Intelligent Machines

Auras: There’s an App for That

A variety of new digital filters will make a photograph look vintage. The inauthenticity of the effect is irrelevant: it’s enough to evoke an audience’s sense of the past.

In 1977, at the International Center of Photography in New York, the late American photographer William DeLappa exhibited a series of black-and-white images entitled “The Portraits of Violet and Al.” Revolving around the title characters, it appeared to be a collection of several dozen photographs made by different people from the late 1940s through the early ’60s. Most were snapshots, though one looked like an ID picture made for some official purpose.

The images described a considerable span of time. Violet and Al met and married during his post–World War II military service; they made friends, visited relatives, celebrated Christmas, and aged, remaining childless. Hairstyles, fashions, modes of interior decorating, automobile design, and architecture changed. ­DeLappa’s gelatin-silver prints seemed to add up to a typical, even archetypal, white middle-class American family album. No one would have thought to question the authenticity of those pictures because their fidelity to a set of conventional photographic cues certified them.

Yet they were all fakes—made over the course of a year in the early ’70s, at interior and exterior locations selected by DeLappa, using props and costumes he provided and enacted by friends and relatives he cast in various roles. The images were printed and artificially aged by the photographer, who had worked for some years in the studio of a photo restorer and learned all the tricks of that trade. The series was a virtuoso display of subversively self-effacing craft; DeLappa’s mastery of materials and processes was evident in his ability to duplicate convincingly a remarkable range of vernacular imagery.

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At the time, it struck most people as merely eccentric; besides me, few critics took notice of it. Today it seems unintentionally prophetic. Yet at the same time it has lost all its potency as provocation—because with images created and transmitted digitally, everyone can easily do what DeLappa achieved so laboriously in analog form.

Things Reviewed

Distressed images

For some years, we’ve had access to applications that can repair digital scans of old analog images showing signs of damage, whether from dirt and creases or overall fading. With these tools you can make your old photos look new.

At the same time, if you spend time online looking at selfies, or view cell-phone photos posted on sites like Flickr, Tumblr, or Pinterest, or subscribe to many Twitter feeds, or visit the blogs of photographers both professional and amateur, you’ll have noticed that a great many new digital images look old.

When you make digital images yourself, with your cell phone or tablet or digicam, a wide and relentlessly multiplying variety of existing websites and downloadable apps enable you to artificially age those pictures—to purposefully “distress” them, as an antiques dealer would say. These tools represent a noteworthy shift in our cultural relationship to the credibility of the photographic image.

This portrait of Violet from “The Portraits of Violet and Al” is the first in a portfolio of 28 photos by William DeLappa.

In his 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Mechanical Reproducibility,” Walter Benjamin famously proposed, “That which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.” For Benjamin, that “aura” combined all aspects of an artwork’s physical presence, ranging from the singular, unduplicable characteristics of its original crafting through the nicks and patinas that evinced its passage through time and its life in the material world. Production of machine-made multiples—of artworks, Benjamin’s main subject, but implicitly of everything else, from furniture to kitchen utensils—eliminated the artisanal uniqueness of handmade artifacts, he argued. Meanwhile, the interchangeability of all instances of the machine-made multiple drained the possibility of resonance from any single one.

If Benjamin had it right, then your local antique store wouldn’t charge you hundreds of dollars for a usable but less than perfect version of your grandparents’ post–World War II formica kitchen table and naugahyde chairs. A mint-­condition Mickey Mouse lunchbox from 1954 wouldn’t go for anything on eBay. And, hauling out the family album when you visit, your mother wouldn’t unfold ever so carefully the yellowed newspaper clipping celebrating your victory in the spelling bee, or run her fingers lovingly across the faded photo of her long-deceased childhood dog.

Walter Benjamin was wrong. Aura does not adhere to particular types of objects created in specific ways. Rather, humans attribute aura to anything that has emotional resonance: a patiently hand-carved medieval altarpiece, to be sure, but also the desiccated wonton I once saw at the Smithsonian in an exhibition of archaeological discoveries from mainland China, a weathered copper ashtray from the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, or a World Series home-run baseball caught in the grandstand of Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium this past fall.

In the electronic age—the golden era of 20th-century radio, film, and television—we received convincing evidence that synthetic aura would suffice to evoke an audience’s sense of connection to the past. Tint a contemporary film scene sepia, and the viewer time-trips back to the decades just before or after the end of the 19th century. Add a bit of artificial static and a megaphone’s harshness to a recorded voice-over, and you’re listening to a Depression-period news broadcast. Induce the flicker, scrolling, and distortion of an old black-and-white Motorola, and you’ve got a TV show that could have run right after The Honeymooners.

As communication technologies obsolesce, they become auratic—capable of triggering our sense of the passage of time as represented by those now outmoded tools and, even more important, conveying the reliquary aspect of the encoding media that delivered the content of those times. You may find the actual devices deployed as décor in period-themed restaurants, but few people (aside from dedicated collectors) wax nostalgic over the last century’s film and slide projectors, still cameras, radios, TV sets, and hi-fi rigs—compared with the multitudes who recall fondly the experience of sitting in the classic movie theater, or their living rooms or bedrooms or basement rec rooms, watching or listening to whatever content they cherished as filtered through those delivery systems.

Almost immediately, Hollywood (and Madison Avenue) learned to replicate those effects convincingly, giving us the sizzle of aura, as it were, while dispensing entirely with the steak of authenticity. A facsimile of aura, it turned out, could function as a flavoring. Given the ever more sophisticated toolkit of simulation, it now takes the expertise of a connoisseur to tell the difference between authentic and artificial aura.

Most people don’t care. The digital revolution has made the addition of synthetic aura into little more than an option on a menu, like the “Ken Burns effect” in iMovie. Take, for example, the sound of surface noise on a shellac or vinyl analog recording. I no longer play the 45s, 78s, and 33  rpm LPs I own, relying instead on (preferably lossless) digital files imported into iTunes. But I recall, not entirely without fondness, the aural experience of the occasional pop or hiss on the records in my library. And I listen regularly to a digital playlist I’ve downloaded of obscure jazz records from the 1930s and ’40s, ripped by some devotee from 78s without much subsequent cleaning up. Part of the ambience, and the sensory pleasure, comes from those extraneous, certainly unintended snaps and crackles.

I also sometimes listen to the Crash Test Dummies’ song “God Shuffled His Feet,” an entirely digital recording that includes the surface noise of an analog record as one of its sonic elements. They signify in differently nuanced ways, but they trigger the same physical memory of listening to recorded sound up through my early 50s, and if you isolated the surface noises I couldn’t tell one aural experience from the other. (There are apps for this, too, such as Vinyl—the Real Record Player and VinylLove.)

For some time to come there will still be collectors of old shellac and vinyl, and audiophiles who succumb to the lure of those formats will continue to subsidize the production of new limited-edition recordings on vinyl even if the same content is distributed digitally. Some musicians still prefer to record on analog equipment. Similarly, there’s a healthy market for photographic prints made with the standard gelatin-silver and color “wet” or “chemical” methods, and even a thriving revival of the earlier alternative processes: platinum, cyanotype, tintype, ambrotype, daguerreotype, each with its own distinctive look and feel. Not to mention Lomography, whose devotees make negatives with variants of a small, cheap Russian 35-millimeter camera. The photograph, created by a simple machine and (at least nominally) infinitely reproducible, exemplified for Benjamin “the contemporary decay of the aura.” The booming market in “vernacular photography,” with collections of snapshots entering museums for exhibition and preservation, surely gainsays that thesis. So does the flood of apps for the auratization of digital images. You can make your selfie look like a Polaroid SX-70 print, a bright, saturated 1950s Kodachrome image, a 1940s photo-booth portrait, a worn snapshot that someone carried in her wallet for decades. Indeed, you can capture any of dozens if not hundreds of ways that analog photographs, especially those made by amateurs, used to look in their heyday.

The use of apps to alter digital images represents a yearning for the visual look of earlier, analog forms of photography.

We can perhaps find in this the tendency toward what Marshall McLuhan called our rearview-mirror relationship to new media: the first thing we tend to do with them is to mimic what they replace. It’s logical, then, that when introduced to digital imaging, we’d use it to replicate the look of analog photos.

But the vast majority of people who make digital images steadily, alter them in various ways, publish them online, and exchange them with others via social media don’t strike me as mired in the past or needing the reassurance of some skeuomorphic link to their analog roots in order to feel at ease with the digital present. Most of them have tenuous analog roots at best. They come from an overwhelmingly younger demographic, of which the retro-hipster and steampunk cohorts constitute only subsections. An increasing number of them have grown up with digital imaging as the primary form of picture-­making in their lives. Many have never held a film camera or exposed a negative, much less developed negatives and made prints. They don’t faux-SX-70 their latest digital image because it reminds them of the SX-70s they, or even their parents, once used; they do it because it lends that image a certain atmosphere. And they’ll do the next one as a video, and turn it into an animated gif, a purely digital form.

Synthetic age

This usage of apps to alter digital images doesn’t represent a haptic nostalgia for the tactile encounter with the photograph as an object. If it did, the Impossible Project, which manufactures present-day equivalents of various Polaroid films, including the film packs for SX-70 cameras, would be more popular. Instead, it represents a yearning for the visual look of those earlier, analog forms of the medium, which has become a signifier in itself.

These apps and sites, in effect, enhance digital images with an ersatz version of Benjamin’s aura, so that anyone can layer any image with the digital simulation of its passage through time. Aura thus becomes a synthetic additive. Free or inexpensive apps such as Instagram, Hipstamatic, Vintage Scene, Retro Camera Plus, Reflex, Pic Grunger, ­ShakeItPhoto, and Pinhole HD (not to mention the comparable options in more sophisticated, high-end image management apps like Photoshop) let you indulge your wildest anachronistic impulses.

In fact, by using any of these in combination with the app AgingBooth, you can generate images that go both backward and forward in time. AgingBooth functions something like the kiosk devised by photographer Nancy Burson, who starting in 1976, in collaboration with several programmers from MIT, developed the first software algorithms making it possible to approximate how individuals would look as they grew older.

In 1990, Burson and crew exhibited an interactive version of the Age Machine they had been developing throughout the 1980s; you sat down in a kiosk facing a monochrome monitor, hit a button, and voila!—the program added 25 years to your current appearance, in what ­Burson called a “prediction.” You couldn’t save that file, or send it anywhere, or even print it out. But I had a chance to try it at the Arles Photo Festival in 2000 (by which point the machine had become a vintage object in itself), and the experience, even if momentary, proved ­powerful.

AgingBooth lets you make such images at any increment you select, not just 25 years; you can save those files and then do as you will with them. This means that you can make a portrait of yourself as you may have evolved by 2050—and then, using the above-mentioned Vintage Scene (which can make your photos look as if they were taken in different eras, going all the way back to the birth of photography), you can see how you’d have appeared as an octogenarian in 1850. Analog photography as we knew it in its first 150 years allowed skilled practitioners to blend fact and fiction. Digital imaging gives those powers to the most amateur picture-maker. As a result, photography’s service as a vehicle for fantasy now stands alongside its function as a recording system and may supersede it. We have just begun to adjust our cultural assumptions about the photograph to keep up.

A. D. Coleman is an internationally known critic of photography and photo-based art.

William DeLappa’s series, “The Portraits of Violet and Al,” will be on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art from December 14, 2014 to Sunday, April 26, 2015, as part of the group show “Constructed Identities,” curated by Barbara Tannenbaum.

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