I have a fancy camera, bought seven years’ used, and a shared license to an old version of Photoshop. I do not have a smartphone nor the camera apps therein, but I like to play around with Instagram, retrogressing images of twenty seconds ago to some indefinite point in the 1970s, when images suffered for their dependence on manual camera settings. And this past week, I’ve found myself playing around with Istagram and Photoshop enough that I started to wonder what, exactly, was guiding my sense of what looked good, and what didn’t.
I am an observer, not an expert. But I wonder, why cloak images in the past? What extra mantle of meaning is bestowed if I smiled for the camera forty years ago, instead of just a moment ago? As an inexpert but curious person, I wonder if when enough of us look at something—a story, a picture—and say it’s cool, a common taste is at work. If so, what does it say about us?
An aesthetic assumes we share beliefs and experiences in common, and makes meaning out of them. It allows us to recognize material that “fits,” that validates those shared beliefs. So for now, let’s assume there is a basic similarity between pictures and stories; that both depend on grabbing our interest long enough to convey meaning. Both use images, either literal or imagined, to stir our emotions. To quickly respond to something as being interesting or in good taste, we must have internalized our aesthetic at some point beforehand, and it allows us to quickly judge if the story or picture at hand validates the principles we’ve internalized. If the object doesn’t conform, it’s boring, irrelevant, ugly, stupid, whatever. If it does, it’s cool, fashionable, beautiful, interesting, etc. As much as it’s possible to decode our reactions and discover the aesthetic at work, we can learn something about ourselves.
So here is where I see aesthetic overlap. You tell me if I’m thinking too much. First, there’s the retro aesthetic in snap photography—more specifically, Instagram and the cool factor of making pictures look grainy and archival. The app makes it possible to take a picture with your friends, regress it forty or fifty years, and share it on social media without any discernible sense of irony.
Now, set that beside the fascination of looking at a building under the wrecking ball, the rooms torn open, the mildewed wallpaper—and follow that thread of fascination into the genre of photography called (rightly or wrongly) “ruin porn.” For the picture to be ruin porn, it is usually of an old, obsolete space, taken with a high-tech camera and fine-tuned with software. Again irony is absent, but at least in me, the form evokes a sort of vague melancholy for the past, or an awe of time’s destructive power.
Now, finally, look at the TV, the DVD rack, the bookshelf. Dystopian stories have been around for decades, but they are enjoying an unusual heyday on the page and screen. Most are premised on some crisis that projects an earlier, direr lifestyle on near-future society, in an environment warped for the worse by technology.
Like ruin porn and retrogressed photography, the stories rely on damage. In each, time passes, and the human subject comes out worse for it. In looking for a relationship between art and life, it’s hard not to see the obvious: the aesthetic has emerged over the past ten years. At the same time, we’ve seen our country attacked. We’ve been at war. We’ve seen new technologies emerge, ranging from Facebook to aerial drones. We saw the stock market crash at the speed of digital trading. Where art’s response to life is concerned, personally, I agree with what novelist Ben Marcus suggested in The New Statesman earlier this year,
American realism [in fiction] would need to grow beyond the suburban bedroom, absorbing what, the previous day [September 11, 2001], had been pure fantasy. If truth used to be merely stranger than fiction, now it had also gorged itself on part of what made fiction special: its use of nightmarish material to haunt us.
Forgive me for making a long jump here (which is shorter if you read both Marcus’s article and the one linked above to Cyborgology’s feature on ruin porn), but it seems that we are both projecting some romance backwards onto a pre-digital era, and while also creating space for images of destruction—from the subtle to the grandiose—in those same media forms.
What do you think? Are we using technology to stylize our unease with the present, our feeling of disconnection from the past? If so, why? Is it possible that we are using what means we can to grapple with a long cultural aftershock of 9/11? Or is there some even more complex relationship at work between technology, time, and peril?