Lost in Nostalgia

02nd August 2017
Howard Devoto, lead man of the Buzzcocks declared in Feb 1977 that ‘punk is old hat’ and jumped ship. In 1978, his remaining band members sang about ’nostalgia for an age yet to come’ . This phrase was first coined by the Portugese poet, Fernando Pessoa, who scribbled it down in the early days of the 20th Century. In it, he describes a longing to escape to an absolute elsewhere, of a desire that can’t be defined – not feeling at home in the here and now.
In recent decades, nostalgia for the future has gradually lost its vagueness and become tied to a specific fixed idea. It has become a retro-futuristic emotion: those sensations of wistfulness, mixed with irony and amazement, offset by amusement which are induced by the likes of old science fiction films from the ‘50’s and ‘60’s. Retro-futurism has been current in pop culture since the early ‘80’s. The first decade of the new millennium saw a new boom in both retro-futurism (an ‘80’s synth pop revival) and retro-modernism. With the latter, the focus was not just on the severity of modernism, but on the movement’s ideas and political idealism, particularly the post WW2 resurgence of abstraction and minimalism in art and architecture.
Far more than anything in the art world however, it was the everyday visibility of the brutalist buildings of the ‘60’s and 70’s that provoked the backlash against modernism. By the early 2000’s though, you were starting to get photo-blogs with names like ‘I adore eyesores’, operated by roving ‘collectors’ documenting their favourite tower blocks, housing estates and shopping centres. There was a spate of books about motorways and service stations, most famously Martin Parr’s 1999 pictorial anthology, ‘Boring Postcards’, which became a cult success. Also, ‘Leadville’, Edward Platt’s ‘biography’ of the A40, Pieter Boogaart’s ‘A272 – An ode to a road’, and David Lawrence’s history of motorway service stations, ‘Always a Welcome’.
The onset of digital photography, mobile phone cameras and a massive increase in online photo-sharing has led to a push against progression, and a rise in the use of old technology and techniques in photography. Step forward the bearded hipster hurtling along Brighton seafront on his penny-farthing, with a retro-lumo camera dangling round his neck, taking saturated motion-blur images of ice cream gobbling day trippers. There are uncomfortable resemblances between retro-modernism and heritage culture. You have the venerated tradition that must be safeguarded from developers by custodians; you have the monuments to abandoned ideals ( Le Corbusier & Bauhaus inspired housing replacing mansions and castles). To an unsympathetic eye this could seem a lot like left wing fogeyism. In defence of this, some of the most interesting recent developments in photography parallel the most interesting developments in music. The use of new technology such as Instagram to share old film-style images, or the ability to produce digital negatives from film, to enable digital manipulation. But are these developments really pushing barriers and boundaries forward, or just mixing old and new?
I am guilty of this myself by refusing to shoot in colour, and although I use digital technology, I stack filters and print on rough rag paper to give the impression of film. I suppose we admire the pioneers of emerging technology, partly because of the spirit of the age permeates their work with a palpable momentousness. Partly also the Herculean effort of the original pioneers to make the images and the struggle against technical limitations seems heroic. So where to now??