Atemporality, the iPhone Camera, and the Hipster

Over at Cyborgology, Nathan Jurgenson dissects the "Faux-Vintage Photo" to uncover how individuals today seek to occupy the near past.

Johansen suggests, quite correctly, that the familiar tools of network culture by which we mark our lives put us into a perpetual future past. Unable to find a temporal grounding today, hipsters seek it in the past. Johansen points to the popular photographic filters that give the low-resolution digital images produced by smartphones a vintage look. These, he concludes, allow individuals living to reframe their lives around moments that seem more authentic. 

This fits rather neatly within the schema of atemporality identified by Bruce Sterling (see more here and my take on it here). The hipstamatic photo is different than Warhol's approach. It's similar to Cindy Sherman's Untitled Film Stills (note that when I found that link, under related items the MoMA store listed the "Lomo" camera, the physical counterpart to the software Johansen discusses… DIY!) but not quite the same. Where postmodernism was marked by allegory, network culture's use of the past is flatter, dispensing with the use of allegory or comment.

As Johansen points out, there is a perverse degree of temporality to this sort of cultural practice. After the neo-"authentic" cultural product is overexposed, it is unsalvageable. Thus, it is the nature of the hipster to destroy the things that he or she loves.

Midcentury modern is a great example. We are purchasing a house. Since it is modern and built in 1981, just a decade ago we would have gladly bought midcentury modern furniture. Now its much more difficult. Maybe an item or two but on the whole these "classics" have aged and simply no longer work. In part, of course, this is myself speaking. But I've also spoken to other friends as well. Overexposed, the authentic recedes into the past for good. The hipster kills whatever he or she loves too much. 


I don't think atemporality is the right gloss here.

The coming and going of fads and authenticity is a phenomenon that is much, much older than networked culture, and I'm not sure that there's anything about Instagram that changes anything particularly interesting about the flow of that particular river.

Admitting first that we've failed to define our terms about what constitutes a "hipster"; hipsters aren't using Instagram or Hipstamatic because *they don't have iPhones*. Hipsters have actual Holgas and Lomos and they are sooooo annoyed that the rest of us are using cheap knock-off faux vintage cameras, which cheapens their actual vintage cameras which they lovingly pay $1.00/shot + developing to buy the ridiculous film for.

"Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded."

Hipsters don't destroy the things they love. Everyone else destroys the things hipsters love by coming to love it too. Except that the version everyone else loves is a commoditized mass-produced simulacrum, which is soooo tacky and sold-out and just a corporate stooge's fake copy of the authentic thing, ewww, I can't believe you'd even buy that!

And so the perhaps eternal dance of countercultures being noticed and co-opted by fashion and then the mainstream, causing the countercultural types to flee to the next strange, hard to reproduce thing. It's as old as Punk, as Hippies, as Bohemians and probably older still.

That phenomenon, though interesting, is only tangentially related to the rest of the features of Instagram, Facebook, Twitpick, Flickr and the like, which is the access to perpetually connected documentation devices. Long after the hipsters and mainstream have abandoned faux-vintage photographs, we'll still have the the cameras attached to devices and services that allow a constant documenting of the documentary now.

nostalgia, presence, intimacy

I believe the filter phenomenon is just as much about manifesting the presence of the author - the friend - as it is about channeling the past. Most photos shared on Instagram come from identical cameras; choosing a filter for your photo is as much about feeling like you're creating something personal as it is nostalgia for temporal grounding. Filters transform a photograph into an intimate shared moment with a minimum of interaction. On Instagram, which is succeeding on a vastly larger scale than Hipstamatic, this works for millions of people, most of them not Hipsters.

Music is in the same place: now that anyone has access to the software to produce their music however they way, the willful choice to produce music in certain ways is a choice analogous to selecting a filter in Instagram. The most obvious example of this are all the low-fi bands of the last few years. Producing your music in a low-fi maner 1. inserts the hand of the producer (curator) into the music, 2. creates music that sounds nostalgic, and 3. creates music that feels more intimate, as if it were recorded in a bedroom on a pre-digital 4-track.

I don't have time to do it justice right now, but this connection between nostalgia, presence and intimacy is what interests me the most about the highly personal cultural output coming out of today's platforms for networked communication.


Isn't it perverse that in search of capturing a personal moment, people use generic cameras. To make the image more personal, they use a filter that millions of other people have. And so it goes…  

As to the first comment about hipsters somehow being more authentic and not using the hipstamatic photos…

My sense is that that's a model of the early adopter, which was big around 1997 (see Malcom Gladwell's coolhunter article and that the speed of cultural spread is now so great that the idea of finding the untouched is gone completely, at least among anyone who is more self-aware.  

they are merely biding their time

Authenticity - there's a nice trap to set for yourself. I'm still reeling from the devestating (too familiar) post at entschwindet und vergeht on hipsters, it pretty well put the thing to rest for me.

I'll be curious to hear what passes muster as far as your chair selection goes, I've always liked those Reitveld crate chairs but I think they just jumped the shark after a shout-out in T magazine.

Why? Who ever said I believed

Why? Who ever said I believed in authenticity? You don't know me very well, do you? 

you are right

Please don't misinterpret my comment - it wasn't intended as an accusation. I like the site and am enjoying reading your posts.


first, the author of the piece is "nathan jurgenson" (me), not "Johansen"

thanks for the comments, the discussion on the topic has been terrific! i just read yours and bruce sterling's pieces on atemporarily and really loved them. much more thinking to be done on this topic!


Thanks for the kind words.

Thanks for the kind words. Apologies about the mis-naming. Fixed it above!