An ode to art or just for aesthetics?

I can’t scroll through Instagram without seeing at least one digital remake of a filmed photo taken with a disposable camera. The distinctly grainy, slightly blue hue is a constant visual on my social media feeds. The popularity of these photos would seem to indicate that they are of a higher photographic caliber. But, in reality, they are in no way high quality Pictures. Often in these photos, some subjects are washed out while others appear as shadows. Photos may be blurry; teeth may be discolored; the eyes appear as red pearls.

However, despite these intrinsic flaws, the Recent trend in the use of disposable cameras doesn’t seem to be going anywhere – at least not any time soon. They invoke a sense of nostalgia, allowing us to romanticize moments that happened days before the film was developed. They are an idealization of a common photo-taking practice of previous generations.

For decades people have publicly idealized “vintage” periods, claiming that life was much simpler “back then”. Disposable cameras and film photography are tangible extensions of this mindset. When we see pictures from movies, we remember the ones our parents showed us since their twenties: pictures from college, weddings, vacations, baby showers.

Film stills — which have been previously necessities to document such momentous events – are now a luxury for us to capture our favorite fleeting moments, despite their relatively high user monetary outlay. Fujifilm and Kodak disposable cameras, two of the most popular types, store 27 photos. And, with each photo taken, there is a sum of money lost (approximately $22 by camera and $0.50 develop each plan). Despite the high costs of film photography today, disposable film cameras were a cheap photo-taking method at the end of the 20th century. Alternatives such as point-and-shoot digital cameras were significantly more expensive.

With the rise of digital cameras, during the mid 1990s, people no longer needed to assign a price to every photo they took. With a simple SD card, we had access to a seemingly endless number of potential photos. For the first time in the history of photography, there was no marginal cost associated with taking one more photo. Thus, taking photos has become a very viable opportunity for the middle class family looking to take photos to document their travels and vacations.

But, others believe that the move from film to digital signaled a degradation – or the complete elimination – of the art behind the photograph. With digital cameras, there is no more urge to savor every opportunity to take a picture or worry about saving points on your camera for possible shots. With the quick click of a button, someone can take the exact same photo of a sunset from slightly different angles. Without the feeling of finitude, there’s no reason to enjoy every photo opportunity.

Thus, with the emergence of a social media fashion featuring film stills, maybe we love the limitation of film again – the pressure to only take a limited number of photos –… or we?

Popular photo apps such as Available and Huji Camera try to satisfy our taste for silver photography by mimicking its process. The apps allow users to take photos on their cell phone, wait for a day (as if the photos were actually developing), and receive digital photos that look like they were taken on film. Although quite different from genuine film photos, the apps have thousands of Comments on the Apple App Store. Many positive reviews relate to the “vintage” feel of the photos, while many negative reviews relate to bugs in the software. Most notable is that people’s photos are removed from apps – a problem that doesn’t arise with photos from physical movies.

Nonetheless, the apps tap into a grateful demographic, offering a cheaper alternative to disposable cameras while offering the same aesthetics as the original mount. Disposable camera users channel their willingness to wait despite their accessibility to other instant options for taking pictures.

Just a few years ago, Fujifilm Instax cameras made a the comeback like modern Polaroid cameras. In 2016, Fuji sold over 3.5 times more instax cameras than digital cameras. Obviously, there has been a trend towards analog photography.

However, the Instax buzz quickly waned following the adoption of disposable cameras. Thus, photography trends are constantly evolving, an evolution that constantly changes medium and preference thanks to social media. Whatever trends in photography occur outside of the digital sphere – such as disposable cameras – they are still shaped by the digital world, in the form of social media.

I think Polaroid films and photos get their beauty from their physique. People can hold these tangible photos, hang them as decorations, or store them as treasured keepsakes in sacred places in their homes. And, at first glance, the physical component of photos is the biggest difference between them and their digital counterparts. Still, people feel the need to scan the physical photos and publicize them to their social media followers. In doing so, users seek to replicate the feelings of nostalgia and simplicity that we often associate with film and Polaroid photography.

Some say disposable cameras allow them to take photos spontaneously when outdoors or with friends. But, in practice, isn’t it much more spontaneous to pull out your cell phone – something that’s always on you – than to bring a bulky piece of plastic, roll the film and take the picture?

Some also claim that they enjoy the anticipation of waiting for a photo. As Gen Zers, we grew up in a digital world. With a single click, we have access to the World Wide Web, allowing us to connect with anyone, search for an endless amount of topics, and use virtually any software tool we want. Sometimes it’s nice to step back and revel in the beauty of anticipation.

With that, I can’t help but lean into my cynicism and conclude that Gen Zers started filming photography not for the wholesome purposes of “savoring the moment” or savoring in anticipation as our older parents. Simply put: we are returning to this stand purely for aesthetic purposes. He looks cool in real life and, even better, he looks cool on Instagram.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with taking photos just for aesthetics. When we trivialize photography in labeling some pics like art and some like silly social media posts we’re no better than those who say that photography as a whole is not an art form. If a photograph can evoke an emotion in its viewer, I believe that is art. Whether that emotion yearns for the “good old days” or appreciates a perfectly curated Instagram feed, it’s an emotion nonetheless.

Going forward, I can’t help but wonder what the next photographic trend will be. Perhaps the teens of the future will snap photos on older smartphone models to cultivate a similar old-world feel. Rather than seeing movie photos on Instagram, I might see NFTs of iPhone 3 images in the metaverse. As we delve deeper into social media technology, we may find ourselves increasingly clinging to nostalgia for old technology.

This also raises the question of how much is too much? Is there a time in our media where we’ve come too far to really appreciate the photos we put out online? And is there also a point where we’ve regressed too far in pursuit of comfort compared to previous technologies? For these two questions, there is no certain answer. But for the moment, the silver photographs will have to suffice as links with our past.

Statement columnist Kavya Uppalapati can be reached at [email protected]

About Debra D. Johnson

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