An Instagram photo is instantly recognisable: it is at once vintage and modern. It is a no-hassle way for amateur photographers to get creative with their images and to share them easily, and it has proved incredibly popular. Instagram boasts 40 million users worldwide, with over one billion photos uploaded to the social network. Five million images are added every day.
So why is Instagram – and the faux vintage filters it and other photo apps have – so popular? It is not just the ease with which the apps can be used. That, after all, does not explain why vintage filters in particular are so popular.
In a word, Instagram is popular because of smartphones. Users of smartphones always have them on themselves. Moreover, smartphones are basically little mini-computers with cameras and integrated apps, and they have constant access to the internet and social media sites. If they use a photo filter app like Instagram, smartphone users can take, edit and share creative, attention-grabbing images in a matter of minutes.
Everyone has the ability to become a photographer
This means everyone has the ability to be a photographer. To paraphrase Susan Sontag, photography is about documenting what is happening and also creating a piece of artwork. It makes sense, then, that smartphone users would want to filter their quick snapshots through an app that helps them express more clearly the emotion they want to convey. Instagram does this, taking what might be an ordinary or even bad photograph and changing the colour, saturation, depth of field or contrast to make something that looks compelling and emotive.
That certainly goes some way to explaining why Instagram as a service is popular, but why has the trend for vintage-style photography in particular taken off? Nathan Jurgenson took that question on in a brilliant and much commented upon essay, The Faux-Vintage Photo. In it, he argues that social media plays a large part in the popularity of faux-vintage photography, but in some round-about ways.
Social media impact
First, he argues, we must understand that social media makes us view our present as a potential future documentation of the past. In other words, we go through our lives, observing what is happening to us whilst asking ourselves constantly if it should go into the archive of our present circumstance: our social media profile. Facebook, for example, shows our present activity as we post about it, but most of our network will see it in the future, when it will then be the past. We are aware of our present as a potential future past intuitively, and we increasingly view our social media updates and photos as part of that future past. This in turn leads for a “nostalgia of the present”.
Nostalgia is of course a desire to be taken back to a past that one can never return to. It is nostalgia that draws people to vintage items. We know that the vintage items that survive the test of time are the best of the past, so we associate “vintage” with “better”. Digital photographs can answer our nostalgia for times past by looking more like vintage Polaroids and other physical prints than like digital ones. Instagram does just this, adding scratches, fades and hyper-real colours to rather pristine photographs to mimic the photos we found in shoeboxes and albums in our grandparents’ houses.
The future of Instagram
This is in line with the collective view that the digital realm isn’t as “authentic” as the real world. Digital activism is slated as “slacktivism”; digital communications are often considered shallow and distracting. Even physical items like books are generally considered to have an inherent value that digital copies – identical in all the important ways – simply don’t.
When our belief that real world things are more valuable and authentic than digital ones and our view of the present as a future past are filtered through our collective nostalgia, we find the need that Instagram fills. When a user takes a photo on their smartphone, they are almost always taking it to post on a social media site, putting it firmly in the future past discussed above. They might want to make it look more creative or authentic, so they use one of Instagram’s vintage filters. That vintage filter essentially asks the viewer to see the photo as an authentic document of the past by referencing the past’s photographs (the ones found in our grandparents’ houses) visually.
This does lead to an odd conclusion, though. Everyone on the social media site knows that vintage-styled photos have been taken on smartphones and filtered through Instagram. This undermines the suggestion of authenticity and call to nostalgia that initially made Instagram so popular. In fact, Instagram images are starting to look less authentic than “real” digital photos.
So does this mean that, soon, pristine digital snaps will be considered more authentic? If that does happen, will the generation raised using the internet and social media their entire lives eventually return to Instagram? After all, for them Instagram images will be relics from the past, things that have stood the test of time. Faux-vintage photographs will become actual vintage photographs, and a desire to use Instagram to reference the past may well come back into fashion.