it better.

Instagram is to be differentiated: it is a memory reel of the immediate past. With a streaming “feed” of photos, there are now only a few seconds, minutes at most, between event and memory. We follow captured moments of countless strangers, evocative architecture, whimsy in miniature form. Nostalgia takes hold as filters are applied, creating a pseudo tin-type or a tinted image evoking Depression Green. Instagram has a cinematic feel: millions of users create unique images, each like single frames from a movie. The resulting “film” suggests a collage of the “past” as if made of clippings from photography magazines, news reels, documentaries, music videos, and home movies. It evokes a learned, crafty expression and interpretation of our culture.

Like old Polaroids and 110s scanned into new formats, are my first three Instagrams (a photo of my computer screen which is itself a photo of an idyllic nature scene from last vacation; a photo of a passage in a book I’m reading that is about a passage in another book; and a tinted image of a pub that itself is a veneer, a capitalization par excellence of the pseudo-history of the Knights Templars) all emblematic of the new medium? What does a scrolling feed of often anonymous, but intimate, images tell us? What information is contained, not in the images, but in the method of delivery itself?

Instagram as a new means of communication is a medium that elaborates the societal craving for a lucid definition of who we are and where we stand in the great expanse of time. It is an expression of life in search of meaning. We are told we are near the End of Times; we are told we are at the beginning of a New Age. Events happen and pass into history at speeds that disconcert us. Can memories even form when news and information cycles rotate more quickly than the Earth?

While it claims to provide a way to “transform the look and feel of the shot into a memory to keep around forever,” Instagram does not provide memories at all: instead, it offers a veneer of memory. It reads as a depiction of life, but what is the life beyond the scroll? What Instagram provides is nostalgia for the just-faded moment. It is the history of now. It is the documentation of seconds ago. It is the communication of our habits and desires that is so pervasive as to render it obscene. In Instagram we become cinematographer, director, narrator, actor, and muse all in one. The masters of our own fates, the controllers of the remote, we are ever more exposed.

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