Filtered Realities: Instagram, Photo Filters, and Postmodern Images

By Nichole Fernández (Editor)

Yes, I outwardly judge you for posting overly filtered photos on your social media page. But inwardly, I kind of really love it. I love the imagined nostalgia that converts bland mobile phone images into a romantic narrative. I love that photo filters bring design into daily life. I love the empowerment that even the largest technophobes get from the artistic illusion of editing images with photo filters. While the graphic designer in me secretly loves photo filters in all their clichéd trendiness, the sociologist in me judges them for the impressive speed at which they have taken over the visual sphere and the now inescapable requirement to filter reality.

In 2010 the world of the visual in social media was forever changed by the introduction of the image sharing application Instagram. The app’s main goals were to ease the sharing of images, improve image uploading capabilities and, of course, make pictures from your mobile phone actually look good. The Instagram trend created a craze of filtered images that spread across social media and crept into the world of fashion, design, advertising, and media. Filters added a vintage look to images by changing contrast, playing with color, fading areas, altering image shape, and adding visible flaws. Here is where the visual trend I like to call the “new old” was born.

The “new old” is a term which refers to the application of socially recognized styles of the past, altered to fit modern day aesthetics. Thus something can look old whilst being recognized as new. For example a film from the 1980s that is set in the 1930s is recognizable as such. It draws on certain universally identifiable styles of fonts, dress, setting, etc. from the 1930s but it also incorporates other aesthetics from the 1980s. Therefore this hypothetical film is undeniably recognized as being made in the 1980s whilst representing the 1930s. My "new old" term is related to the postmodern theorist Fredric Jameson’s (1991) “nostalgia for the present”. Jameson argues that nostalgia in postmodernity is not concerned with historicity but instead creates a pastiche of the past that controls consumer culture in the present.

In fact, postmodernity in general denies the existence of new forms of artistic production; imitation and pastiche are at the core of the postmodern image. In true postmodern fashion an image would combine universally recognized symbolism, cultural context, styles, and trends of multiple eras and sources rejecting traditional aesthetics to create something that is not wholly new but becomes new (4). Nothing new is created in the image, instead the variability and fragmentation of postmodern society is reflected in the revival and unpredictable combination of previous aesthetics and temporal referents.

Photo filters therefore reflect postmodernism’s claim that nothing new is produced but alteration. The photo filter trend draws on the past to create vintage inspired images. However they are just that, inspired. These images do not recreate historically accurate images nor do they represent the present. Photo filters merge multiple styles of the past with modern aesthetics of beauty making a filtered photo unable to point to a specific time period but rather create something in the present that is “new old” with no real temporal basis. But this does create something new aesthetically, so that in years to come it will be identified as belonging to our current time period and will not be confused with the past.

So photo filters may create an imagined nostalgia, but is there anything wrong with this trend? I believe that these filters do constitute a move toward an unhealthy mode of displaying images of everyday life. But on the other hand photo filters can be beautiful and aesthetics may trump any argument I present. Photo filters have now become the norm in design and social media, so much so that they have become almost obligatory. And while photographs have not been a direct representation of reality since the early camera obscura (2), I feel that they are throwing us further from the present into a world experienced by a technologically altered reality.

Photo filters create a Disneyland version of the world that has no basis in reality but is nonetheless posted online and starts to represent reality itself (1). The image or the visual representation therefore becomes “more real than the real” (4) a “hyperreal” (1). The goal of the photo filter is not to make the photo look like reality but instead it uses the past to make the image look better than reality. The problem lies in the fact that we have created “a situation in which we seem increasingly incapable of fashioning representations of our own current experience” (3). Not only are photo filters evidence of our lack of satisfaction with the present but they are also proof of how we make decisions that are determined by technology. We see the world through a social media lens where, rather than experiencing and appreciating the present, actions are taken for the sole purpose of posting the experience online. This is where a technology meant to connect people through the Internet inadvertently disconnects them in real life.

But photo filters are a fad that will inevitably be rendered obsolete as quickly as they rose to fame. Photo filters have already created a growing subculture of those who feel that this trend has gone on too long. However, more than likely its popularity will be replaced by another fad within image representation and manipulation that will move us further from the here and now towards a filtered technologically determined reality.

(1) Baudrillard, Jean. 1988. “Simulacra and Simulations” in Mark Poster (ed) Jean Baudrillard, Selected Writings. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

(2) Cary, Jonathan. 1990. Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

(3) Jameson, Fredric. 1991. Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press.

(4) Sturken, Marita and Lisa Cartwright. 2001. Practices of looking: An introduction to visual culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.