I have been struggling with my photography lately. Call it ‘Photographers Block’ or maybe actual apathy but either way, something just hasn’t gripped me like it use to. Recently, I went out for an evening stroll, mainly just to clear my head but with the intent of grabbing a few photos. I found myself drawn to the same old things, dereliction, grime, dirt and basically anything on the more run-down side of life. As I stared at the old shop frontages, the run down streets and pictured how they would look with my heavy-handed edits, it suddenly dawned on me, I am a nostalgia whore… I pimp myself out to anything that has even a remote whiff of sentimentality.
This is nothing new, I’ve pretty much spent my whole ‘photography life’ trying to make my images look like they are from another time. In fact, Birmingham itself has a weird duality of personality between being this historic relic that should be preserved for future generations and every available derelict space being knocked down to make way for the ‘latest in modern living’. In fact, there are people out there so attached to the past that they simply must live in converted old factory units, as long as they come with all of the trappings of modern life - even I couldn’t resist that level of ‘authenticity’.
However, having more than a subtle nod to the past seems to be the new craze in Photography, well not new, but certainly more prevalent than ever. I see images all over social media that could be plucked straight out of the back-catalogue of any 1970’s photographer worth their salt. Even more, I see people returning to shooting film to try to achieve that authentic feel, something than simply ‘can’t be recreated in Lightroom’ so instead they are returning to the darkroom. This got me thinking about why so many of us are so determined to add a feeling of Nostalgia to our images and why we would even waste thousands of pounds on modern equipment, only to apply filters to make the image quality, well, worse.
As I continued my walk, thinking deeper and deeper about why I am personally drawn to a whimsical sense of past, a thought crossed my mind and seemingly got stuck there and wouldn’t budge. Quite simply, maybe we just always associate the past as being better than the present. Now that may not ring true for everyone and it certainly isn’t intended to be so sweeping, but I do think that most people have a tendency to remember the past in a more favourable light. Music, food, sport, fashion.. everything was better when you were younger, right? Well the truth is, probably not… But that doesn’t mean that we don’t hark back to a time when our lives were less stressful and our fashion choices a little simpler.
However, there is one important person that we are missing out and that is the viewer. Why do nostalgic images appeal to the non-photographer viewer? Well, from what I see it is simply that, we like old things because they remind us of a better, simpler time… a time pre-Brexit. I love the work of Fred Herzog, but have no attachment to 1960’s Canada. I’m constantly amazed by the work of Saul Leiter but have no reason to feel sentimental about New York nearly 70 years ago. Even Gregory Crewsdon and Todd Hido have their enigmatic ‘can’t really place a time on them’ style of images beguile me and they are working very much in the present!
So what does it all mean… Well, for me personally, I doubt I will be changing my style anytime soon, though the more I see the same style of images, the more I know I need to do something different. Whereas I hugely enjoy the work of many photographers that shoot with film, find beautifully nostalgic scenes or even just apply film grains to give their images more ‘feels’, I do think the nostalgia bubble will eventually burst. The main reason for this? Well you can only fake authenticity so far.
However, these are just the ramblings of a photographer trying to cement a style and work out the ‘why’ - and I will continue to dream of living in my modern abandoned factory unit with just the right-level of ‘voice activated heating’ whilst looking at bare-brick walls with images of run down 1970’s American petrol stations in the desert… Maybe one day… What are your thoughts on this? Please leave a comment below.