Lomography, VSCO, and the Psychology of Nostalgia

Posted on January 5, 2014

We’ve been playing with Dallas’ new toy–the new version of the old Petzval lens, which we got through Lomography’s Kickstarter campaign–and it has me thinking about the whole subject of lo-fi and retro photography again, which I thought I didn’t like doing for myself, even though I enjoyed seeing those serendipitous, unlikely moments when others got it right. Seems the tide is changing.

This story actually starts on the Christmas I spent in Afghanistan, when I bought Dallas the Lomo holiday mega-pack, consisting of a Diana camera and every conceivable accessory. She’d been talking about it for a while, and I wanted to do something nice for my young wife to take the edge off the fact her first Christmas as a married woman would be spent away from her husband. I think we both had this romantic idea of how cool lomo shots would be, and how therapeutic it’d be to let go of the fine-grained control of our shots, but turns out it’s hard to get what Dallas would consider a good photo out of the Diana, so eventually she stopped using it.

About a year after I came back from Afghanistan, I stumbled on the Diana stash and decided I wanted to see what all the lomo fuss had been about for myself, so I threw the DSLR mount on my Canon 7D and put on one of the Diana lenses and set out to shooting. This is what I came back with.*

 

*Text not included.

Try though I might, the Diana lenses were a soft, blurry, low-contrast mess, and I just couldn’t get photos that felt like the ones you’d find in those uppity picture books Lomography sells. I eventually abandoned the pursuit of DSLR Faux-lomography, frustrated I couldn’t be as cool as those kids, or at least learn to let go of control. I accepted wasn’t capable of making those powerful retro-looking shots and went back to honing my skills in all the things modern lensatic and sensor science had to offer.

Between my attempted foray into hipsterdom’s ranks and the release of Lomography’s Petzval lens, I discovered VSCO‘s film emulation tools. I’ll put this to rest now and say VSCO (that I’m aware of) does not do anything that Lightroom couldn’t do without VSCO, but these guys have put the time in to making Lightroom presets which will definitely make your film feelers tingle. It’s uncanny how taking an ordinary digital picture and making it look like the film which recorded your youth will transform it on an emotional level. Instagram discovered this early on, paving the way for VSCO’s success. I don’t necessarily advocate VSCO for all, because I do think there’s a risk of losing a part of what makes your photography unique and I wouldn’t advise making it a part of your professional brand identity–especially if you’re a commercial or editorial photographer that relies on having your own distinctive style–but it’s good fun for personal photos and work.

I was closer–more than I had been while experimenting with the Diana lenses–but I still wasn’t creating images which had that raw emotional legitimacy of an image which triggers deep nostalgia for something that might have happened earlier in the day. It’s a tricky thing that John Hook and his merry band of troublemakers have down to a tee, though (if their Analog Sunshine Recorders moniker is to be believed) I think they mostly use the tools of our forefathers, which isn’t quite what I’m after, cool though it is.

 

Enter the Petzval: This is a fun lens but, like all Lomography products (which, almost by definition, mean letting go of complete control), it’s not a good lens by the strictest definitions of modern lensatics. Even its “sharp” center is slightly soft when the focus is dead-on, and you pretty much have to weigh your composition towards the center because the edges are just as swirly as the beautiful bokeh behind it. And yet, this “slight shittyness” is an asset, primarily because the original Petzval lens was so ubiquitous in 1800’s portraiture that it’s recognizable and has an emotional gravitas that can only be achieved by something that has survived long enough that only striking specimens worth preserving remain.

Think about that for a second: The only Petzval shots you’ve seen were probably shots that were somehow excellent and worth preserving, which means every time you’ve seen that swirly bokeh, it came with a strong emotional response. A variation of the same effect happens every time you see a photo using VSCO’s film effect. Anyone born after the mid-80’s probably has not used film much, if at all, so for the “millenials,” that film look brings back a flood of memories and emotions from a past which was probably much more carefree than the one they face today. The lens and these presets both bottle that nostalgia, and allow you to imbue last night’s snaps with that emotional charge. Perhaps that’s why using both results in such startlingly beautiful photos.

 

Using the Petzval in combination with VSCO’s Film 02 pack results in images that startled me with their feeling of nostalgic authenticity. The power is, at least to me, undeniable. It’s enough that it’s actually made me want to go back and experiment with the Diana lenses again, this time combining them with the various VSCO packs to see what happens. It’s also made me hope VSCO will collaborate with Lomography to create emulations of their funky lomo film packs. Maybe now I’ll finally get to make images like the cool kids, but using an all-digital setup, just like I wanted back in the day. I guess we’ll see soon.