This post contains theoretical annotations on photo-manipulation that I am collecting for a publication on retro-looking fashion photography.
Digital photography is the main medium of dissemination of vernacular sartorialism and, by extension, of the afrosartorial aesthetic. Selfies are the currency of countless blogs that promote racial cool/beauty/pride (Pham 2015), while fashion blogging depends on digital photography to document emerging trends (Rocamora 2011). In general, photo-manipulation obtained with smartphone apps and photo-editing software increases the glamour of the shots, emphasizing ambient and attitude (Murray 2008). In fact, photo-manipulation is essential to articulate self-composure and circulate desirability, all the while negotiating the critical balance of distinction and conformity that determines popularity on social media. Among the typologies of photo-editing used by fashion bloggers and street-stylers is retro-looking, or vintage, photography. Far from being restricted to fashion blogging, this trend mediates how we experience many aspects of our lives. We often retouch the pictures that we share on social platforms to look dreamy and surreally aged, as if they were evidence of a distant past. These effects are obtained with filters that blur and fade selected areas of the image, adjust hues and contrast, increase or decrease saturation, apply layers of color, add grain, flares, imperfections, and borders to mimic the look of analog print.
Instagram, Vlisco, Snapseed, EyeEm are some of the apps that make our shots instantly achieve an old-fashioned look. This vintage effect is a poetic stylization of the vernacular and the everyday that, with different degrees of complexity and technical ability, confers an atmospheric and affective aura to the scene. Kris Fallon (2014) notes: ‘The filtering process introduces an affective, expressive dimension to the image [that] […] increases its capacity to capture the desires and moods of its author. Filtered images do not claim “this is how it looked” but rather “how I wanted it to look” or “how I felt it looked”’.
This evocative power channels individuality as affective self-authorship. The vintage photo augments self-projection, providing the tools to register the range of sensations that nourish our sense of self. As a record of self-impressions, the vintage photo documents a subjective reality and non-linear experience of time. In place of a progression of moments grounded in the objective perception of the present, the vintage photo foregrounds circularity. It collapses impressions, self-perceptions, sensory registers, and interior horizons in a single frame. Marsha Berry uses the framework of ‘hauntology’ to explain this temporal short-circuit where the photo is the synecdoche of an absent community presence and of an un-actualized future. According to Nathan Jurgenson, by conjuring the look of the past, the vintage photo addresses an existential concern with the value of experience because it makes banal and everyday moments worthy of remembering. ‘We come to see what we do as always a potential document, imploding the present with the past, and ultimately making us nostalgic for the here and now’ (Jurgenson 2011). Detaching the scene from the ephemeral and anonymous reality of the here-and-now, the vintage photo concretizes the desire to preserve its value in time. It turns the photographed subject into an abstraction and, implicitly, iconizes her/him.
Retro-looking photography expresses the awareness that, in the age of social media, subjectivation is tied to the curatorial effort of producing, managing, and assembling traces of our lives for collective consumption. As an externalization of our inner life of ‘moods’ and ‘desires,’ it mobilizes subjectivation-in-the-making as a resource. Obviously, this has important implications for fashion blogging and vernacular fashion photography, since both ‘support the practice of fashion as a technique of the self’ (Rocamora 2011: 412). In participatory culture, this autobiographical power of dress is condensed in ongoing visual narratives that seek validation from a sympathetic public. Like other instances of online networking, fashion blogging trades in non-verbal communication to produce ‘intimacy’ (Rocamora 413). Photo-manipulation is one way to augment this affective resonance and establish sociality at a distance. In an analysis of ‘smartphone camera moments’ Marsha Berry notes that ‘the impulse to create a poetic image of a sense of place’ that inspires retro-looking photography fuels online ‘co-presence’ (friendship at a distance) (63). The ‘poetic spacing’ of old-fashioned shots ‘interpret[s] aspects of sensory experiences’ (63), including ‘emotional states’ and existential ‘footprints’ (65), for collective consumption. In this respect, retro-looking photos are examples of the ‘suggestive imagery’ that, according to Alexander Cho, informs the ‘melancholic … temporalities’ of social media (2015: 44). Interpersonal affinities proliferate around the shared desire to foreground the affective and the sensorial, the emphatic over the phatic, through photo-manipulations that visualize transience, ‘linger[ing] in a stubborn persistence of the past’ (Id.).
While Jurgenson contends that retro-looking photography (and the online cultural formations that it inspires) is driven by nostalgia, Cho looks at ‘underground economy of expressions’ to explain the temporality of participatory media. Beyond nostalgia, the vintage aesthetic of smartphone photography implicates a less-definable micropolitics of affects. Making the present timeless and abstracting the moment from its context, the images deliver a vague intensity, a vibration, that doesn’t necessarily look back at the past with longing and therefore does not experience the present as lacking. They rather seem to distill an overwhelming, or excessive, affective experience of the present that defies verbal signification.
Berry, M. (2014), ‘Filtered Smartphone Moments: Haunting Places’ in M. Berry and M. Schleser (eds.), Mobile Media Making in the Age of Smartphones, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 58-67.
Cho, A. (2015), ‘Queer Reverb: Tumblr, Affect, Time’ in K. Hillis, S. Paasonen, M. Petit (eds.), Networked Affect, London and Cambridge: The MIT Ptrdd, 43-
Fallon, C. (2014), ‘Streams of the Self: The Instagram Feed as Narrative Autobiography’, Proceedings of the Interactive Narratives, New Media & Social Engagement International Conference
Jurgenson, N. (2011), ‘The Faux-Vintage Photo: Full Essay’, Cyborgology, 14 May, http://thesocietypages.org/cyborgology/2011/05/14/the-faux-vintage-photo-full-essay-parts-i-ii-and-iii/
Murray, S. (2008), ‘Digital Images, Photo-Sharing, and Our Shifting Notions of Everyday Aesthetics’, Journal of Visual Culture, 7(2): 147-163.
Pham, M.H (2015), ‘“I Click and Post and Breathe, Waiting for Others to See What I See”: On# FeministSelfies, Outfit Photos, and Networked Vanity’, Fashion Theory, 19(2): 221-241.
Rocamora, A. (2011), ‘Personal Fashion Blogs: Screens and Mirrors in Digital Self-Portraits’, Fashion Theory, 15(4): 407-424.