Old Photos and the Essence of Nostalgia

Nostalgia, according to the dictionary, is “a sentimental longing or wistful affection for a period in the past.” Our desire to connect with this past explains why we root around in flea markets for vintage treasures. Or hang on to old records, record players and other quaint gadgets from a different era. There are many things – sounds, smells and images, among them – that can trigger nostalgia but photographs are probably among the most powerful of these triggers. A sepia print of our former selves with retro hair and clothing can instantly transport us back in time, for example. As can a faded black and white photo of our parents on their wedding day.

Which brings us to the question of where nostalgia comes in when the images remain vibrant and unblemished years after they were first taken. As is likely to be the case with digital images.

In a Huffpost article titled the Future of Nostalgia, Jamie Holmes writes:

The fuzziness of film, the pictures that fade, the preciousness of printed photos, the obsolete technology—these are all “nostalgia triggers.” What happens when the digital revolution removes some of them? What happens when instead of reminiscing over the distant bittersweet past, all of the past looks basically the same? What happens when it all looks too immediate, too intimate for comfort?

We can, of course, still count on objects and settings in photographs to keep us oriented. ‘’Then” and “now” photos are also powerful in the way they contrast the present with the past and illustrate the passage of time.

British photographer Chris Porsz created this contrast beautifully in a series titled ‘’Reunions”. As part of this project (featured in this Scancafe blog post from last year), he tracked down people he photographed on the streets of his hometown of Peterborough in the early eighties in order to recreate scenes in those photographs. The results are riveting.

School friends in Peterborough (Original – 1979; Reunion June 2016) Images: Chris Porsz

School friends in Peterborough (Original – 1979; Reunion June 2016) Images: Chris Porsz
School friends in Peterborough (Original – 1979; Reunion June 2016) Images: Chris Porsz

Commenting on the effect his images have on people, Chris said:

When I took my original images I never imagined anyone would be interested in them and my little time capsule was largely buried and forgotten. People respond strongly to nostalgia – of old shops, technology and the physical effects of time on our lives. This universal appeal explains why people everywhere connected with the idea of ‘Reunions’. It was about the concept rather than the location.

Another young photographer added a creative twist to this format by actually photoshopping his current self into old childhood photos of himself. The result is a quirky and seamless meeting of two different time periods. Conor Nickerson’s work (a photo series titled “Childhood”) is featured in this Mashable article from October 2017. And Nickerson himself described the project in a FB post:

While looking through some old family photos, I wondered what it would it look like if I tried to photoshop myself today into them. So I gathered all the old hats and t-shirts that I could find (and did my best to look like I belonged in the late 90s / early 2000s), and placed myself into eleven childhood moments. The result was learning a lot about Photoshop, and an amusing, strange, and surprisingly introspective collection of photos of myself hanging out with myself.

Images: Conor Nickerson

Images: Conor Nickerson
Images: Conor Nickerson

But still, nostalgia – especially the kind that is triggered by old photos – may no longer be what it used to be, as the digital revolution and its technology take over our lives. As Holmes writes:

…nostalgia will adapt to other triggers besides worn photos and grainy films. But there can be no doubt that we’ve reached a tipping point. Unless we choose it to be, the past will never be fuzzy or faded again.

The Past Will Never be Fuzzy or Faded Again

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