Analogue nostalgia ain’t what it used to be

This morning’s Observer column.

Instagram filters represent an interesting contemporary phenomenon – what one might call analogue nostalgia. Digital technology enables anyone to take photographs that are – technically – flawless, in the sense of being sharply focused and properly exposed. Some cameras even have features such as smile detectors so that they won’t shoot until they detect at least a rictus grin. They have elaborate systems for controlling or eliminating the “red eye” effect of direct flash photography. And, of course, if you don’t get a satisfactory picture first time you can keep going until you get something that looks acceptable on the camera’s LCD screen.

All of this would have seemed like attaining Nirvana to earlier generations of (analogue) photographers. And yet the popularity of things such as Instagram, Hipstamatic, Pixlr-o-matic and other apps for creatively mangling photographs suggests that the effortless perfection offered by digital technology has come to seem, well, boring. So just as painters abandoned realism once photography arrived, Instagrammers, Hipstamaticians et al now seek ways of creatively degrading their imagery so that it looks different, arty or just plain cool.