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a spectre is haunting the light sensor
on nostalgia aesthetics and keeping an image diary
I’m 33 today and I want to make photographs again.
You probably don’t know me as a photographer, but it is actually the only thing I am officially qualified to do (if you care about that sort of thing). From 15-28, you would not have seen me in public without a camera in one hand. I couldn’t leave the house without it.
I was scared that a moment would pass without documentation and be lost to me. Photographing was how I kept a diary. Peering through a camera was how I kept distance between myself and the world, but also how I came to understand it.
I’ve been reading the diaries of Lou Sullivan, the gay trans writer and activist who worked to remove heterosexuality from the established requirements for medical transition, and it has me thinking about my own lack of personal documentation. Despite being a writer, I’ve never been great at keeping a journal in words. But getting older means thinking more about memory, and how I am remembering.
It’s not like I haven’t taken any photos in the last few years — my camera roll is full of them. But it’s been a passive activity, like scrolling, and mixed in with the images of my partner holding a birthday cake in our kitchen and the first flowers of spring are screenshots of weird Instagram ads and post-ironic memes.
They’re jumbled together somewhere in The Cloud, data on a server that could all be lost to time if the electrical grid went down tomorrow.
Digital archives are important in a digital world, but there is something about data that feels precarious. Sometimes I lie awake at night worrying about my hard drives failing. I want to make photographs that I can hold in my hands again, gather them up in a box to leave behind for the library when I go. If I ever write a memoir, there will be more images in it than words.
It’s funny, these photos that I made are digital, but I spent hours in Lightroom tweaking the colors to look like 35mm film. It’s not an accurate recreation of any particular film stock, but a way of visually triggering a sense of nostalgia by adding red to the shadows and taking white out of the highlights.
When I learned how to process photographs in art school, they taught us that rendering true colors was the goal. You were supposed to make the whites as white as possible, and all the other colors in the image would align. I felt bound by these rules of white balance. But I’ve since learned that there are no “true” colors, just like photographs are not exactly truth, and the pursuit of whiteness is really the pursuit of a purity I don’t believe exists.
I feel free now to play with color, and on YouTube I found a whole community of people teaching each other how to digitally emulate 35mm film. Has the immediacy of having a camera in our phones created a widespread longing for the past? Combine this with the fact that processing film has become prohibitively expensive, and you get some interesting things happening in the camera market.
Fujifilm has created an entire line of digital cameras that look like old rangefinders, complete with in-camera image profiles based on film stocks that don’t exist anymore. There’s so much hype around these cameras lately that they’re either on backorder or re-selling for more than they’re worth.
I am fascinated by the contradictions in this photographic hauntology— as cameras get more advanced, nostalgic aesthetics increase. We’ve created truly astounding imaging technology only to turn around and use it to recreate the look of the old photographic methods that it killed.
Writer Greg Dember has been studying what some are calling “metamodernism” in the arts for years now, and he proposes that what really defines a metamodern work of art is its emphasis on feeling:
“..the essence of metamodernism is a (conscious or unconscious) motivation to protect the solidity of felt experience against the scientific reductionism of the modernist perspective and the ironic detachment of the postmodern sensibility.”
It doesn’t matter if these 1975 film photo look-alikes were created with 2023 cameras and AI-powered editing software, or that they don’t accurately reproduce 35mm film. As photographer and Youtuber Vuhlandes says in his tutorial on digitally getting the “film look”:
“I think the most important part with film photos is that they feel like film photos, and you get a different feeling when looking at them compared to like, a digital image.”
Are we clinging to this feeling like a life raft in the overwhelming rush of technological progress?
The development of light sensors is one area where I can viscerally feel technology speeding past me, like I accidentally took a nap for too long and suddenly it was morning. To take a good photo in the dark (my favorite lighting condition), you used to need a very expensive camera with a very large light sensor. The bigger the sensor, the more sensitive it could be to light, and the more detail you could capture.
I saved up for years to buy one of these cameras a decade ago,and we used to swoon over how it rendered light where there wasn’t any. I thought I could never go back to using a smaller sensor, but the breakneck speed of tech’s forward sprint has proven me completely wrong.
We feel this rush forward in so many ways, and it only adds to our anxiety. AI is now changing our creative tools and workplaces so quickly, it’s difficult to even understand what we are getting ourselves into. The pressure to keep up is so great, and the ranks of those left behind will keep growing.
I keep thinking about hard, linear Machine Time, and how we are expected to fit our soft bodies into it, and the ways that we will always fail. The philosopher Thomas Fuchs writes:
“..cyclical time is not simply overcome. This is because it denotes not only a particular level of culture, but rather the temporal form of the processes of life themselves, and closely connected to this, the temporality of the lived body.”
Time in our bodies runs on a cyclical rhythm, just like every plant and animal on the earth, just like the circling of the earth itself through space, along with every celestial body in it.
Maybe making photographs that feel like our memories is an active way to process time’s passing. It’s fine, of course, if you want to use a big, heavy, expensive camera, but my favorite advice has always been: the best camera is the one that’s with you.
I don’t want to lug a giant camera around with me anymore, and since I don’t need one to take pictures in the dark now, I’ve decided to go back to pointing and shooting.In a way, this is a rejection of everything I spent a decade learning, but I think with art, it is possible to know too much. Sometimes creative tools become complicated to the point that you no longer want to use them.
As I get older, I brush up against nostalgia more often. I yearn for a time when taking pictures was not so serious; when I didn’t reach for a camera to work or to cope, but simply because there was pleasure in it.
I’m 33 today and I want to make photographs that feel like playing again.
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see: Chromophobia by David Batchelor if you’re interested in this rabbit hole. he describes the white cube of minimalist design as:
“a vacant, hollow, whited chamber, scraped clean, cleared of any evidence of the grotesque embarrassments of an actual life. No smells, no noises, no colour; no changing from one state to another and the uncertainty that comes with it; no exchanges with the outside world and the doubt and the dirt that goes with that; no eating, no drinking, no pissing, no shitting, no sucking, no fucking, no nothing.”
see: Mark Fisher’s writings on hauntology in film and the tendency for past aesthetics to come back to haunt us. he says this haunting can be seen as a sort of resistance to the way global capitalism contracts space and time and creates “non-places” (like chain restaurants that all look the same) and “non-times” (like, I imagine, the internet)
the Canon 5D Mark III, to be exact. still my favorite camera, but maybe that’s just another effect of nostalgia!
for the other camera-heads in the room: you can push an ISO to 16,000 on a Sony camera now and barely even feel the noise?! What!!!!!!!!!
all the images in this post were shot with a Sony ZV-E10 and a 20mm pancake lens! she is so tiny I love her