Have you ever seen those really old colour photographs?
They’ve been passed around the internet every so often for a number of years now. I always like it when they resurface, and count myself among the many who are utterly fascinated by them. I’m not used to seeing photographs from a century ago in colour.
Russian man, 1909-1915, by Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky
Whether we like it or not, we’re distanced from those eras because the photographs we see are always in grainy black and white. The people and places don’t feel ‘real’; they feel more like characters from a story, the picture quality merely an aesthetic designed to evoke a feeling. It even happens in colour photographs from somewhat recent decades, a look our generation has adopted as ‘vintage’ or ‘retro’.
I’m sure I’m not alone in looking at those old pictures and trying to put myself in their shoes, trying to figure out what it was like to be them. What was life like when the world wasn’t HD? What did they worry about? What made them happy? Were they really as disgustingly racist, homophobic and sexist as history has made them look? And I find it incredibly difficult, because the aesthetic of our photographic record keeps getting in the way. The best of the old colour photographs manage to break through this barrier, and it gives me an odd feeling of solidarity with the past.
A student of history in a recent thread on Reddit described medieval peasants as “us”. “They were us,” the comment said. “Just replace the ipods, SUV’s, designer label clothes, and fancy electronic crap, and they are us.” But I think that’s backwards. We’re always projecting our experience onto others rather than acknowledging their own.
Photos of the Korean War, early 50s, from the private collection of Reddit user mcaila.
It’s not that they are us – it’s that we are them. It’s a subtle difference, and perhaps a purely semantic one. It’d be like if someone said your father looks like you. It’s not so much that your father looks like you, but that you look like your father, because he came first. Technically, either statement is perfectly accurate, but to me, the order matters somehow. When I stop thinking of the past in terms of how it compares to me and start thinking of how I compare to it, I feel like I have a greater sense of history.
The people in those photographs were our great grandmothers and great grandfathers. They came first, and they raised our grandparents, who raised our parents, who raised us. They’re not “like us, but in the past”: we’re like them, but in the future. Those grimy details that we associate with the present have been scrubbed away over time, leaving only these captured moments.
I think this is why Instagram and other similar vintage photo filters are so popular. They allow us a cheap, simple way to give our own lives that same air of fantasy that’s untouched by the grimy details which are usually forgotten over time, but are all-too-visible in the present. The internet has always been a land of imagination, where people are simultaneously more honest and more deceitful than they ever are in the analogue world. Instagram has allowed everyone to be their own avatar, to fictionalise their existence and make it a narrative, to demonstrate how fantastical their life is when, really, they’re just eating breakfast. Folks who lead a double life on the internet have been doing this for decades: it’s just mainstream now.
It’s an oddly appropriate fad for a world that’s moving at light speed, where everything is remembered and stored digitally in crystal perfection, instantly, for the whole world to see. Attention spans hardly exist, we can’t wait twenty minutes let alone twenty years for photographs to age naturally. We want that vintage look and authenticity, but we want it now.
I do think Instagram is kind of lame, because I’m a bit of an elitist about these things, but as someone who finds themselves transfixed by colour photographs from a different age, I think I can see the appeal.