Sail. Ricky P Lens, SPRKT-RKT Film

If you take a quick look at Olivia Rodrigo’s documentary-film Getting Home 2 U, the cinematography of Euphoria’s second season, recent fashion photoshoots for I_D, and even New York Magazine articles chronicling the antics of downtown denizens (example here, and here) you’ll notice a common feature: the art direction consists of highly-filtered, lo-fi camera video and photography, as if they were shot with early an early iPhone and uploaded to Instagram sometime between 2008 and 2014.

After years of filtered photography being out of vogue, the style is having a comeback on magazine editorials, photo and video-sharing platforms, and even film and television footage. Consider this: A friend told me that, after years of berating by his teenage daughter for his inability to let go of Polaroid-like iPhone photography, he recently got her blessing to resume using the style. 

You can see this resurgence across platforms. On Tiktok, hashtags like #filmtok (4.0B views)  #35MM (454M views), #2014instagram (897.K views) and #oldinstagram (4.1M views) are indicative of the trend. This is in stark contrast with the way things were up until two years ago when the hallmark of an aesthetically pleasing social media feed meant clean lines, a consistent color palette, and whatever minimalism microtrend was en vogue (plants and neon scripts one day; Scandi-inspired textures another). 

Trends like “indie sleaze” and “twee” now dominate visually-oriented social media and have been analyzed ad nauseam. Indie Sleaze is, in journalist Daniel Rodgers’ words, “grubby, maximalist, and performatively vintage.” While twee is its cutesier, more feminine or childlike counterpart, associated with a Wes Anderson color palette and with the characters played by Zooey Deschanel in New Girl and 500 Days of Summer.

Kovalam Bathers. Jane Lens, Love 81 Film, Triple Crown Flash

A year before Instagram launched, another app defined the late-aughts filtering zeitgeist—Hipstamatic, the photo-editing application founded in 2009 that spearheaded the smartphone camera-powered retromania and, 13 years after its launch, is still widely used (on Instagram alone, the hashtag #hipstamatic gets a new entry every few minutes). Out of curiosity and sheer admiration for the app, which I have consistently been using since 2012, I reached out to Hipstamatic’s creative team to get some perspective on this new-old trend. “I’ll say that nostalgia has always played a huge role in shaping trends,” Mario Estrada, Hipstamatic’s creative director and vice president of special projects, told me. “We often romanticize memories, making them better than the actual event. The analog nature of original photography produced imperfections that really added to the way an image felt.” 

By their nature, trends ebb and flow. Around 2015 mainly due to Instagram’s feed and sharing settings, vintage filters reached a point of oversaturation. This heralded a turn towards a deliberately cleaner look, as if the photos had been taken by a high-end professional versus smartphone. At first, it was a way for photographers to stand out amid the grainy, blurry, and cross-processed masses of photos on the app. “Soon there were photo apps that mimicked DSLRs with Photoshop,” Estrada recalls. “I’ll add that as a cultural whole, I do think it influenced the wave of minimalist design that had been so popular pre-Covid.” 

This shift was reflected in interior design, where people increasingly embraced minimalist Nordic design and the clean lines of mid century modern furniture. “It’s like we subconsciously understood that photos with a simple subject in the foreground and ‘white’ space around it got more likes than busier scenes, and it influenced design as a whole,” Estrada continues. “We started to decorate ourselves and our homes with cleaner styles and simple color blocking.”

The tastes that defined the days of unrelenting minimalism started to shift during Covid, Estrada says. “Even outside of photography, in fashion and architecture we’re seeing a shift towards the more ornate, curves and even maximalism,” he observes. Crisp, minimalistic aesthetics in interiors, photography, and even food presentation, were signifiers of a tone-deaf, hypocritical self-improvement-oriented wellness culture, girlbossery, and techno optimism. A return to whimsy, and to its messily ornate aesthetic is, in some ways, a reckoning with the late-2010s hollowness. 

“Even outside of photography, in fashion and architecture we’re seeing a shift towards the more ornate, curves and even maximalism.”

Due to the way social media democratized imagery and made old content instantly accessible, trends today, whether in visual culture or in fashion, move at a much faster speed than the usual 20-year cycle. Alongside the current Y2K and early-internet aesthetics revival, we now see nostalgia for early web 2.0 photography. Lucas Buick, the co-founder of Hipstamatic and a former fashion art director, likens the return to highly filtered photography to the cyclical nature of fashion itself. “The filters are like fashion: one day the look is, you know, sort of hyper pop colors of work like David LaChapelle; the next it’s like that point-and-shoot, heavy light; the Terry Richardson or American Apparel look,” he says. 

Buick questions the assumption that there was an ebb in filtered photography to begin with, citing a discrepancy between artistically-minded individuals who purposefully embrace a particular aesthetic, the casual posters who like to play around with effects, and the others who use their social media for self-promotional purposes. To this day, the hashtags #hipstamatic and #hipstamaticmagic have almost six million photos combined, with a new #hipstamatic-tagged photo being uploaded every few minutes. From the get-go, in fact, the app’s audience has always been “art school nerds, and I think that has, sort of, remained true a decade later,” Buick says. “The users that have been on it have been on it a really, really long time. And they have their presets, they have their aesthetic, and they like the nostalgia of a point-and-shoot.”

Granada, Nicaragua Pool. Foxy Lens, Abbot K20 Film, Cherry Shine Flash

In reality, the backlash to the ultra-neat instagram feed has been brewing for quite some time. In 2018, the app Hujicam was touted as the must-have photo app thanks to its unfussy user interface and the resulting photos that mimicked the look of film shot on an instant camera from 1998. This year, the app BeReal is sweeping campuses and promises a similarly raw aesthetic result. The app allows users to post at a specific time of day for a two-minute interval, thus encouraging them to share what’s happening in the moment as opposed to creating overly staged pictures.

These apps are coupled with a growing discontent around the built-in HDR effects found in the newest smartphone cameras. In a recent article for The New Yorker, writer Kyle Chayka recounts his dismay upon replacing his iPhone 7 with an iPhone 12 Pro. “On the 7, the slight roughness of the images I took seemed like a logical product of the camera’s limited capabilities. I didn’t mind imperfections like the ‘digital noise’ that occurred when a subject was underlit or too far away, and I liked that any editing of photos was up to me,” he wrote. “On the 12 Pro, by contrast, the digital manipulations are aggressive and unsolicited.” The algorithmic “upgrades” mimic the smoothing out of the aesthetics once popular on Instagram. Only now, photographers don’t have a choice in the matter. Chayka predicts that hobbyists wary of smartphones’ new technological tricks might revert to older forms of technology like film or early digital cameras, much in the same way social media users are embracing filtering apps once again.  

In an era where users can choose from their aesthetic of choice, be it #fantasycore (a version of pre-raphaelite paintings coupled with Lord of the Rings), the pastoral #cottagecore, or the victorian #darkacademia, the verdict is clearly that creators seem to be deliberately inching away from realism. The “newstalgia” of Hipstamatic’s resurgence is a way for some people to find refuge in a time before the world felt messy. Before professional failures, family tragedies, and worldwide pandemics. Filters are a way to channel that emotion and present it online with the click of a button. “There is a way to create a narrative and control the visual story through layers of hue shifts, noise, and imperfections,” Estrada says. “We’re coming out of a tough period, and I think we’re looking for more ways to be expressive.”