You may have seen it on your friend’s Facebook pages or the screen of a mobile phone, on a Twitter image service or a Tumblr blog. An aesthetic rash has been plaguing popular photography as of late, but it’s not a new one. A slew of iPhone ‘Polaroid’ applications are turning people’s visual diaries into retro, oversaturated documents of social lives, friends and lovers.

But what makes these applications so popular? There’s an innate visual appeal to the deep blue tints and blown out yellows and oranges of the Polaroid’s film itself, but I feel that these visual qualities can’t completely explain the applications’ popularity. Could it be that the social cache of the original Polaroid and its connotation of self-conscious cool and artsy-ness make the digital versions that much more appealing?

Where the original visual quirks of the Polaroid came from flaws in the camera’s instant-development process and less-than-perfect lens equipment, the digital discolorations produced by applications like ShakeIt and Polarize are wholly intentional. They are copies of the effects of imperfect technology, kind of like a forger artificially mimicking the craqueleur of an aged Old Master painting.

In the case of the art forger, there is a vested stake in making the painting look like it is actually old; the intention is to fool the viewer into mistaking the forgery for the real thing. But the iPhone apps are never going to fool anyone into thinking that your online snap is a real Polaroid. That’s not the point! The point is to make your pictures access the inherent ‘cool factor’ of the Polaroid, even though we all know the pic isn’t really one.

iPhone Polaroid, from @tfitzsimons

Where does the split happen between the aesthetic quality of a Polaroid and the way we fetishize that aesthetic? Answering this, as well as the question of what it means to make an exact copy of imperfection, is one well left to semiotics, or the study of symbols and these ‘signs’ communicate meaning. Pioneering philosophers Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes took symbols, be they linguistic, visual or otherwise, situations in which A represents B, and divided them into component parts. These parts are the “signifier,” A, and the “signified,” B.

This concept of dividing a symbol might sound complicated at first, but it is simple to introduce. Think of a normal visual sign, a stop sign or a bathroom sign. A bathroom sign tells us which bathroom to go in by the “male” and “female” logos on the doors, a skirtless stick figure represents the idea of “male” while the skirted figure represents the idea of “female.” Put another way, the skirted figure is a signifier while its signified is “female.” The physical symbol and the abstract idea are connected in our minds into a single symbolic unit. In another example, while driving we see a red octagon. We immediately know that this represents the idea to “stop.” The signifier is the red octagon, while the signified is “stop.”

Craqueleur of an old painting

Now let’s use this analytical tool to look back at the painting forger and the iPhone “Polaroid.” The painting forger wants to make something that looks old. What makes a painting look old? A dusty patina, faded colors, craqueleur — these are the visual symbols that communicate old to our brains:

Signifiers: Patina, color, craqueleur
Signified: Old

Taking it a step further, why would a forger want to mimic an old painting in the first place? Because, old things are connected with the idea of monetary value.

Signifier: Old
Signified: Valuable

This means that overall, our brains are making a connection between a visual symbol and an abstract social idea.

Signifiers: Patina, color, craqueleur
Signified: Valuable

You can see that through this three-step symbolic process, a tenuous connection is made between two things that aren’t inherently connected. The forger can take advantage of this connection, faking the visual signifiers of old, patina, color, and craqueleur, to make value pop up in your brain.

Let’s take this to the iPhone “Polaroids.” What visual cues (signifiers) characterize a Polaroid, or make us think of a Polaroid?

Signifiers: over-saturation, fading, distortion
Signified: Polaroid

This is how we visually identify a Polaroid. Then, what does the the idea of a Polaroid remind us of? The format’s use in fashion shoots, its heyday in the 60s and 70s, Pop art (think Warhol), or even its role in quick-documenting crazy parties. It also has an association with family photos and being the latest technology of the time, a status symbol of disposable income and affluence. In other words …

Signifier: Polaroid
Signifieds: Hip, retro, arts, cool

Therefore we again make the leap between a visual quality (distorted) and an abstract idea (cool) through the conduit of a real thing (a Polaroid). The process occurs so that two true symbolic connections become one false connection.

Signifiers: over-saturation, fading, distortion
Signifieds: Hip, retro, artsy

Literally speaking, the visual quality of over-saturation has nothing to do with being hip, it just has to do with being a Polaroid. Yet this is why you can look at an iPhone “Polaroid,” which isn’t actually a Polaroid at all, and think “cool.” This is why the technology is appealing, why mimicking the distortions and flaws of a film Polaroid camera in a digital format is, in fact, desirable. Why don’t you want a perfect, clear picture? Simple — because these imperfect visual qualities carry a connotation of coolness, something that is desirable to take part in.

An untitled Polaroid phot by Andy Warhol of artist Georgia O’Keeffe, right, and her confidante, sculptor Juan Hamilton. (via

We look at an iPhone “Polaroid” and see what would otherwise be a normal picture as more improvisatory, more candid, more fun. iPhone “Polaroids” shortcut the symbolic circuit we have built up between real Polaroids and their cultural meaning. The digitals are fakes, but no one cares — the cool factor is still there.

The iPhone Polaroid is far from the only example of a semiotic shortcut in contemporary visual culture. Processes like digital vignette-ing or faux sepia-tone also allow our present-day photos to take on some of the cache and mystique of early photography. Some “Photorealistic” painters mimic the imperfections of photography — depth of field limits, spatial distortion, desaturated colors — to conversely make their paintings seem more “real.” They mimic the photo instead of reality; heightening the reality of their work.

Iron Man 2 featured more than a few scenes that took place on “live TV news.” Instead of seeing the action directly, viewers were shown what looked like a news presenter showing the action, a camera within a camera. Does this movie actually contain real live news? Of course not. We know it’s a movie. But because the visual qualities of a presenter and a timer at the bottom right tell us we’re watching “live news,” the footage takes on more urgency and importance in our minds. Again a visual quality reinforces an abstract idea.

I hope this essay has made it a little easier to step back and, as Olafur Eliasson loves to, make you look at yourself looking. Where does our visual perception end and our cultural perception pick up? Semiotics has some of the answers!

Kyle Chayka was senior editor at Hyperallergic. He is a cultural critic based in Brooklyn and has contributed to publications including ARTINFO, ARTnews, Modern Painters, LA Weekly, Kill Screen, Creators...

9 replies on “Why are iPhone Polaroids so Popular?”

  1. A nice primer on semiotics, Kyle. People are attracted to what they believe is real rather than what is actually “real” (if there is such a thing, haha). A gunshot in “real life” sounds a lot like a car backfiring, but a gunshot in a movie is much more explosive. People need artifice to keep them interested, because a lot of the time people don’t consider regular life all that interesting on its own. That’s why Polaroids hold so much appeal. It’s because with their imperfections and their coloration they can jazz up the boring photos we take of trees and garbage and hipsters. On a side note, this article also reminded me of Chuck Klosterman’s essay about Weezer and Werner Herzog.

  2. As as avid user of a comparable iPhone app — the ill-titled “Hipstamatic” (cringe every time I see the name) — I’ve wondered about this trend as well, and recognize a lot of what you’re saying.

    However, I think something that your analysis overlooks is the often pleasurable experience of using the app itself: the time it takes to “develop” the picture, the app’s imposed delay between taking shots, the confidence-building sound of a faux shutter and bulb flash (yes, the picture is taken). There’s both the nostalgic simulation of how photographs are made with analog tools, as well as some very real, tangible, and pragmatic adjustments a user must face when planning to take a photo with one of these apps.

    My favorite part of the app is not so much how the photos look, but how I’m forced to react to using a tool that simply takes a lot more time to use than the quick fix of most camera phones. As a result…composition, choice of subject, and the overall method of shooting is different, yielding pictures that have a value or aesthetic that’s in addition to the visually dominant “cool factor” you describe. There’s a lot more reality under the hood of these forgeries that’s worth investigating too. Having to simply wait, sometimes a full minute, between taking shots…somehow seems to change everything about the next shot you take. It’s a different form altogether.

    An interest in this kind of content is partly also what marks the shift from structuralism to post-structuralism, from a kind of unmoored and effervescent linguistics to a grittier philosophy that’s accepting and informed by context, mess, utility, and an experience of everyday life.

    1. Besides the realization of the long wait as part of the creation process, I wonder if all the ‘confidence-building sound of a faux shutter’ or ‘nostalgic simulation’ were also just symbols to associate yourself to the ‘old’ thus to the hip and artsy, thus a stronger sense of self-esteem as an artist? Not that it’s a big deal – I carry a lead holder instead of a pencil sometimes probably just for that.

      Like all the hardly functional plastic cameras they are selling at Urban Outfitters, the iPhone app is no different, but more persuasive due to its price and portability. I am sure that there are true photographers who are using these tools to create fantastic photographs, but I do wonder how many bought them only as a decor rather than a tool.

      1. Yes, agreed…”the hardly functional plastic cameras they are selling at Urban Outfitters” have a similar thing about them. I think it’s more the mystery that you just don’t know what you’re getting — so you think differently and take other risks when shooting — that’s more the appeal than any kind of caché of the photo being more or less like art, more or less like a memory, or myself feeling more or less like an artist. The pastiche of styles is just that: fashion.

  3. Most of the time you can tell if the photographer is using the Polaroid effect for aesthetic purpose, or simply for the fetish. If the photo looks just as fine in un-saturated clear high definition (and would probably be a better picture), it’s likely used simply for the fetish. If the photo will lose a sense of meaning that the filter is not normally associated with, e.g. the blurriness creates a sense of ‘mystique’, or the over-saturation creates a sense of ‘intense joy’, then the effect is justifiable. However, the desire to create such effects can be a fad as well.

    Polaroid effects is like a pre-defined set of Photoshop filters. And a set of filters that a lot of people are interested because of what it is associated with. Like the hyperpsychedelic abuse of Photoshop filters, it is unfortunately turned into a fad. Combined with all these layers of semiotics, Polaroid effects used without thinking are essentially Photoshop filters for a cheap and easy license to be hip. Too many chef spoils the broth, I guess.

  4. I don’t discount any of what was written above, but I believe the answer is more straight-forward: i’d suggest that the iphone fauxlaroid trend comes directly from the fact that raw iphone photos look terrible. The phone’s camera is of such low quality that, as a compensation for the available technology, one might as well mess with the photos for fun and appeal. (Enter your essay.)

    Personally, as soon as I get the 5MP iPhone camera, I won’t want to play with the photo apps anymore because the phone will finally be a decent pocket shooter. And I’ll hazard a guess that many others will lose interest with the trend at that point, too.

  5. One thing not considered is the fact that these phones take what would otherwise be a technically terrible photograph. The applications make them less boring to look at. I think few people who use these applications would ever apply the same effects to a photograph taken with a proper camera.

Comments are closed.