This week, a new photography app called White Album will afford iPhone owners one more way of pretending they don’t have iPhones: the app simulates the experience of using a disposable camera, allowing users to take “a roll” of 24 photos that they cannot view until later, when they shell out $20 to receive a set of prints. Filter-free, White Album harkens back to simpler, more wholesome times, when photographs were less carefully, compulsively curated — or at least, so we imagine from the depths of our 21st century malaise.
The White Album app joins a long line of nostalgic technologies designed to emulate obsolete photography techniques. There’s Hipstamatic, an app that applies old-timey filters to photos to make them appear as if they were taken with a vintage camera. (The app’s motto is “digital photography never looked so analog.”) There’s Instagram, replete with filters that instantaneously historicize our pictures, endowing them with an artificial air of antiquity. (One of the more blatantly retro filters is called “1977.”) Perhaps most ridiculous of all, there’s Polaroid’s Socialmatic camera, a high-tech digital camera with a built-in printer. A boxy affair, it recalls the clunky, campy squareness of the original Polaroid — not to mention the Instagram icon. The Socialmatic “combines the nostalgic appeal of vintage Polaroid instant print cameras with the ability to share using the camera’s built-in Wi-Fi and Android™ interface,” the website boasts. This could be a line from a David Foster Wallace story, funny but despairing.
Even Snapchat recalls an older mode of engagement with the world. The images that appear there are as ephemeral as the images we encounter in our daily lives. The app perpetuates the illusion of undocumented experience: as its viewers or users, we participate in live time in each other’s routines without committing any of them to Facebook albums or Twitter feeds. Like The White Album, Snapchat cashes in on contrived spontaneity.
All of these apps invoke a bygone authenticity, conjuring up the fanciful image of a haphazard photo album, a relic of our former, uncomplicated quirkiness. But if we’re so fed up with the performativity that accompanies technological advances in photography, why don’t we just trash our iPhones and revert to real Polaroids?
The genius of apps like Instagram is that they capitalize on our romanticization of the past without forcing us to confront its disappointing reality. (Roland Barthes theorized about the disingenuous posturing that accompanies photography in his 1980 treatise on photography, Camera Lucida, decades before Instagram.) Apps like The White Album allow us to live out a Luddite fantasy without committing to any of its tangible consequences.