Refugees From Time: Progress, Nostalgia, Photography

Even in a cynical, post-enlightenment age our understanding of the passage of time centers very much around an idea of progress, that today was better than yesterday, and tomorrow will be better than today. Exceptions to this model, hugely destructive wars for example, are often explained away either as being instigated by groups that are intrinsically resistant to progress or are characterised rather paradoxically as necessary ‘sacrifices’ for the better tomorrow that will inevitably result. The old argument that war at least results in technological innovation and social change for example.

But there are more inexplicable anomalies, eddies in the tide of progress. One that I find particularly fascinating is that even as things allegedly improve we frequently find ourselves returning to the past, or a shadow of it, in the form of nostalgia. The word comes from the Greek for ‘homecoming’ and ‘ache’, reflecting its early origins as a medical condition, a form of homesickness frequently suffered by Swiss mercenaries fighting away from their mountainous homeland.

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Hugh Lee Pattinson, Daguerreotype of Niagara Falls (1840)

Contemporaneously nostalgia has come to describe an emotional response to a memory, typically a positive one of longing for a specific thing or time in the past, still in a way a sort of homesickness for a place once occupied but now impossible to return to. In a sense we are all refugees from time. Although nostalgia can be rooted in something directly experienced, it can also be based not on a lived memory but an inherited, collective, cultural memory. Nostalgia in the sense of Americana or Ostalgie, for example, many of the consumers of which are people born after the periods in question ended, who had no experience of them, who have inherited them through culture, word of mouth and so on.

Where am I going with this discussion? Nostalgia has been a significant theme in photography for at least a decade, something I find quite fascinating. Photography was once a medium that was seen as dangerously forward looking and progressive, it was leaving behind fine art with all the ideology and constraints that came with it. However since the advent of digital technologies there has been a resurgence in interest in analogue processes. Polyester based silver halide film is the most obvious example of this, something which has gone from near extinction to a relatively healthy existence (if a mere shadow of its former self).

Film is joined by more obscure stable mates, tintypes, collidon wet plates, collotypes, daguerreotypes, albumen prints. These are techniques that date back to the very dawn of photography, when they flourished briefly and brilliantly before being rapidly discarded for alternatives which were quicker, cheaper, simpler. The Darwinism of progress selected these technologies for extinction, but now they are being brought back into a very different world. What accounts for this return to these processes by people born decades or centuries after these methods were in mainstream use?

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Unknown photographer, Ambrotype of a Veteran and his Wife, probably 1860’s

I think a significant explanation must be that many of these redundant technologies appear to solve a basically artistic problem, that of photography’s inherent reproducibility, and therefore its perceived lack of artistry. By being niche, difficult to master and difficult (or impossible) to reproduce, a return to these media allows a photographer to express his skill as an end in itself, sometimes above and beyond the image that is produced. Broomberg and Chanarin’s experiments with obsolete Kodak film (from which they only salvaged a single frame) come to mind as an example of this, obscure, nostalgic photography that is by intent or accident as much or more about the performative side of the art as about the physical product.

Saying this is not to write off photographers working with obsolete processes. Many seem to use them (I think rather unusefully) to just make images that looks as old as the process used (photographing unspoilt landscapes, civil war reenactments and so on) but I’ve seen a few projects that I think really effectively use old techniques in a modern setting to say something. One of my favourites are these images by Eric Omori of paintballers at events near former civil war battle sites. I suppose what I am saying though is that nostalgia as an end in itself seems a bit dubious for photographers, but as a means to an end it can be a fascinating way of saying something about the present. To mangle something Brecht once said, ‘start with the good old things, then turn them on the bad new ones’.

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