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Past in Present: Instagram and the Picturesque

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Here’s a piece I wrote for Atwood Magazine. Above: the Claude Glass. Image source: thesocietypages.org

It’s hot and crowded on the Piazza San Marco in Venice, but through the lens of your 3 by 5 inch iphone screen, the sun and tourists are just players in your photographic imitation of grandeur. Your boyfriend – let’s call him Billy – wanders off toward the Grand Canal but you remain still amid the shuffle, poised to grab a slice of the visual feast. A bird catches flight. You snap the photo, put a filter on it, and think how pretty your lives are.

But before you can send it to Instagram your moment of beauty dissolves into cliché: between you and the Basilica, a herd of tourists hold up their smartphones. They snap at the birds, they snap at the buildings and with their faces planted to their screens, they silently populate the interweb with a stream of filtered photos no more or less special than yours.

Which is to say that it’s hard these days not to associate the multitude of romanticized digital memories with our tech-centered culture of documentation. Yet it’s worth remembering that we’re not the first in history to divert our attention from the present moment to the encapsulated, digestible beauty of the Picturesque. That filtered and vignetted instagram photo, if remarkably contemporary, is an expression of an enduring desire to frame the visual world with the goal of making it pleasant to look at. It’s an expression of an enduring desire to capture experience, affecting as it is elusive, into a vision that’s worthy of our idealism.

Read the whole thing here

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