The Past and the Process: Filtered Photos in the Timeline of Photography

Phone Filter 4 copy

I was a kid in the early 90s and my brother would often drive me around. One day, on the radio, a song came on by the Squirrel Nut Zippers. My brother turned to me and asked, “Can you believe how popular this song is?” I didn’t understand what he was asking. “I like this song,” I said. “Yeah fine, but it sounds like it’s from the 40’s.” This was one of the first times in my life that I had become aware of time.

Not time, like wristwatch time. The grand idea of time. That long incomprehensible string that was here before me and that’d be here after I’ve gone. A pretty heavy concept to be born from listening to a Squirrel Nut Zippers song.

Phone Filter 2 copy

People have been using the past to influence the future for decades. Art, food, fashion and furniture are just a few of the things we see every day being inspired by what’s come before. And it’s only natural. We have a direct window into our past because we are living in the age of the recorded image. Never before have we had so much access to old pictures, films and video.

Vintage wardrobes. Classic cars. Mid-Century modern furniture. All have had or are currently having their moments in our modern age. Perhaps the most prominent of these throwbacks is the digital aging of our photographs themselves.

Phone Filter 3 copy

I don’t have to go into detail. We all know what Instagram, Hipstamatic and VSCO Cam (etc.) are and what they do. This trend of filtering our photos with fading, borders and scratches is arguably more prevalent than anything else in photography today.

It’s shocking how this boom in digital aging exploded into the mainstream. Suddenly, people who never took photos before started to. Why? Because a cup of coffee looks pretty cool if you put an X-Pro II filter on it.

Phone Filter

I’ll be the first to admit that I found these tools interesting when I first came across them. I used applications like Hipstamatic and Instagram, showing all my friends and family how fun the images from my phone looked ad nauseam.

But years later, as I run through my library of pictures, I see these fake borders, this digital patina and I’m a little let down. Right next to these fake filtered “fun” pictures are the ones I didn’t filter. And as I look back on them, even a few short years later, I find myself waxing nostalgic about how these old cameras and phones looked.

Early Digital Unedited copy

Sure the photos are grainy, sure the colors are muddy and yeah, the ones taken in low light are typically blurry, but you know what? They sure look of their time. People of my generation grew up with Polaroids around the house. Pictures taken from old plastic Instamatic cameras. A majority, if not all, of my childhood memories were captured this way.

But by the time I came of age to own a camera of my own, there were easier ways of shooting 35mm film (disposable cameras), and soon, the digital revolution took hold. Our shots didn’t look like the pictures from years past and, per usual, a certain charm became associated with those old photos.

Front Camera

Every time we apply a filter from a application like Instagram we are getting our sweet fix of nostalgia. It’s like mainlining that feeling we get looking through that old shoebox full of photos in mom’s basement.

But what happens in 20 years when we look back? When we flip through the thousands of images we made in our younger years? This thought probably doesn’t occur to many of us. We don’t like waiting for our things to become old or vintage. We want that “built in” past. Just the same as everything else in this culture we have. Clearly, we want it now.

On the other hand, digital files are meant to be processed. Some even HAVE to be processed (e.g. RAW). Just like the old film days, snapping the picture is only half of the act.

So where do we begin to draw the line? At adding contrast? Well no. Of course not. At sharpening? No. not at sharpening. At the fake borders? Maybe, considering borders are a relic of the printing days. How about those ridiculous fake scratches? I think so. Mostly because photos were typically scratched and tattered over years handling, not coming out of the camera.

What about black and white? Isn’t draining out the color of a picture the most drastic thing we could do? Maybe. But let’s not get crazy. Monochrome is beautiful and timeless. Wouldn’t you agree?

The key here is self regulation. We must use our best judgement when we use these tools because we could be setting ourselves up for disappointment in the future. Like that brief resurgence of swing music in the 90s, our filtered, overly processed pictures might seem cool now. I just hope we aren’t as embarrassed to look at them in 10 years as we are those zoot suits we still have, hanging in our closets.

Phone Filtered (Nice) copy

  • Jonathan Maniago

    “Sure the photos are grainy, sure the colors are muddy and yeah, the ones
    taken in low light are typically blurry, but you know what? They sure
    look of their time.”

    I’m not a fan of artificial nostalgia either, but maybe blatantly fake digital filters could eventually have a place in our memories, like awkward (or even downright stupid) decisions made during adolescence. Sure, they no longer reflect the limitations of the technology itself, but like fashion, they represent a trend/fad which people deliberately took part in.

  • Burnin Biomass

    One of my favorite Polaroids is one I took of my dad (now passed on). I wish like hell it looked better than it does (and yes, I have scanned it and fixed it best I could).

  • Joseph Campanella

    Jonathan. You make a strong point and one that I thought about while writing this. Kinda what I was getting at with the whole resurgence of swing.

    Sure it wasn’t ours, but it’s something we could look back on as a trend or fad and laugh at.

    Good point!

  • p.rock

    I have mixed feelings about the whole “vintage filter” fad. I’ve always considered myself pretty conservative when it comes to processing. My color work stays true-to-real-life, and my B&W follows what I was taught in the darkroom: Shadows should be blackest black, and highlights the same white as the paper.

    But after sneering at Instagram, et al, I’ve come to really appreciate some of the New Old processing techniques. Because sometimes, the flattened-contrast B&W or super grainy, yellow-highlight look just works. IMO, the problem is that (and this is where I think lots of the backlash comes from) they’ve become a substitute for a quality photo, instead of a complement to one. You hit the nail on the head when you said “a cup of coffee looks pretty cool if you put an X-Pro II filter on it.”

    Like any art or recreational form, the more people that do it, the more mediocre, meaningless stuff will be put out there. With the massive technological and social shifts that have encouraged people to share EVERYTHING, people are looking for ways to make their boring stuff look unique. Combine that idea with the fact that today’s clinical, perfect digital images lack “character” and people’s innate desires to be unique, and the answer is to slap a filter on your image.

    To take your idea one step further, beyond the nostalgic connotations that will be skewed by our recycling of temporally-relevant visual cues, there’s also a matter of practicality. How many young parents will look back in 20 years and regret that 90% of the photos of their children were taken with a crappy cell-phone cam and then run through a mess of filters? How many Instagram portraits will be blown up to 11×14 and hung proudly on an office wall? Faux-vintage processed photos have their place, perhaps their own unique sentimental meanings, but I sure hope they don’t become a permanent replacement for technically-sound (but equally soulful) photographs from a decent camera.


  • TomParmenter


  • Mark N

    Great article and I agree with what you were saying right until the end. I wore one of my zoot suits this weekend. I can send you the pics if you want, unfiltered of course.

  • robisrob

    This is all I thought the whole time I read this article. How could the writer recognize merit in the crappiness of old cell phone pictures but not in the crappiness of this next fad which surely won’t last forever and will one day be as reminiscent of the era as the content of the photos themselves. Sure they’re terrible and if you consider your photo collection documentation, you’re ruining so many pictures, but we’re talking about crappy pictures most of the time anyway. I usually go through my phone photos on my computer within a week or two of taking them and delete the bad ones and unnecessary near-duplicates, and for the ones I don’t want to throw away but seem too ugly to look at, I’ll throw these kind of gimicks at to increase their palatability. Sure they’re cheesy, but better for a downright lame shot than in the buff

  • Jack

    What the world needs now, is love, sweet love… and yet another article about how instagram/hipstamatic is too prevalent and we will regret it at some point and wish that photo of our coffee was ‘tack sharp’ and had clarity/vibrance sliders to the right.

  • Joseph Campanella

    I guess the real problem is people bothering to take that picture of their coffee because they think that ugly filter will make it look relevant.

  • Jon Woodbury

    I don’t know about everyone else, but I keep the original, unprocessed file of everything I shoot with my phone. I love the filters (I still love zoot suits and swing music too…) but I shoot with the regular camera THEN process a copy. Most apps I use allow you to do it automatically. It’s just as easy, and no filterer’s remorse.

  • Joseph Campanella

    You’ve got the right idea Jon.

  • Eli Bishop

    Why wish it looks better, when it’s awesome as it is? I took Polaroids for years for the intentional look, until the film got crazy expensive after they went out of business. That’s a bit different than intentional filters, it has a great look that marks the era it was shot in.

  • Burnin Biomass

    Its not awesome, it sucks. I remember the era it was shot in, I dont need crappy color to remind me of it.