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I’ve long been fascinated by the various filters for Instagram and other digital camera apps whose names are simply years: 1969, 1972, 1977. These filters work by tweaking the exposure and color balances, the goal being to evoke a certain kind of nostalgia, one born of a slowly deteriorating chemical process, and the at different rates at which photographic chemicals decay.
Hipstamatic, it would seem, began this trend, with its variety of lens and film options that were all meant to mimic specific analog technology. Filters like Ina’s 1935, Ina’s 1969, and Ina’s 1982 didn’t change the quality of the colors in the image, but added subtle border effects that gave it the appearance of being pulled out of a photo album.
When Instagram introduced its series of filters, it including one called “1977”: the effect involved an increased exposure rate with an accompanying red tint. The resulting image appears as if it’s already halfway towards that washed-out heat-death that is common in old Polaroids, where the contrasts gradually blur and fade along with the blues, blacks, and greens, leaving only the red-yellow spectrum behind.
Other photo apps followed suit; the apps Picplz and Camera+ both have a filter setting that’s simply labeled “70s,” accomplishing a similar effect to Instagram’s 1977. Until recently, Twitter’s mobile app included two filters, “1963” and “1972”; the former saturated the image with a pale violet-rose hue, the latter with a faded yellow patina.
The popularity of these camera filters, tied as they are to the past, suggests the way that color — at least for those of us who remember or understand how physical film works — is itself an index of time. It is as if this inevitable fading were an imprecise analog to carbon-dating, measuring the distance from the moment the image was developed until today: the closer it is to being entirely washed-out, the further away it is from the present.
Such ersatz effects point up the loss, for better or worse, of the accident of chemical processing, by which color becomes a function of time, the past, and nostalgia. Digital decay happens differently, via pixilation and related processes, and not with the same inevitable decay. Perhaps this explains, then, why we’re so drawn to adding this aesthetic aspect to digital images. The writer Nathan Jurgenson talks about this as an attempt to create a “nostalgia for the present”: it is, he writes, “an attempt to make our photos seem more important, substantial and real. We want to endow the powerful feelings associated with nostalgia to our lives in the present.”
Color as an index of time and loss is perhaps the dominant attribute of Ron Haviv’s recent book The Lost Rolls: 1988-2012. Haviv is a photojournalist who’s covered conflicts from Bosnia to Darfur to Afghanistan, as well as the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake and numerous other tragedies. Co-founder of VII Photo Agency, he’s built a reputation as a relentless chronicler of humanity at its extremes, building an impressive body of war photography. His work has been used as evidence to indict and convict war criminals.
Haviv’s three previous monographs have focused on specific places and conflicts: Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Haiti, but The Lost Rolls, published by print-on-demand company Blurb, focuses instead on the images that were never used in his professional career — indeed, were never until now even developed. The images of The Lost Rolls were selected from various rolls of undeveloped film that were tucked away in drawers and bags, mostly forgotten, in Haviv’s house for decades. The result is an assemblage of deteriorating photographs, depicting random moments in time and revealing a range of physical imperfections. Many are washed with a rose tint; others are streaked with broad swaths of yellow or drooping blemishes of cyan. One, an image from the funeral of Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, is so damaged that the only things discernable are a few candles and the upper torso of a soldier. In one undated and unidentified image (“perhaps NY in the summer,” reads an accompanying note, “probably Coney Island”), a diver appears to be jumping over a pink lens flare into the black-blue water beyond. An unidentified girlfriend is all but lost to a rose haze that’s consuming her image — time and color here perfectly fused.
Photojournalism is, by its nature, obsessed with the moment and defined by action verbs: to document, to witness, to reveal, to inform, to effect change. The images in The Lost Rolls, by contrast, are unmoored from context. Like the rolls themselves, the time signature here is lost.
The photographs in Haviv’s book are enigmatic, strange, and beautifully compelling precisely because they no longer belong to their moment—or to any moment. The conflicts documented here have, in many cases, faded in the popular imagination to vague place-names without reference: Kosovo, Sarajevo, Rwanda. Like the processing chemicals themselves, the places and events here bleed into one another. The rows of skulls and discarded clothing that comprise a genocide memorial in Kingali, Rwanda, can be memorializing any number of similar tragedies.
Even easily recognizable images — Bill Clinton at a signing ceremony, Andre Agassi at a tennis match — are stripped of the immediate, topical details to reveal the dead rote of a president trudging from state event to state event, or a sports celebrity replaying the same matches again and again, bereft of any joy or purpose.
Emerging through the bleed of color are faces of those no longer among the living, including Boris Yeltsin (seen via CNN on a television screen), and writer Marie Colvin, who documented countless war zones before being killed (likely deliberately) by the Syrian Army in Homs in 2012. In this image, Colvin, who lost her eye in a grenade attack while covering the Sri Lankan Civil War in 2001, is not yet wearing the eyepatch that would come to define her profile. She is seen is looking over her shoulder at the camera from the front seat of a plane over Kosovo, with a sly, almost mischievous smile. It as if she already knows she is on the verge of slipping out of the frame, destined to emerge, years after her death, on a forgotten roll of film abandoned in a drawer somewhere.
The absence of easy-to-read meanings allows other resonances to emerge: the child diving off a pier (probably?) at Coney Island, his body arcing toward the water, echoes, a page later, a man sitting in a diner booth in Juarez, Mexico, his body hunched in a similar arc. The identical rows of soldiers standing at attention, an honor guard in Turkey awaiting the arrival of President Clinton, mirrors the rows upon rows of human skulls in Kingali’s genocide memorial. Disparate moments, different places and radically different times speak to each other across the bleed of distance.
What emerges from The Lost Rolls, a forgotten and neglected chronicle, salvaged and brought back into the light, is a different way of looking at photographs, one that relies less on scanning for information and context, but rather delves into competing layers of temporality and paradox: the immediacy of the past and the distance of the present.
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