Many new technologies imitate the old ones – such as the sound of a shutter when taking a picture with a phone camera. In Remediation: Understanding New Media Bolter and Grusin (1999) discuss how newer technologies are not separated from the older, but are rather reinventions. Therefore, applications which apply analogue filters to digital photographs mimic old technologies and pay a special tribute to them. Technological progress is an ever-going process, but the trend to remake digital into analogue-looking goes beyond and can be analysed as a form of technostalgia. Considerable popularity also creates a certain cult around the analogue photography, which is an important aspect of objects with aura, understood as the uniqueness and authenticity of artwork (Benjamin, 2002). It is also the cultural context, which presents the analogue as the authentic object with value, that supports this fetishisation of old media. Considering that many users of applications, which enable adding a vintage touch to photographs, are young and have never experienced analogue photography, it further implies, that these tools are also used for aesthetic reasons and, furthermore, to enhance the value of digital pictures, as they appear truer to the trend and more authentic. This links to the concept of aura, first explained by Benjamin (2002), as it appears that analogue pictures might possess a certain significance, which is not present in digital photographs. Benjamin suggests, the age of technological reproduction contributes to the decay of aura, however. In order to analyse whether aura can be invoked through applications, which use technostalgia as their driver, a phenomenological experiment was performed with Hujicam application. This essay focuses on the type of technostalgia involved in Hujicam based on its design and features to then further discuss its implications on the possibility of infusing the photographs with aura by making them appear older. It also bears academic significance, as to deepen the understanding of the complexities of aura. As there exist many classifications of what old and new media are, for the purpose of this paper, old media are understood as analogue and new media as digital.
Phenomenology is a study of lived experiences, which have intentionality, as they are always aimed at evoking something and are related to the world in a certain way (Smith, 2018). In media studies, it helps to understand what it is like to experience the world through a certain technology, prior to drawing conclusions from our senses. As McLuhan (1964) implies, the medium is the message and studying it can yield interesting results informing about the context and the society, considering that the way we interpret content is largely dependent on the format in which it is presented. Furthermore, it is necessary to attend to a phenomenon as it appears. Only then should one interpret and find the intentionality of a studied issue. I describe my experiences using a Hujicam camera in phenomenological anecdotes and analyse them in connection to literature.
Nostalgia is widely understood as a yearning for the return of the past, typically associated with physical places (Campopiano, 2013). Moreover, in the times of rapidly changing realities and technologies, it indicates a longing for a period when life was “easier”. This constitutes the fundamentals of technostalgia, as the abundance of technologies and the complexity of some of them can be rebelled against through the desire to use older media. Van der Heijden (2015) argues, this does not imply the actual longing to return to the past, but it is rather an active process of a living memory which takes place now and mediates between past and present. Boym (in Campopiano, 2013; van der Heijden, 2015) distinguishes between two types of nostalgia applicable to technology. Restorative nostalgia aims to present the object of it exactly as it used to be. For instance, photographing with a Polaroid SX70 would demonstrate a restorative technostalgia, as it means using the old technology, which entails following the authentic procedure while remaining as close to historical truth as possible (Boym in van der Heijden, 2015). In contrast, reflective technostalgia can be seen as a play on the actual, old technology. It combines the old with the new and is more flexible, as it reflects individual and cultural memory (van der Heijden, 2015). For instance, inducing digitally available music with the imperfect sound of a vinyl recording.
As Campopiano (2013) notes, it is not simply the aesthetics which trigger the desire to use “vintage” filters on digital artifacts, but rather a need to find one’s roots and a sense of belongingness to the past. Furthermore, he analyses Jurgenson’s statements, which point that through manipulating digital pictures into looking older, users bring back a glorified version of the past. However, it is the physical features of a photograph that inject it with a special meaning and can cause technostalgia, which can be understood as analysing the present through a filter of the past. Campopiano suggests, that technostalgia is rooted in one’s desire to “connect to our cultural heritage”. In contrast, Coleman (2014) thinks tangibility of the image does not matter nowadays and it is the visual aesthetic that motivates it. However, Campopiano (2013) suggests tangibility infuses pictures with significance. Grainy representation with marks of usage show the history behind the photograph, something that cannot be seen in a digital form. Coleman (2014) discusses, as it is mostly the younger generation that uses “vintage filters”, it cannot be because of their desire to go back to the past, as they have never experienced it. Instead, their motivation is the atmosphere that these filters create. Therefore, phone applications, which aim to make the photograph appear old, can be seen as an attempt to revive “the soul” of the photograph. This provokes a question, which this essay aims to analyse, whether aura can be invoked through an application that draws on technostalgia.
Benjamin defines aura as the uniqueness of art, which is the same as it being grounded in the cultural context (in Rollins, 2014).This means, every work of art has its history, from physical to ownership changes, embedded. He insists the aura has disappeared in a nowadays world, due to reproductions: seeing an advertisement in a newspaper differs from appreciating Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa in The Louvre. Moreover, Benjamin argues that reproductions lack the here and now – their “unique existence in a particular place.” For him, reproduction triggers the decay of aura, as it substitutes uniqueness for availability to masses. This could imply, photographs cannot have an aura. However, as Crimp (in Costello, ) suggests, Benjamin acknowledges certain photographs can have an aura, while a painting, such as Mona Lisa, can lose it, because of mechanical reproduction, as it disconnects it from tradition. Even the first work, in which Benjamin mentioned the aura was on portrait photography, but prior to its industralisation. However, he argues that it required specific skills and training, something missing nowadays. The decay of aura occurred, when technology got better and it simply became easier to achieve a desired effect (Costello, x). Furthermore, such reproduction relies less on the original and it can place the copy in unachievable for the original circumstances. Because of this, he explains, reproduction cannot have the same authenticity. He insisted that the aura suffers immensely because of the mechanical reproduction (Benjamin in Coleman, 2014). It is because the reproduction does not possess any physical traits as the original, such as those of crafting or age. Coleman (2014) criticises this, presenting a view of how many reproductions are very significant to people, such as items sold in antique stores or that belonged to a person’s grandparents. Coleman (2014) suggests a concept of synthetic aura. According to him, infusing with aura is as easy as applying an Instagram filter. Because of the already advanced technology, it is also almost impossible to tell a difference – any digital picture can look just as an analogue photograph. However, even though aura is subjective and can enhance for one while decrease for the other, it cannot be attached to anything with just personal significance. A certain cultural context needs to be applicable, too. For example, a birthday card can be said to have an aura, not only because it means something to the giver and the receiver, but also because of the cultural context of celebrating and gifting someone for their birthday.
Because aura is a very complex concept present in many academic discussions, this paper cannot cover it in its entirety and depth. In the context of this essay, however, the concept of aura is an interesting mode of evaluating authenticity and interpreting the gathered data.
data and discussion
Hujicam is a simple application, which allows to take pictures with a filter that resembles photographs taken with Fujifilm disposable camera. In the advanced version, it is possible to personalise the experience more, as the user can adjust different filters, such as graininess or the contrast. The interface looks exactly as if it was the real camera, there is even an explanation that pictures will be “developed” just after being taken and can be later found in the “Lab”. The “lab” tab is on the right side of the screen, and takes the user to the gallery of photos. In the settings, the user can also choose whether to display the date on the picture and if the year should be real or ‘98.
Hujicam - just like the year 1998
- such a slogan persuades me to download this application and makes me very curious. It feels strange, holding a slim iPhone in my hand and seeing that the application greets me with a full-screen interface, which is made to resemble the look of the actual Fujifilm disposable camera. My hands sense something different than my eyes do. It forces me to turn the phone horizontally and use it as if it was the actual camera. My confusion grows when I see a tiny square, imitating a viewfinder and I do not know how to react. For a moment I forget this is an application on my phone and it is physically impossible to have a viewfinder. Even though I realise it does not make sense, I hesitate and decide to try to look through it, as if it was a real camera. It makes me feel so silly, as I slowly move the phone closer to my face. To my surprise, it works - the “viewfinder” enlarges, but it only takes up half of the screen. I am puzzled, as I am not sure whether I should be acting as if I were using a Fujifilm disposable camera or an application. The contradictory information coming from my hands, my eyes and my head, is overwhelming and the actions I am expected to perform are not even logical - no one brings a phone that close to their eyes! I can feel how the application wants me to believe it is the camera. But I know it is not and it makes me feel silly, yet I conform.
The interface and the process create an experience, which aims to get as close to the “authentic” feeling as possible. However, it simply cannot be reproduced exactly as it was. The pictures are instant and do not actually need to be developed, which takes away a very significant part of the process. Because it is still just an application, any imitated physical features are not usable, such as the viewfinder. It is a play between old and new technology, suggesting it is motivated by reflective technostalgia (Boym in van der Heijden, 2015). Knowledge and experience of operating an actual disposable camera make the application easier to use, showing that it tries to imitate the process. The experience was created in such a manner to make the user believe it is authentic, however, the dissonance between the interface imitating the exact physical look of a disposable camera and the fact it was being accessed on an iPhone stirs confusion. As Coleman (2014) noted, such applications usually resemble the actual experience, but are copies. Therefore, the inconsistencies in the design and the process highlight the differences between the real analogue camera and the application, which renders the experience itself less authentic.
I feel empowered
by using the application. I have complete control over how the end product looks - from choosing what to photograph to combine and adjust all the options, such as brightness, contrast or grain. With just my finger tip I can create a masterpiece.
Nonetheless, the user is forced to follow a ritual similar to the original one and take important decisions, such as adjusting the contrast or the level of graininess. Thus, following Benjamin, it appears there is some sort of artistry to the application. The photograph can become unique and seemingly authentic, as it gives users the power to modify it. It does not require any craftsmanship and such availability to masses is what Benjamin insisted to be the culprit in the decay of aura.
Seeing familiar faces,
I realise they are not old, that there is just a filter. But going through the ones with landscapes is different. I am being fooled, they are so convincing. The colours, saturation and contrast make them look “like [in] the year 1998”. The aesthetics matches, but there is more. Even the time stamp with the year 1998, at the bottom left, supports their look. They feel like old pictures until I remember that I took them and they are on my phone. This realisation changes my perception, as I know they are just imitations.
A considerable limitation of this study is that I took the pictures myself and that I know how I edited them. Therefore, it is almost impossible to reach an unbiased experience of my own pictures. To avoid this, I ask a friend to gather Hujicam and Fujifilm disposable camera photographs..
It is like looking through someone's private album.
The gaininess and imperfections take me to the moment in which the observed picture was taken. I can feel the atmosphere, every face seems genuine. As if it was the last picture on the camera roll. Involuntary, I imagine the smells and sounds surrounding the objects in the picture. I cannot distinguish between “the real” and edited photos. Because I do not know the people captured, they all make me believe their authenticity. I somehow perceive them as if they were valuable memories. Maybe I associate them with the past or maybe I have it imprinted in my brain that vintage is more valuable, but they all look and feel real, even though they are on my laptop. I regret my friend has not printed them out, this would have enhanced the experience.
The actual authenticity of such edited pictures is debatable. However, should such an edited photograph be printed, its filter imitating the physical traits would gain more validity and could easily fool the viewer. Coleman (2014) insists it is just the aesthetics which motivate technostalgia, but Campopiano (2013) highlights the importance of tangibility of a picture to enrich it with significance. A strong difference emerges between the forms of sensory engagement when holding a developed photograph as opposed to seeing it on a digital screen. Furthermore, Benjamin (2002) argues reproductions place the original in unusual situations, such as storing analogue-looking pictures on the phone, which takes away the authenticity. Aesthetic values can fool the observer and transport him in time, given he does not know how the picture was created. However, it seems, tangibility can support the authenticity of the photographs, thus, make the experience more believable and connected to the past. The time stamp further reassures the observer, this is authentic. When the viewer is presented with pictures taken with a real disposable camera and edited, it is the physical aspects, which make the photograph feel more authentic, as the technology makes the visual distinction impossible (Coleman, 2014).
Because of this resemblance, Coleman argues that synthetic aura is attached to such an edited picture. However, it seems the tangibility is an important aspect of it – it cannot fully feel authentic if it does not conform to the ritual around it (Campopiano, 2013). A digital picture is prone to copying and further reproducing, meaning the aura decays (Benjamin, 2002). But reproduction to masses could also enhance the aura, as it creates cultural significance. For instance, there exist many copies of Mona Lisa, which actually make the original more popular and fetishised, but once again, cultural context is necessary. Because of visible physical-like traits, the edited picture has context, which suggests its aura could still be present, because it looks like a digital copy of an analogue photograph. Furthermore, it is vital that personal significance is not enough for the aura to appear, but thanks to the cult created around vintage items and technologies, a photograph can further gain context and this supports the idea that it could have an aura.
At first I saw pictures taken by me, of people I know, which made it impossible to fool me into believing they were real, old photos – they had the value of personal significance, but nothing more. Then, seeing photographs taken by and of strangers ensured me of the importance of the context: there is absolutely no personal significance to them, but I perceive vintage as more unique, hence, valued more. However, as it is stored in a digital format, it cannot pretend to be the original, it is a copy and the viewers know it. Once a picture is developed and placed in, e.g. a family album, it becomes ritualised and gains significance similar to analogue photographs. Therefore, it seems that together through tangibility and aesthetics, one can connect to the past and infuse the photograph with special meaning. The author of an edited photograph, however, cannot fool himself, but can only make the audience believe the authenticity. With such a filter, it then becomes more unique, but importantly, also gains cultural context, as it can be related to the cult around analogue photography and the past. On the other hand, however, one could argue the uniqueness of analogue photography decreases, because of its popularity and presence on social media, for example, meaning the aura decays. But social media could be treated as nowadays version of family albums, creating yet one more cultural context for the (edited) analogue photography.
When it comes to the ability of applications motivated by technostalgia to invoke aura, this study highlights certain features. Firstly, visual aspects of the picture need to match the aesthetics of the past, as only then the picture is believable. Secondly, the background information has to be presented to the viewer in an appropriate manner. As the author of the photographs, I knew how they were created, therefore, they were not authentic in a sense, they came from the past. Only when looking at photographs taken by others, was I easily fooled. This is rather problematic, as the viewer has to be lied to. Thirdly, the cultural context should anchor the photograph in its authenticity and meaning. The trend of vintage photography adds significance to such pictures. Fourthly, tangibility or printing the photographs would immensely enhance the experience of the aura. A laptop or a phone is not a typical place for original, analogue photography. Therefore, only when “developed” and physically available, can these pictures be seen as authentic and more unique. Furthermore, it gives a photograph a tangible location, such as an album, which has significance. If an edited photograph fulfilled all these requirements, an application motivated by technostalgia could technically invoke aura.
Benjamin suggested, reproductions cannot have an aura. The artwork has to be uniquely present in the here and now, and a reproduction does not have a presence. Furthermore, he noted, this diminishes the uniqueness of the original, as well. However, there exists evidence, which shows this is not always true, such as in the example of Mona Lisa. It appears, items can only have an aura, if they are somehow embedded in the cultural context. In the case of Hujicam, the cult behind vintage photography creates a cultural significance for analogue pictures. The atmosphere of these photographs helps to develop a (synthetic) aura, when the viewers believe it is an old picture. Besides, tangibility of the photograph seems to enhance the feeling, as it becomes more authentic. Hence, based on the example of Hujicam, reflective technostalgia can contribute to creating a feeling of an aura. It can imitate the physical traits of photographs, thus, make them appear more authentic and root them more in the context. Therefore, it appears to be possible for the observer to experience such an aura if he does not actually know how the picture was created. However, the question which emerges is of the actual validity of such a fake aura. Because, if an aura can be reproduced, does it mean it loses its uniqueness? The sole fact that an aura can be imitated for the sake of fooling the viewer leads me to question whether this concept is viable today, when the boundaries between the fake and the authentic, the analog and the digital, are ever more blurred and deemed irrelevant.
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