Thursday, January 9, 2014

Making New Photos Old: the Allure of Filtered Photographs

Let's be honest here. Which 20-something hasn't used a mobile application to filter their pictures for photo social networking sites like Instagram and Hipstamatic? I know I have, and I have at least 20 friends that do the same. But the real question is...why? In an age where we have high quality DSLR, point-and-shoot, and cell phone cameras that capture vivid, true color photos, why do we have the desire to alter our images, making them look decades older than they actually are?

Is it nostalgia? Maybe, but is that nostalgia real? Genuine nostalgia can't really be felt unless the person, who is looking at the photograph, was there to experience the effects of the time in which the photograph was taken. The nostalgia is, in essence, imaginary -- make believe. So what do we feel instead? Or, a better question: what is the drive behind filtering photos?

Vanity? Documentation? Appreciation?  All three? Absolutely.


Young adults today are probably the largest demographic on the planet that suffers from (or revels in) feelings of vanity. We have the tools to show off, so we do. And because we know other people will view our photos, we keep posting "selfies" of ourselves in the mirror or sitting at the computer. Why? The photos let others see of ourselves are usually carefully chosen to present some kind of persona, even if that persona is occasionally a little weird.

Filtered with "Inkwell," no border

Filtered with "Toaster" in a bathroom in which
there was a sign over the toilet that said
"Way to Ministry of Magic."

Myself with Monte the taxidermied boar.
 Filtered with "Valencia."

Photography at its genesis, was used as a form of documentation: families, war, progress of industry and agriculture, death, marriage, victories, defeat. For some images, they are proof that these people, things, and events existed. For instance, the only proof I have that I had a great-great-Aunt Opal is the photo below.

She is no other picture our family has. Nor is there a marriage certificate (that we can find) proving that her mother married my great-grandfather's father. Furthermore, this picture does not have a master digital copy associated with it (only reproductions), and I can take it out of my wallet whenever I desire, which is something I cannot say about the photo below.

Filtered with "Willow"

Unlike my family photo above, this photo isn't the only piece of proof that proves that my friends are real, but it stands as a document that shows others that these people existed at some time in history. But the alteration of it with a "Willow" filter merits my next point.


It wasn't until the early 20th century that photographs suggested a more expressive purpose: art.


The camera was used to supplement the medium of the paintbrush. Of course paint was still used, but rather than taking two days to a week to sketch out, paint, and touch-up a portrait, photos could capture their subjects in a few seconds to a few minutes, depending on the type of camera used. We do the same with filtered photos, "developing" them obsessively until we find the right exposure for the image.

Filtered with "Valencia"                                     Filtered with "Willow"

But why are some filtered photographs art and some are not? For the same reason that some snapshots are merely that: snapshots. They contain little thought for their composition (lines, color, subjects, or focus) and instead capture ducklips, self-"portraits" in mirrors, and quirky designs on t-shirts.

Most people who attended school have been exposed to some form of art education, and through this exposure, we have seen how powerful these artistic photos are. They possess some kind of mystery, a story that we don't know the answer to but seek to discover nonetheless. By forcing these textures upon our own photos, we try to create art in appreciation for the work that came before us. We attempt to place our own proof positives in the cannon of photographic history even if the photo's subject doesn't merit any real attention.

Filtered with "Walden"


Our practice of filtering isn't just about covering up lines with a brightness setting or pretending that we lived through WWII. It's about wanting to be part of an aspect of history that seems long gone and unreachable. The attempt to make the new into something old is absolutely a reversal of our efforts over time to improve images, but backwards isn't always a negative direction.

Here's some meta for your trouble.

My Dad at 16, filtered with "Valencia."

1 comment:

  1. Good post. The theme (white text on black background) makes it a bit difficult to read, though!