For almost two centuries, photography has existed to document everything from the most important moments in human history to the most ordinary moments. As camera technology evolves, more people have the ability to take snapshots of their lives. From photo albums to Snapchat memories, different generations hold on to their photos in various ways.
As a photographer, I am always thinking about how the photos taken on my camera and on my iPhone portray different types of moments in my life. Photos on my phone tend to be more candid, while I am more intentional with the photos taken on my digital camera. The second I got a camera in high school, I was always the go-to person for photos. Whether I was taking photos at a house show, senior portraits, or high-quality Instagram photos, people loved my photos. For a few years, I was always bummed that the only photos taken of me were on an iPhone and that I was the designated photographer. However, I am just grateful that there are photos of me at all. In early high school, people were always so embarrassed by being in middle school and would go back and delete all their photos from Facebook and Instagram. My biggest regret was being embarrassed of being a kid. Luckily for this project, I was able to scrounge together photos from tagged Facebook posts, my mom’s photo albums, and from friends. Growing up, I was extremely lucky and my mom documented everything on little disposable cameras. She was too hip to get a digital camera, and all my photos in the early 2000s were shot on extremely flimsy cameras from Walgreens or CVS. I used to love looking through the albums because they were fun photos of me in New Orleans, at Mardi Gras, and in the craziest outfits imaginable. My mom would probably describe her old style as gothic, and the stark contrast of a baby with her goth alternative parents is hilarious to me. These photos are also really important to me because my father and many of my mother’s friends have passed away. Throughout my life, I have moved a ton and a lot of photo albums have gotten lost along the way. I wanted to do this project to document my own memories and look at how other people hold onto their photos. I love seeing photos of my boyfriend as a kid, my friends’ awkward middle school photos, and family members’ photos from the 80s.
A Craving for Nostalgia: The Reemergence of Film Photography Through the Lens of Social Media
I have noticed that throughout the past year people have been clinging on to old memories and trends. As a result of Covid, culture has sort of felt stagnant. Gen Z’ers have been using film cameras, thrifting vintage clothes, and doing crazy 70s hairstyles. Despite these nods to trends in the past, you can usually tell how old a photo is and when it is from. Usually there are little indicators that tell me if a film photo was taken in the 1970s or 2021. First off, the quality of paper is better in the 21st century, and many old photos collected by families have been digitized. When these photos were digitized, they were usually done when the paper aged. Now, many people shoot on film cameras and get a digital scan on their computer right away. It is easier to just have a copy of that photo on your computer instead of reprinting from the negatives. Since many people just have a scan of the film on their computer, it never ages.
Another trend in the past ten years has been apps that replicate disposable cameras. One of the most notable apps is Huji, which came out in 2017. The app took photos in a way that replicated the colors and textures of film cameras. Light streaks and textures are randomly generated and each photo has its own style. Instead of adding a filter yourself, the app chooses for you and surprises people. For about a year, these photos were everywhere on the internet and easily recognizable. They gave a similar vibe to film photos, without having to buy film and develop it. Borrowing from the philosopher Frederic Jameson, Nathan Jurgenson argues people use these apps and filters to make their photos more tangible and important. “The rise of the faux-vintage photo is an attempt to create a sort of ‘nostalgia for the present,’ an attempt to make our photos seem more important, substantial and real. We want to endow the powerful feelings associated with nostalgia to our lives in the present.” (Pictures or It Didn’t Happen: Photo-nostalgia, iPhoneography and the Representation of Everyday Life, Mike Chopra-Gant). Something that comes with taking film photos in this digital age is that people feel like there is an elevated importance. The process is slowed down and you usually end up with a physical tangible photo. The success of the digital camera and easy access to phone cameras has resulted in an abundance of images. Personally, I have 50,000 photos in total on my phone. There are probably tons of selfies I took 50 times to get perfect and screenshots of images I forgot to delete. On the other hand, my photo album of film photos I have taken over the past 4 years is only filled up halfway. “...the digital image must surely be the victim of its own success: the proliferation of images that digital technology has enabled decreases image scarcity and so inevitably heralds the devaluation of each individual image” (Chopra-Gant). Not only do people crave nostalgia, they want to slow down the photo making process. Another drawback of digital photography is that many photos never get printed out in a physical form and often only exist on the internet, on our phones, or our hard drives. Things can go wrong and a hard drive could break, a cloud may not get backed up, or a social media account could get deleted. However, there might be a little bit more security to have images in a digital form because prints can be lost, burnt, damaged, or just age over time. Ideally, I love to print out my photos and have a version on my social media and phone.
At a similar time during the emergence of photo film apps, Fujifilm Instax was at its peak. People loved taking a break from their phones and taking a polaroid photo. Since the film was so expensive, it forced people to take their time taking photos since they did not have an unlimited amount of tries like they normally would on their phones. As of recently, I have noticed people buying disposable cameras and trying out film. It is still pretty easy to pick up a disposable camera or buy a cheap used film camera online and get it developed through Walgreens, CVS, or your local photo developing store. Recently on TikTok, I saw a mutual friend have a video go viral for posting about a digital camera called a “Paper Shoot.” The video was an ad, but they did not expect the video to get 1.8 million views and 600,000 likes. The camera is advertised as being a digital camera that takes film-like photos that you cannot see until you upload them later on a computer. It forces the user to live in the moment and take photos quickly and seamlessly. The camera is so popular that it is now on backorder and the website is taking pre-orders for the camera. It runs at about $120.
Cameras & Apps Mentioned:
Fuji Instax: https://www.fujifilm.com/us/en/consumer/instax
Paper Shoot Camera: https://papershootcamera.com/pages/pre-order
PaperShoot TikTok: https://bit.ly/3nMJvI8
Holding on to Memories: How People Store Their Family Photos
When I started this project, it was hard to get people to send me photos. I asked for anything from the past hundred years including family photos, photos with friends, film photos, etc. I assumed that most people would be willing to just grab their family photos or dig stuff out of their attic, but it took a lot more effort than I expected. I posted on Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, and made Tik Toks asking for submissions. I got a decent amount of submissions from Reddit and Tik Tok, but mostly got submissions from the 70s to the present. People either sent me a photo of a physical print, a screenshot of a photo of a photo, or had scans. As a photographer, I always want to have my photos be at the highest quality possible. However, since a great deal of my family photo albums were lost a few years ago, a lot of what I have left is old iPhone photos I took of physical pictures in high school. It is not the best way of storing photos, and I wish my family got all the albums scanned digitally. Similarly, a lot of people my age sent me pretty low quality photos from their childhood. Some photos were screenshots of a Snapchat they took five years ago or were uncropped photos they took from their family photo album. Now with websites like Facebook, many people’s entire lives and childhood’s are documented on the internet. For me, it is easy to go dig up a photo from middle school or high school on a Facebook album. When my mom’s best friend died, her son created a Facebook page documenting her life in photos. The page is called the Rita Patrick Tribute page and is something I love to look through every once in a while. There are photos of the inside of her house before she passed away, her funeral second line, and photos documenting every decade of her life. The photos I compiled for the 1980s section of this project mostly consist of my Aunt Rita. I love seeing a mix of casual photos of her and more fashionable professional photoshoots. I am so grateful her son made this page that showcases photos throughout her life, pictures of her ids, photos she took of her friends, and more.
Similarly, my friend Devin Hull sent me a large zip file of an archive of her family photos. She sent me a range of photos from the 1960s to the 2000s. The photos are such a joy to look at and are the highest quality photos I have received during this project. She sent me a list with the name of each file with an approximate year, location, and the subjects in the images. Rita Patrick Tribute:
“You Press The Button, We do the Rest”: The Accessibility of Photography to the General Public. Selfies, Finstas, and Authenticity
In 1988, the handheld Kodak camera was introduced to the general public. Instead of having to be properly trained to take photos and develop them on a Daguerreotype, ordinary people were able to dabble in photography. Users bought a Kodak camera, took photos on it, and sent it off to be developed by the Eastman Company. “You press the button, we do the rest” was the slogan that promoted this developing service. “Amateur photography was pivotal to the popularity of self-portraiture, and the eventual selfie, because it was the normal everyday people interested in photographic capabilities who solidified it as a genre, not professional artists” (The Selfie Study: Archetypes and Motivations in Modern Self-Photography, Steven Holiday). From the introduction of the handheld Kodak camera to the iPhone, cameras have only become more and more accessible. One no longer has to sit for a professional photo to get a good photo of themself. However, “selfies” hold a different meaning than traditional self portraits throughout history. Our phones take things instantaneously and are able to be shared widely across the internet.
When collecting photos for this project I did not receive many self portraits before the 2000s. One of my favorite photos in this collection is under the 2000s section and is of one of my classmates Alison Erickson and her dad Frank Erickson. In the photo, Frank is taking a photo in the mirror with baby Alison standing in front of it. Even though it’s a casual family photo, it is such a well composed shot. It is the type of photo I would hang on my wall or see in a gallery. Similarly, I love the selfie of me and my mom on the same 2000s page of the project. I do not know how she took it so well because she took it on a disposable camera in one try. While I consider this photo of me and my mom to be a selfie, some scholars and art critics only consider selfies to be digital phone photographs. “Selfies are usually casual, improvised, fast; their primary purpose is to be seen here, now, by other people, most of them unknown, in social networks. They are never accidental: Whether carefully staged or completely casual, any selfie that you see had to be approved by the sender before being embedded into a network. This implies control as well as the presence of performing, self-criticality, and irony.” (Art at Arm’s Length: A History of the Selfie, Jerry Saltz). The Oxford dictionary defines a selfie as “a photo of yourself that you take, typically with a smartphone or webcam, and usually put on social media.” When taking a selfie, people have autonomy over how they look and how they are perceived, especially on the internet. On the 2010s page, we see a ton of selfies: there’s my selfie with Bernie Sanders, my friend’s middle school webcam photos, mirror selfies, and screenshots of my friends’ Instagram photos. These photos are casual and silly and show us how people viewed themselves in the 2010s.
One of the leading theorists of digital culture, Lev Manovich, looks at the relationship between Instagram photos and historical photography. He categorizes Instagram photos into three categories:
1. Casual: Created for friends and often ignore aesthetics.
2. Professional: A subset of competitive photography. Competing for likes from people who consider their photos to be “art.” Often trying to compete with commercial photographers.
3. Designed: Also a subset of competitive photography. Competing for likes from people who consider their work cool, hip, etc.
“‘Casual’ photos are similar in function to personal photographers of the 20th century: they are created for friends; they privilege the content of photos and ignore the aesthetics. Both ‘professional’ and ‘designed’ photo types are examples of what Alise Tifentale calls competitive photography. The difference is whom the authors compete with for likes and followers. The authors of professional photos aim for ‘good photo’ aesthetics established in the second part of the 20th century, so they compete with other authors and lovers of such “classic” aesthetics including many commercial photographers. The authors of “designed” photos associate themselves with more ‘contemporary,’ ‘hip,’ ‘cool,’ and ‘urban’ lifestyle choices and corresponding aesthetics, so this is their peer group on Instagram” (Subjects and Styles in Instagram Photography, Lev Manovich). On Instagram, the “casual” photo is usually posted on a finsta. Urban Dictionary defines a finsta as, “A spam Instagram account where people post what they are too afraid to post on the real account.” In a study conducted by the UC Berkeley School of Information, they surveyed and researched the use of finstas. They sent out 81 surveys to see how many people had finstas, and did in depth interviews with 3 of the respondents. “Of the 81 total survey respondents, 67 (82.7%) had only one Instagram account, while 14 (17.3%) had multiple accounts and identified at least one as a finsta. In this sample, the majority of finsta users were female and all finsta users were under the age of 25” (Finsta: Creating "Fake" Spaces for Authentic Performance, Sofia Dewar and others). They found that users tend to only follow other finstas, only allow their close friends to follow the account, and there is a reduced pressure to “perform” for an audience. Many people’s rinstas, or real accounts, tend to be more curated. Even if a rinsta is “casual” and is meant for friends, there is a level of intentionality and curation a lot of the time. They also found that people use Instagram as a personal archive of their lives. “I have had this account since sophomore year of high school, so now almost six years so it is interesting to see how I’ve changed since I rarely post on my real Instagram.” (Sofia Dewar and others).
On Instagram, I have two different accounts, a private finsta and a public photography account. The finsta requires permission to follow and consists of photos of my friends, selfies, and random moments documenting my everyday life. On the 2010s page I included a screenshot of my archived photos from my finsta that are now hidden on my account. Most people tend to rant, post really embarrassing photos, and memes on their finstas. I stopped doing that a few years ago and it is just fun casual photos. That account only has 528 followers while my photography account has 3,282 followers. For me, my finsta is not “unprofessional” or inappropriate, I even let my mom and coworkers follow it. My photography account is my more “professional” facing account. I book clients, promote services, and only post photography related content. Before 2020, my account probably would have been more of a “designed” account according to Manovich. Recently, I have started to care less about how my feed is organized and looks, and I care more about the composition of my shots and whether they are art. It is a simplified version of my portfolio that allows people to check out my photographs daily.
Urban Dictionary Finsta:
Examples of Other Archives
Flickr is a common way of storing and archiving photos. I found the Pacey's family archive, and they have photos spanning over a century. It is not super organized, but there are albums titled “Cars”, “Life’s a Beach”, and “WW2.” This archive consists of 1,604 photographs. I would love to do something similar to this. I am not very connected to my extended family, but I would like to reach out to my cousins on my dad's side, my mom’s cousins, etc. I tried to reach out to my one living grandparent for photos from this project, but he unfortunately never sent anything.
The Apollo Project
“High-resolution Apollo imagery scanned by NASA's Johnson Space Center”
This gallery of images consists of 15,820 photographs documenting the Apollo Project and has over 62,000 followers. The albums are a little confusing to look through, but scrolling through the photostream is a lot of fun. There are photos of rockets, astronauts, the Moon, and Earth from space.
Museums & Libraries
“The photography collection, among the oldest and best in the world, comprises more than 400,000 photographic objects dating from the introduction of the medium in 1839 through to the present day. It encompasses works made in all major photographic processes, from daguerreotype to digital, includes work by more than eight thousand photographers, and continues to expand.”
While this website houses an amazing collection, it is not the easiest to navigate. With such an extensive collection, you have to scroll through thousands of tiny photos, then click on each one to see them individually. I wish there was a more seamless way of looking through the photographs. While this is frustrating, there is a way of doing an advanced search and looking through photographs by geographical location, artist, date, and type of photograph.
“Established as an independent curatorial department in 1992, The Met's Department of Photographs houses a collection of approximately seventy-five thousand works spanning the history of photography from its invention in the 1830s to the present. Among the treasures from the early years of the medium are a rare album of photographs by William Henry Fox Talbot made just months after he presented his invention to the public; a large collection of portrait daguerreotypes by the Boston firm of Southworth and Hawes; landscape photographs of the American West by Timothy O'Sullivan and Carleton Watkins; and fine examples of French photography from the 1850s by Edouard Baldus, Charles Nègre, Gustave Le Gray, Henri Le Secq, Nadar, and others.”
Similar to the Eastman collection, you can do an advanced search of photographs by date, geographic location, and type of photograph. This website is a little better to scroll through because the photos are not as tiny. You do not need to click on each photograph to look at them.
Identifying Photographic Techniques in History
“Graphics Atlas is a sophisticated resource that presents a unique object-based approach for the identification and characterization of prints and photographs.”
The amazing thing about this website is that you can compare photographs and photographic techniques side by side. You can browse through the categories, click daguerreotype, and then put an ambrotype next to it. It also breaks down all the differences between the types of photographs. This website can be incredibly useful for identifying your own old family photos.
Daguerreotype (Quarter Plate Portrait):
-Black image tones
-High gloss, mirror-like surface, appears as a negative in specular light
-Image grain, highlights composed of images particles
Ambrotype (Cutting Method):
-Black image tones with milky-white highlights
-Highlight yellowing (Cutting Method)
-Continuous in tone
-Image grain, highlights composed of image particles
Due to the constraints of Covid this past year, there is a lot more I want to do to continue this project in the future. Now that I am fully vaccinated, I want to start going to thrift stores and collecting old images. When I was studying abroad in London, I loved buying random old postcards and people’s lost family photos. I plan to digitize my mom’s remaining photo albums that have not been lost. I also had some people offer to give me boxes of images. When I can get my hands on them, I would love to digitize them and add them to this website. There is also a Tik Tok account that does a similar thing and posts found images and videos. The account is called “Museum of Lost Memories'' and has over 500,000 followers. Their Instagram account also has over 36,000 followers. It is such a fun and engaging way of looking through other people’s memories. I have been taking a break from TikTok these past few months, but I would love to incorporate these types of videos on my photography account.
Museum of Lost Memories Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/museumoflostmemories/
Museum of Lost Memories TikTok: https://bit.ly/33w6CNC
If you have read this whole thing, I hope you had fun going through these images! I had a lot of fun digging through my old photos, learning about my friends’ childhoods, and learning about the lives of strangers. If you have the time, think about how your family stores their photos. Make sure that they are digitized or have duplicates so that you can pass the photos on for generations to come. I am clinging on to the few photos I have left. I would also suggest that you do not delete your old Facebook and Instagram photos even if they are “embarrassing.” Try to find a way to archive them and save them or they will disappear forever.
Pictures or It Didn’t Happen: Photo-nostalgia, iPhoneography and the Representation of Everyday Life, Mike Chopra-Gant:
The Selfie Study: Archetypes and Motivations in Modern Self-Photography,
Steven Holiday, Matthew J. Lewis, Rachel Nielsen, Harper D Anderson, and Maureen Elinzano: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/15551393.2016.1223548?needAccess=true&journalCode=hvcq20
Art at Arm’s Length: A History of the Selfie, Jerry Saltz: https://www.vulture.com/2014/01/history-of-the-selfie.html
Subjects and Styles in Instagram Photography, Lev Manovich: https://www.digitalartarchive.at/fileadmin/user_upload/Virtualart/PDF/402_lm_instagram_article_part_2_edited.pdf
Finsta: Creating "Fake" Spaces for Authentic Performance, Sofia Deward, Schinria Islam, Elizabeth Resor, and Niloufar Salehi: