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The Social Photo

Excerpt from Nathan Jurgenson's book On Photography and Social Media, first published by Verso in 2019

Every day the urge grows stronger to get a hold of an object at
very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction.
—Walter Benjamin, 1936 (1)

It’s the little things: your friend who texts instead of ringing a doorbell. A bus filled with people looking at phones instead of newspapers. And it’s the bigger things: waves of protesters using these same phones to crowd the streets and overthrow long-established regimes. Even those who do not remember a time before smartphones are born into a world still reeling from the collective vertigo of the dizzying change—not just in the technologies and devices but in interpersonal behavior and political realities. Social norms and understandings try to keep up with the modifications in how we see ourselves, others, and the world as a result of new digital, social technologies. Collectively and individually, in different ways and to varying degrees, we struggle with the personal and social changes that come with redefining visibility, privacy, memory, death, time, space, and everything else social media is currently challenging.

We have conceptual tools to help understand these changes. Operating systems use metaphors like “files” and “folders” to make the workings of a computer more comprehensible. We’ve developed a spatial understanding of the digital when we say we are going “online” to a “cyberspace”; the metaphor makes for good fiction because it frames newness within something familiar. Perhaps less intuitively, the emergence of photography in the mid 1800s can help us understand the contemporary rise of social media.

Photography arrived as a new technology like a kind of magic, allowing you to document the world in new ways and to share these frozen bits of lived experience with people who weren’t present for them. It changed the possibilities of time and space, privacy and visibility, truth and falsity. The fact of the camera changed how we saw the world and thus changed vision itself. And the advent of photography occasioned many of the same debates and confusions we currently have with social media, amid another sweeping change in the field of vision. How we see, what we can see, what both social visibility and invisibility mean are changing today as rapidly as they did in the early years of photography. Once again, the entire set of ways people make themselves visible to the world, and make the world visible to them, has undergone a substantial reorientation with respect to new devices that capture and share.

The history of photography has much to teach us about understanding social media and thus much of our contemporary social reality. The current claims that the deluge of web content, comments, and social streams is all banal noise without much signal, that the Internet is making us stupid, echoes what poet Charles Baudelaire said in 1859 of photography: “If photography is allowed to supplement art in some of its functions, it will soon have supplanted or corrupted it altogether, thanks to the stupidity of the multitude which is its natural ally.” (2) And a century before “pics or it didn’t happen” became a mantra, writer Emile Zola said in 1901, “In my view, you cannot claim to have really seen something until you have photographed it.” (3)

To understand social media, we need to understand that vision changes; how we see is historically located and socially situated. We cannot understand photography or social media without stepping back and looking at the deeper impulse that fuels both: the desire for life in its documented form.

Technology and nostalgia have become co-dependent: new technology and advanced marketing stimulate ersatz nostalgia—for the things you never thought you had lost—and anticipatory nostalgia—for the present that flees with the speed of a click.
—Svetlana Boym, 2007 (4)

Snowstorms produce a blizzard of images. The Snow Day is exceptional and thus picture worthy. Each extra inch looks like progress and is thus photographable. Everyday surroundings that usually seem to have exhausted their photographic potential are breathed new productive life. Look how different things are right now. And snow photos look good. The white wash makes the image simpler and more striking by removing extra elements from the frame. The bright snow provides instant contrast, making any subject pop. The flurries in the wind provide movement and texture and depth. The snow itself falls and is blown into beautiful and unpredictable arrangements, wrapping around the contours of objects smooth and lifelike. Even when shot in color, snow photos can appear almost black-and- white. Snow is its own photo filter.

Over New Year’s 2010, the northeastern United States was blanketed by large snowstorms, and social media streams were covered by photos that captured these white-out urban snowscapes. But beyond the shared impulse to document a dramatic weather event, these images had something else in common: many were similarly faded and grainy, appearing to have been taken on a cheap film camera decades earlier. The sudden influx of retro, faux-vintage images belonged to a new photographic trend, inaugurated by two competing mobile-phone apps: Hipstamatic, named “App of the Year” in 2010 by Apple, and Instagram, which would eventually emerge as a dominant social photography network. Hipstamatic triggered the popularity of old-fashioned- seeming photos, producing square, fake-aged images modeled after earlier film cameras such as the Polaroid. Instagram came next with a larger set of filters (more flavors of vintage) and a popular network to post them to.

While making an image black-and- white had long been a quick route to making a photograph seem older than the moment it captures, faux-vintage filters offered a wider array of tools for a more flexible approach to nostalgia fabrication. (5) Among other things, filters would fade the image (especially at the edges), adjust the contrast and tint, over-or undersaturate the colors, simulate lens effects and color distortions such as chromatic aberration, blur areas to exaggerate a shallow depth of field, add imitation film grain, and so on. Often, the photos are made to mimic the look of having been printed on physical photo paper.

Both apps yielded a similar aesthetic, one that would come to dominate social photography for a short time, filling social media streams with photos of a similar simulated patina, mimicking the ravages of time and evoking nostalgia as well as a sense of authenticity that digital photos in their infancy appeared to lack. In 2010, New York Times photographer Damon Winter won a prestigious photography award for his faux-vintage war photos from Afghanistan, confirming the rise of the aesthetic beyond the masses to the level of professionals and the aesthetic elite.

Nostalgic filters’ cultural moment coincided with the emergence of social photography, where millions of people were suddenly taking, sharing, and viewing each other’s photos as part of everyday communication. Social photography jumped from point-and- shoot digital cameras to the smartphone—a small networked computer that is far more likely to always be on or near its owner. As part of a computer ecosystem, the social camera is connected to a series of sophisticated software applications and is digitally networked. The same technology that allows photos to be far more social also makes it easier to apply filters and other augmentations than it was on previous point-and- shoot cameras or with photo editing software. Filtering could be baked right into the process of shooting and sharing, offered as a menu of immediate alternatives for the same image rather than something requiring any technical knowledge.

Why was this moment, the early rise of everyday social photography, so defined by an aesthetic saturated with nostalgia? The low quality of some early smartphone cameras might explain why some sort of filter that masked or exploited this deficiency could become popular, but why specifically vintage? Understanding the appeal of this particular aesthetic at that critical moment in social photography’s emergence is essential to understanding the logic of social photography, even today, and the type of documentary vision it encourages.

We can begin answering this question by looking at why the first flood of social photos so frequently made visual reference to the physical photos they came to replace. The proliferation of digital media can raise the profile of their analog counterparts, sharpening the older media’s significance through new contrasts. Just as the rise of the digital music through MP3s and streaming was coupled with the resurgence of vinyl records, there has been a similar effort to reclaim and repurpose physical photos. Analog images are seen as slow, pricey, and rare to the degree that social photos appear quick, cheap, and abundant. That an old photo could survive as long as it did grants it an authority that the equivalent digital photo taken today may never achieve. Their sheer physicality—their weight, their smell, their tactility—take on new significance in the halation of glowing screens.

Digital photos could appropriate that significance as nostalgia, mimicking physical photos by simulating the ravages of time through fading, added film grain and scratches, and faux paper or Polaroid borders. Making digital photos appear physical buys into the cachet and importance that physicality now imparts. Like other digital skeuomorphisms made to emulate physical objects (the diskette “Save” button or envelope symbol for e-mail), the simulated physical and vintage photo is a bridge to both an imagined past and a digital future, slowly becoming unnecessary as the digital version grows more commonplace.

The popularity of the faux-vintage aesthetic reflected a collective grasping at the authenticity, the “reality,” that sheer vintageness suddenly seemed to grant otherwise unremarkable printed photographs. The proliferation of faux-vintage photos underscored the fact that vintage photos were actually vintage. They stood the test of time, they described a world past, and, as such, appeared to earn a sense of significance.

Sociologist Sharon Zukin’s 2010 book Naked City describes the modern gentrification of inner cities as a quest for authenticity, often in the form of urban grit and decay. (6) For those born into a postwar sociocultural context, often characterized by theorists as plastic, suburban, inauthentic, Disneyfied, and McDonaldized, there has been a resulting cultural obsession with decay and a search for an authentic reality in our simulated world. (7) From fashion to furniture to cities, the worn down or vintage can successfully convey a sense of authenticity. Sharing faux-vintage photos, when they first populated social media streams, was like situating oneself in a Brooklyn neighborhood rich with venerable brownstones. The filtered images conjured a sense of special realness amid the mass of digital photos. Faux-vintage photos placed one’s self and one’s digitally mediated present into the context of the past and its overtones of the authentic, the important, and the real.

The “vintage” in these social photos doesn’t fool anyone: people know quite well that these photos are not really aged by time but with an app. These are self-aware simulations— the self-awareness evoked by the hipster in Hipstamatic. The faux-vintage photo is more like a fake 1950s diner built in the twenty-first century, or like Main Street in Disney World, or the checker cab in Las Vegas’s New York, New York casino complex. These are both simulations of the past as well as nostalgia for time past.

The authenticity that a faux-vintage filter ostensibly provides should be negated by the fact that it is a simulation. But it does not preclude the photos from conjuring feelings of nostalgia. What the images reference is not the vintage as such but the idea of vintage. Simply being aware of the faux in faux-vintage does not disqualify these photos from entering successfully into the economy of the real and authentic; it might even assist in their success. As in the fake-retro diner, the simulations in faux-vintage images are obvious, yet this obviousness does not preclude them from causing and exploiting feelings of nostalgia. Consistent with Jean Baudrillard’s description of simulations, photos in their faux-vintage form are more vintage than vintage, exaggerating the qualities of old photographs while also evoking nostalgia without an actual referent in the past. Here as elsewhere, nostalgia evokes beauty, not the other way around.

As trends go, the faux-vintage aesthetic didn’t last for long. But the centrality of nostalgia to the rise of social photography is telling: it suggests continuity with the nostalgia that all documentation implies. This link is key to understanding social photography and social media more generally: the faux-vintage photo is an example of the documentarian’s futile demand to embalm that which is escaping. Our contemporary documentary vision positions the present as a potential future past, creating a nostalgia for the here and now.

(1) Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” [Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit], in Illuminations, New York: Random House, 1988 [1936].
(2) Charles Baudelaire, The Mirror of Art, trans. and ed. Jonathan Mayne, London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1955, 230.
(3) Cited in Susan Sontag, On Photography, London: Penguin Books, 1977, 87.
(4) Svetlana Boym, “Nostalgia and Its Discontents,” Hedgehog Review 9: 2, 2007.

(5) See Paul Grainge, “TIME’s Past in the Present: Nostalgia and the Black and White Image,” Journal of American Studies 33: 03, 1999, 383–92.
(6) Sharon Zukin, Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places, New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
(7) “McDonaldized” refers to the work of American sociologist George Ritzer, most famously, The McDonaldization of Society, Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 1993. “Disneyization” is an offshoot of this work; see Alan Bryman, The Disneyization of Society, Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2004. “Simulations” refers to Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, trans. Sheila Faria Glaser, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994.

Copyright © Nathan Jurgenson 2019

The Social Photo: On Photography and Social Media
by Nathan Jurgenson
First published by Verso in 2019

You can order the book here.

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