Eternal Sunshine of the Nostalgic Lens: Flickr and the adolescent female gaze

Posted: 10/10/2010 in ARIN6903 Exploring Digital Cultures, Uncategorized

Figure 1. sweet and low little girl by messyowl (Lauren) (accessed August 29, 2010; taken June 1, 2010)

by César Albarrán Torres

A girl wrapped in an American flag sits at the end of a shiny slide. She is looking directly at the camera and her frizzy golden hair shines under the autumn sunlight. The image,Aftermath U.S.A., is, we know, contemporary, digitally produced and overtly signified. We are aware of which camera it was taken with (Nikon D50), that it is tagged as a “self-portrait” and, through digital mapping, even the exact date and spot where the shutter fired –November 12, 2005; Nashville, Tennessee, the heart of Americana. Yet, the image possesses not only a sense of timelessness, but also of nostalgia, as the pixels delineate a colour palette (high contrast, low saturation) and an overall composition that seems associated with the past (see Figure 2). Through her female, adolescent gaze, the photographer captures the instant as if her present self was already part of a distant past. A Proustian meditative sense of longing suppresses the photograph’s digital instantaneity.

The capture is part of Cari Ann Waiman’s Flickr gallery. Her screen name is yyellowbird and since she started to upload her photographic work in June 2006, she has reached 2 million views and has crossed from amateur to professional artistic practices (she is now 21 years old, her website is Yet, she keeps her Flickr gallery updated and, with other young female photographers that are overtly inspired by her aesthetics,[1] forms a community linked not only by mutual tagging, commenting and the occasional face-to-face encounter (see Figure 4),[2] but also by a shared set of visual locus that can be described as nostalgic. These pay tribute to the visual style of mechanical means of photographic capture (35mm, black & white, Polaroid –see Figure 1– and Lomo formats, as well as remediated printing techniques like superimposition), to an imagery related to the idyllic American suburbs (backyards covered by crispy leaves, manicured lawns and young people hanging in porches), and also to wastelandsreminiscent of a time bygone (abandoned houses and amusement parks or old objects, for instance).

Figure 2. Aftermath USA by yyellowbird (Cari Ann Waiman) (accessed August 21, 2010; taken November 12, 2005)

Furthermore, the aesthetics are reminiscent of other female voices in the American literary (i.e. A.M. Homes) and film scenes (most importantly, we resort to Sofia Coppola’s ouvre: the blurry atmosphere and floral dresses of the suburban The Virgin Suicides, the glitter and neon lights of Lost in Translation and the pastel tonalities and baroque settings of Marie Antoinette).  Moreover, the postures and general ambiance of the snaps are satellite to the imagery created by alternative fashion photography, plastered in magazines like Nylon ( and Frankie (, or blogs in the vein of Style Rookie ( Contrary to the recent tradition of self-portraits in female photographers like Cindy Sherman, the captures of yyellowbird and her group do not attempt a violent, inquisitive questioning of gender roles, but follow the tradition of the diary as a form of adolescent self-exploratory confessional expression. They are also a response to the male, sexualized depiction of the adolescent female body by photographers like David Hamilton(particularly his film Bilitis, 1977) and Jock Sturges.

This essay deals with how this sense of nostalgia is filtered through the lenses of four photographers (yyellowbird, messyowl, chelseyarlene and HelloPepper; a representative sample) in Flickr, and how the specificity of this medium allows for new practices of self-representation through the female gaze –understood as an alternative to the representation of the “castrated woman” by the “unconscious of patriarchal society” (Mulvey, 1988: 57). It also argues that these new practices not only define production and distribution of digital images, but, through a new multimedia and collaborative approach to autobiographical art, the inherent artistic values of the images themselves. The camera and the computer become, thus, what Turkle would call “evocative machines”. (2004)

Flickr: confessional Web 2.0
In 2008, Cox analysed Flickr as an exemplar Web 2.0 application and the status it holds in the “social world of amateur photography.” (493) He states that the “central functionality of Flickr is to allow users to upload photos (by e-mail, through the web, from a Mobile phone) and push them out through Flickr itself or via a blog, RSS, [and] applications built from the application programming interface (API).” (495) It could be argued, however, that the cultural uses of this online application (in parallel a database, a hub and a social network) have surpassed, by far, this functionality, as it has begun to promote the creation of art movements and tendencies, albeit involuntary ones, that not only replicate some of the contrivances of mechanical/traditional photography, but explore a new set of aesthetics derived from the specificity of the production and distribution of digital means. Through tagging, comments and awards, Flickr also offers a system of validation, and the option to buy the subscription to Flickr Pro (unlimited uploads versus 100 MB per month for non-paying users) brings with it a whole set of cultural connotations regarding the frontier between amateurs and more qualified users.

This specificity does not have to do only with the technical aspects of the digitization of images, but also, and most importantly, with the place that the act of photography itself occupies in the everyday life of amateur Flickr members. Digital photography allows for a more extensive learning through trial and error, as the money and time invested in buying film and the development process is bypassed. In turn, this leads to a constant, daily practice of the craft.  As stated by messyowl in the comments to her photographstrangelight,[3]the lightning techniques and composition patterns are inspired by the mass media imagery to which these photographers are exposed to on a daily basis: “I got this idea from Americas [sic] Next Top Model. haha”. Following that comment, user “petrov_a” states: “Great shot, very cinematographic or looks like illustration to ‘Lolita’ by Nabokov”.

Furthermore, contrary to the anonymity which was possible and almost encouraged in the chat rooms and message boards of the earlier Internet, social media like Flickr and Facebook call for a manifestation of the self that abides to the truth (or the simulacrum of the truth, or a fabricated truth). Therefore, messyowl et al present themselves as they perceive themselves and/or as they want other netizens to perceive them. Some Flickr users, like messyowl and yyellowbird, go a step beyond and post videos in which they make a personal introduction: for messyowl, being just a face in photographs is “creepy”. At the centre of this technological and artistic revolution we situate the individual. This echoes Castells’s notions in that “the dominant trend in the evolution of social relationships in our societies is the rise individualism, in all its manifestations.” (2001: 128) Although Flickr is part of Yahoo!, a member of the group of oligopolies that define how content is produced, distributed and consumed in the Internet, and although it has some regulatory mechanisms regarding adult content, it, in fact, calls for this “rise of individualism”.

In the case of our four subjects, digital photography allows them to have a constant record of their adolescence, an annotated visual diary that flirts with eternity (their homes, boyfriends, as well as their physical and psychological development is being recorded; some of the photographs have extensive captions written in the style of a diary.) For the timeless nature of the images, like mosquitoes preserved in amber, can be dissected now and will probably still be available for several years. The photographers are, in a sense, setting the scenario for tomorrow’s longing, for the sadness that their future selves will feel upon the realization of the loss of youth and innocence. In the case of yyellowbird, her immortalization is achieved not only through self-depictions, but also through the use of her avatar in necklaces (see Figure 4) and little yellow bird tattoos photographed by other Flickr members.[4]

As Van Dijck states when analysing the transforming role of digital cameras from recording tools of grand events, to prisms of everyday self representation: “[…] since the 1990s, particularly since the beginning of the new millennium, cameras have increasingly served as tools for mediating everyday experiences other than rituals or ceremonial moments.” (2008: 60) Yet, in the case of our four photographers, we can also argue in favour of a new role for photography: the ritualization of everyday life.

Figure 3. Quelqu’un M’a Dit by HelloPepper (No real name given) (accessed August 24, 2010; taken June 28, 2010)

What is nostalgia?
The very essence of photography is nostalgia, as it ceremonially captures a present that will never be again. It reminds us of change, of the various deaths and rebirths of the self. In that sense, digital photography, with its all-encompassing immediacy and the insubstantial nature of binary code, is a constant reminder of our vulnerability and of the fleeting nature of time. The images captured by yyellowbird, messyowl et al are exemplar of the ritualization of this philosophical stance.

In this case, however, nostalgia is a collective practice that bursts into the individual sphere. The stills produced by these four photographers share an aesthetic ethos and, although it is possible to set them apart through a close identification of their individual styles, in their presumed innocence they form a spontaneous collectif based on an individual artistic exploration of a joint, albeit involuntary, conception of Americana.[5]

Citing Stewart (1993: 23), Moran states that the “sadness of nostalgia ‘creates a longing that of necessity is inauthentic because it does not take part in lived experience . . . nostalgia wears a distinctly utopian face, a face that turns toward a future-past, a past which has only ideological reality’.” (2002: 156)  She recounts: “Cultural critics have often dismissed the nostalgia mode as idealistic and regressive in its emphasis on a self-contained, immutable and secure past, one that sidesteps contemporary problems and smooths over the realities of historical conflict.” (Ibidem) In the case of yyellowbird et al, however, nostalgia is related to a present that acts as simulated past through scenarios such as empty houses and abandoned communal spaces like amusement parks, which were left for dead long before yyellowbird et al began to explore their artistic capabilities. To this collectif we could also add the work of emmakatka, who has photographed yyellowbird and shares the “gravitation” towards old objects (see Figure 5).

The photographers also seem to experience what Appadurai calls “nostalgia without memory”: that is, longing for a past which is not their own to miss (the Indian cultural critic bases his reading of contemporary diasporas in the longing of Filipinos for American pop music). He states that:  “As far as the United States is concerned, one might suggest that the issue is no longer one of nostalgia but of a social imaginaire built largely around reruns. Jameson (1983) was bold to link the politics of nostalgia to the post-modern commodity sensibility and surely he was right.” (2003: 28)

He states, additionally, that the past “has become a synchronic warehouse of cultural scenarios, a kind of temporal central casting, to which recourse can be had as appropriate, depending on the movie to be made, the scene to be enacted.” (2003: 29) These self-representational images in Flickr, which use retro milieus as a “cultural scenario”, allude to the notion of an American past from which only fragments survive, of an idyllic country whose ideals might have been lost one or two generations ago.

Figure 4. Untitled by chelseyarlene (No real name given) (accessed August 24, 2010; taken April 12, 2010)

In an article in which she explores the use of camera phones by Israeli teenagers, Schwarz describes the sentiment of nostalgia[6] she encountered among young women as a “Proustian harmless leisure activity.” (2009: 352) Among the images produced by this group, she also faced the conscious “production of artefacts used for the arousal of nostalgia”. (Ibidem) These two elements hold also true for the Flickr members identified in this essay.

Produsing stereotypes

Old telephones and typewriters, vintage clothing, old magazine and crumbling houses delineate the universe created by these artists. They photograph this “cultural scenario”, however, with a tourist disposition. Some might call these images “stereotypes”, reproductions of Urban Outfitters ads and the craze for vintage clothing. These stereotypes, however, do not diminish their appeal or aesthetic value. As Dyer states, the concept of “stereotype” has long been attributed with negative connotations. He argues, however, that the effectiveness of stereotypes “resides in the way they invoke a consensus”, and that they imply a sense of community, as they “express particular definitions of reality, with concomitant evaluations, which in turn relate to the disposition of power within society.” (1993: 14)

Dyer wrote this, nevertheless, before the implosion of the dotcom era –still defined by a top-down construction of a mediatised reality– and the insurgency of the type of amateur internauts Axel Bruns defines as produsers, and who get involved in a process in which “[…] massively parallelized and decentralized creativity and innovation in myriads of enthusiast communities do no longer produce content, ideas, and knowledge in a way that resembles traditional, industrial modes of production.” (2008: 17) The “disposition of power within society”, through which stereotypes are dictated, is inverted and is beginning to undergo a paradigm shift in Flickr and other Web 2.0 applications.

Figure 5. Untitled by emmakatka (Emma Katka) (accessed August 29, 2010; taken August 13, 2010)

This is not to say that these representations of self in Flickr are totally devoid of the influence of the abovementioned cultural oligopolies (in addition to the fashion establishment, the realities constructed by television, film and magazines or mainstream photography), but rather that they produse audiovisual motifs that add to the constant flow that is the creation of meaning in the digital milieu, in which female creators can more readily escape “phallocentrism” (as understood by Mulvey, 1988).

As Whitlock and Poletti explain: “[…] the predominance of the autographic[7] as the constitutive practice of social networking presents a new mode of autobiographical storytelling, where the telling becomes a kind of shorthanded showing and telling.” (2008: xvi) Years from now, yyellowbird et al’s  “shorthanded showing and telling”, their fresh smiles and inquisitive eyes will be part of their memory, but also of the collective digital archive of our era (it will be up to art historians, technology analysts and cultural critics then to define the wonders and failures of our times).

The eternal sunshine of the nostalgic lens will shine bright in the crevices of private and communal memory.

Figure 6. mooney wormtail padfoot and prongs by messyowl (Lauren) (accessed August 23, 2010; taken August 17, 2010)


Appadurai, Arjun (2003) “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy” in Theorizing Diaspora: A Reader, edited by Jana Evans Braziel and Anita Mannur. London: Blackwell Publishing.

Bruns, A (2008) Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life, and Beyond: from Production to Produsage. New York: Peter Lang.

Castells, Manuel (2001) “Virtual communities or network society?” in The Internet Galaxy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 116-136.

Cox, Andrew M. (2008) “Flickr: a case study of Web2.0” in Aslib Proceedings: New Information Perspectives, Vol: 60 Issue: 5.

Dyer, Richard (1993) The Matter of Images: Essays on Representations. London: Routledge.

Moran, Joe (2002) “Childhood and nostalgia in contemporary culture” in European Journal of Cultural Studies, 5; 155.

Shwarz, Ori (2009) “Good young nostalgia: camera phones and technologies of self among Israeli youths” in Journal of Consumer Culture, 9; 248.

Turkle, Sherry (2004) “Wither psychoanalysis in computer culture” in Kaplan, D.M. (ed.), Readings in the philosophy of technology. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, pp. 415-429.

Whitlock, Gilliand and Poletti, Anna (2008) “Self-Regarding Art” in Biography, Volume 31, Number 1, Winter 2008, pp. v-xxiii (Article)

Flickr galleries (accessed August-October, 2010)





[1] Gerald Larocque tagged yyellowbird in her photo The Runaways, in which a model identified as “Katelyn” is wrapped, naked, in a Canadian flag. In the description of the capture she writes: “Influenced by: yyellowbird, dreaming of Jacqueline”. The photograph can be accessed at:


[2] Through a Twitter conversation with the author, yyellowbird describes her relationship with messyowl and HelloPepper: “@cesar_albarr i haven’t met those two, but we’re good friends & talk often. i’ve met a few people from flickr & plan to meet more!” (Posted on August 25, 2010)

[3] See at: (accessed August 25, 2010; taken May 16, 2010)

[4] See at (accessed August 29, 2010; taken May 15, 2010).

[5] When asked through Twitter to define the reasons why she photographs abandoned houses and old objects, yyellowbird says: “@cesar_albarr dunno,really, it’s hard to say in less than 140 characters! i’m just drawn to them on some subconscious level, i think.” “@cesar_albarr, i gravitate towards them without even thinking about it. does that make sense? i don’t know, ha.” (posted on August 27, 2010)

[6] In her terms: longing for a time or place that will never be again, or longing for a present that will be gone.

[7] “Auto, n. self, one’s own.

Graphic, a. 1637: Drawn with a pencil or pen; of or pertaining to drawing or painting; 1756: vividly descriptive, life-like; 1669: pertaining to the use of diagrams, linear figures or symbolic curves; 1866: Of or pertaining to drawing or painting; the practice that marks, records or portrays the life.

Autographics, n. Áwtográffi ks. 2007: Life narrative fabricated in and through drawing and design using various technologies, modes, and materials. A practice of reading the signs, symbols and techniques of visual arts in life narrative. See also autobiography, biography, testimony, autobiographics, comics, self-portrait, avatar…” (Whitlock and Poletti, 2008: 5)


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