How a Digital Generation Fell In Love With Nostalgia5 min read

Ever since I was a child, I loved flipping through my family’s old photo albums of their trips around Europe. The funny-looking cars, the outdated dresses or trousers, and the horribly poofy hairstyles. Even the glossy 1980s photos from my parents’ roadtrip through the United States, not really a distant past in 1999, were already so intriguing to me. These photos were like tiny time capsules from before I was born, a miniature window into the lives that already existed before mine. A world that would always be out of reach, no matter how much I tried to twist time.

Vintage travel photo, tower of Pisa
Tourists visiting the Leaning Tower of Pisa, circa 1950-1970 (Photo: Les Anderson)

But it wasn’t just family photo albums. Even today, I love browsing through archives or following social media pages that share everyday snapshots from the previous century. There is something so romantic, so incredibly enticing about those vintage and faded photos from the streets of New York in the 1950s, the Parisian cafés in the 1960s and the free-floating students in Amsterdam from the 1970s. And the 1990s too are slowly creeping into the nostalgic zone, although the early 2000s are still a little bit too close to home. Then again, the 2010s have already come and very nearly gone. Funny little thing isn’t it, nostalgia?

Vintage photo from circa 1950s-1960s
Urban street in France, circa 1950-1970 (Photo: Les Anderson)

Digital Generations

Even us Millennial and Generation Z babies, or perhaps especially the digital generations, have this peculiar fascination with the vintage aesthetic. We download apps that add a bit of grain or speckle to our pixelated Instagram posts and TikToks, opt for an analogue look to make our smartphone shots less plain in their perfection, less straight-forward and seasoned with a pinch of old-world magic yet again.

We add fake 35mm film frames and use mock-up polaroid templates to add an extra layer of intensity. It’s a collective process of playful creativity and I don’t think we should think of it as something to be ridiculed. I’m also not here to tell you that it’s an unhealthy obsession, but there’s certainly something funny about it.

We download apps that add a bit of grain to our pixelated Instagram posts and TikToks, opt for an analogue look to add a pinch of old-world magic yet again. I’m not here to tell you that it’s an unhealthy obsession, but there’s certainly something funny about it.

Amstel river in Amsterdam with vintage photo effects
Amstel river in Amsterdam, 2019 (Photo: Roselinde Bon)

On a deeper level, we all seem to be seeking nostalgia when we’re still living the moment itself. We want to experience our lives through an artificial filter that forcefully speeds up the excruciatingly slow process of nostalgia. Like so many other things in our lives, visual technologies have simply become so instant and easily within reach. And this has happened in the timespan of just a handful of generations, a topic of conversation that keeps coming back when I visit my (1930s) grandparents. We fly to the other side of the world within hours, we google our questions without a trip to the library, we order our best friend’s birthday presents a day before the deadline.

The True Weight of Time

I can’t say for certain, but digital photos might just be too fast, easy and clear-cut and faithful to the real to truly communicate how a moment makes us feel. Because in a way, it all seems to effortless and naked, doesn’t it? Human emotions couldn’t possibly be so simple that we can capture them with a few swipes through preformatted filters.

Because that’s still what’s behind all of this, if you’d ask me. We just want to feel the true weight of time, since it almost feels like we can cheat it all the time.

Rijksmuseum tunnel in Amsterdam
Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, 2016 (Photo: Roselinde Bon)

Just like when Barthes wrote his iconic ‘Camera Lucida’ in the 1980s: we still want photos to capture our emotions, to make us feel like we did in that moment all over, to make us feel the painfully growing distance between the people in that photo and the person we have become now, to make us feel all over again and again. We still want photos to strike us inside our hearts, to prick a tiny emotional wound, a particular wound which Barthes used to call the ‘punctum’. And now it almost seems like we don’t even need to have the patience.

When We Will Be Vintage

But I can’t help but wonder, lately on an almost daily basis: what will it be like when we ourselves will truly be vintage? How will it feel when the people we are now have become a vintage version to ourselves, and to the generations that are born after Anno Instagram? Will we have to patiently wait for that to happen, or will it happen to us before we’ll feel ready? The prospect of aging is sometimes terrifying. Nevertheless, I really can’t wait until my curiosity for nostalgia has truly withstood the test of time.


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