Faux filters wash out history

Imitation-vintage photos are all the rage, but what is the trend taking away from images that are actually old?

Malik Bendjelloul /Sony Pictures Classics
‘Searching for Sugar Man’

The footage of the sky, blotchy with clouds, is grainy and sepia-toned, telltale signs of old film. Or so it seems.

The scene, which appears in the 2013 Oscar-winning documentary “Searching for Sugar Man,” was actually shot on an iPhone camera. And the dreamy, vintage effect? It was created by an application called 8mm Vintage Camera, which adds filters to video footage to mimic, in the words of its creators, “the beauty and magic” of old movies.

“Sugar Man” director Malik Bendjelloul, whose film follows the story of a 1970s American folk musician who becomes an unlikely sensation in apartheid South Africa, shot most of his film on real 8mm film. But when he ran out of money with only a few scenes remaining, he turned to the $1.99 iPhone app to complete the final shots.

“It looks like real film, it really does – you can’t tell the difference,” he told CNN.

The app’s cameo in the acclaimed documentary is perhaps the pinnacle in the rise of a now-ubiquitous trend: the faux-vintage image.

Supersaturated, with blown-out highlights and vignetted and torn edges, these photos and videos are no longer the product of aging Polaroid cameras or Kodachrome film, but rather smart-phone photo filter apps. The most popular of these, Instagram, has some 90 million active users and was bought by Facebook in April 2012 for $1 billion.

Not everyone, however, has been content to chalk up the popularity of the so-called Instagram effect to its compelling aesthetic. Rather, some media experts say, it’s a signpost of a generation trying to put down an anchor in the constantly flowing digital world.

“Adding these filters [to photos] is a way of simulating value and worth,” says social media theorist Nathan Jurgenson, “because real old photos have stood the test of time and have a sense of importance as a result.”

After all, he says, taking photos was once limited to the number of exposures on a roll of film. Now, anyone with a cellphone can take and upload endless images to social media sites. Using a faux filter is a way to stand out.

But as “Sugar Man” demonstrates, faux-vintage photography isn’t just for amateurs. In 2011, for instance, New York Times photographer Damon Winter won third place in an international competition for a photo series of an American Army battalion in Afghanistan – all of them shot on his iPhone using the photo filter app Hipstamatic.

Similar to the typewriter font in Microsoft Word, or a Kindle case with the image of a book cover on it, photo filter apps offer an echo of an era when media had a slower, more physical presence in our lives. And they imbue our experiences with a sense of history, Mr. Jurgenson says.

The only problem is, they aren’t real.

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