What is with all the nostalgia?



OK, I’ll admit it: That’s not the actual question from What’s Next? The actual question is “Why do my students think that working with analogue techniques is more ‘real’ than with digital ones?” I took the liberty to re-phrase the question because I think there is an underlying, more general issue here. If I’m correct, dealing with the (slightly) larger issue will also answer the original question. (more)

Let’s face it, there’s an awful lot of nostalgia going on these days. That’s not such an original observation. Simon Reynolds wrote a whole book about it: Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to its Own Past. As Mrs. Deane observes, the question is most relevant for photography, too.

Let’s look at an example. When Vivian Maier’s negatives were discovered there were quite a few statements about how that work was so much more real or authentic than, let’s say, Gregory Crewdson’s work. I yet have to see an actual explanation for why that is the case. That aside, here is an interesting quote from an article about Maier’s work (my emphasis):

“Colin Westerbeck, the former curator of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago and one of the country’s leading experts on street photography, thinks Maier is an interesting case. He inspected her work after Maloof e-mailed him. ‘She worked the streets in a savvy way,’ he says. ‘But when you consider the level of street photography happening in Chicago in the fifties and sixties, she doesn’t stand out. […] Yet Westerbeck admits that he understands the allure of Maier’s work. ‘She was a kind of mysterious figure,’ he says. ‘What’s compelling about her pictures is the way that they capture the local character of Chicago in the past decades.’
I’m not competent enough to judge where Maier’s photography stands in relation to all the other street photographers from the past. That’s not such an interesting topic for me, but of course that’s just my personal preference. What I do find very interesting, though, is how Westerbeck points at nostalgia basically being one of the attractions of Maier’s work.

Another, recent example: Around two years ago, the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Robert Frank’s The Americans was celebrated with an “blockbuster” exhibition and with a re-release of the book, which also included a version called Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans (Expanded Edition). This huge book is great for teaching. But even then it’s almost useless, and I mean the word “useless” here very literally: the book itself is almost impossible to use. It has 528 pages and weighs almost 8 pounds. Some of the writing is so incredibly deferential to the work that it’s very hard to read. So we’ve come from critics panning the book when it was released to critics praising the book in ways that you normally only find in newspapers in North Korea. And I might be missing something (always possible), but I missed how the work related to the America of today. It’s one thing to see the issues that were very relevant when the book was made, but have those all gone away? What good is the study of history if you don’t relate it to our world? One thing seems certain: When you do that you’re more likely to be engaged in a case of retromania than in studying history.

You might agree or disagree with me on those examples or not, but there certainly is a whole lot of nostalgia playing a very big role in photography these days. Whether it’s the republishing or re-discovery of old photography(*), or whether it’s “apps” for the iPhone that make the digital photographs look as if they had been taken with a Polaroid camera. And grimy old analog photography processes are becoming ever more popular.

Make no mistake, there is nothing wrong with a dose of nostalgia. But there is a risk or a seduction maybe, namely to think that everything was better in the past: Ahhhhhh, the good old days! In the world of photography, this idea often manifests itself in a slightly different way: Analog photography is supposed to be more real than digital photography. Now, you might wonder whether in fact that’s not different from the idea that things were better in the past. I think there are very strong connections.

Since there always has been an incredible amount of manipulation in photography, today’s arguments about analog photography being more real might in fact point at something else, and that’s really my point here: What if all that talk about analog photography being more real is just a form of nostalgia? Nostalgia for the good old days when men were still men, and photographs showed you the truth?

So my answer to the question “Why do my students think that working with analogue techniques is more ‘real’ than with digital ones?” would be: Because first, it seems you haven’t educated them enough about how real photographs actually were in the past. And second, there is a yearning for a simpler world or for simpler times where you don’t have to check your Twitter feed and Facebook account while trying to write that email newsletter about your latest body of work. It’s nostalgia.

This is not to say that I object to any of the recent developments in photography. Frankly, I think it’s great that old analog processes are being used again, just as I love seeing hand-made zines and books. But it’s always important to keep in mind what photography is about: Photography. Images. It’s not about how they are produced. In other words, when it’s only about the processes, the nostalgia, then things stop being interesting very quickly.

(*) - Just to clarify my point about re-publishing photobooks. Republishing old photobooks that are long out of print and that clearly deserve to be seen (which here really means seen for the first time by many people) is great. But republishing well known not-so-old photobooks by very well-known photographers I often find problematic.