I’ve wanted to do a post about Image and Nostalgia for a while and last week I finished reading one of my favorite novels, which discusses Nostalgia quite a bit, and I found this photo series, which is super fascinating, so the time has finally come to broach the subject.
Last month Jealous Curator featured this photo series, The Jersey Shore, by Bay Area photographer Christine Zona (Zona Foto), and I immediately found it delightful and intriguing. Zona created these photos as a way to relive her childhood memories of the Jersey Shore—rides, food, people, signs, and bright yet fashionably faded colors populating about thirty Polaroids. But there is a division between the explicit goal of this project and its implicit process that provides a deeply fascinating study in how Nostalgia can produce genuine pasts through Image and material objects.
Zona explains the project with this brief blurb on her website:
I created this series to reclaim the innocence of the Jersey Shore. The Shore that I remember as a child. This shore still exists, but recently it’s been overshadowed by the ‘Snookis’ and the ‘Situations’ of the world. So I headed out to Seaside Heights, Asbury Park, Point Pleasant, Belmar, and Atlantic City with my Polaroid Spectra Camera and a backpack full of expired film to capture it as I once saw it.
Put simply, Zona’s goal was to reconstruct her childhood memory, or more specifically to reconstruct the images of her childhood memory. It is an unabashed, unaffected exercise in Nostalgia, but a kind of simple Nostalgia that inherits its unpretentiousness from the childhood innocence. The series is steeped in happiness, smeared with the foggy pastel haze of melted ice cream and sun lotion and disillusionment, safe from the degraded, shameful, romper room fuckery of a few wild banshees (and the culture they’ve fostered).
By ‘unpretentious’ I mean that the exercise is both explicitly simple—recreating glimpses that Zona “remember[s] as a child”—and materialistically honest. Zona is using outdated film, in an outdated Polaroid camera, producing pictures that preclude the affected, pretentious, ‘vintage’ coloring we are familiarized by apps, filters, Instagram, &c. Their obsessive nostalgia isn’t implicit, it is fearless and explicit and inherent in the material.
The composition of the photos is also part of what makes this recreation so successful: not quite framed clearly or evenly, many being aimed sharply up or down, the photos closely resemble the glimpse-like nature of how we recall images from a child’s perspective. In that way the series reminds me a bit of Terrence Malik’s Tree of Life (2011), another, more careful exercise in how childhood memories resurface, are revisited, and are connected in a primarily off kilter, non-specific manner. What both the film and The Jersey Shore have in common is unbalanced, seemingly un-composed framing that collectively builds an atmosphere of Memory.
Undoubtedly the series is successful in its explicit objective. The images of Zona’s childhood even broach our own memories, efficiently combining familiarity with a level of vagueness and anonymity (eagerly embraced by our recruited sense of nostalgia). Combined with the coloration and format of the photos, we easily accept the spirit of the project and even embrace this Image as representing a legitimate time in the history of the Shore—a time predating the abject state of the Shore as presented by the show of the same name.
Simultaneous to the visually and verbally explicit success of The Jersey Shore, the entire project also functions as a meta-operation in Nostalgia, exerting the power of an imagined and idealized past against the reality of the Shore’s present, deploying the tools of Nostalgia on many levels.
The most serious of these tools is Essentialism, which is the least germane to a Design blog but nevertheless lurks behind Zona’s lament regarding the “overshadowing” presence of the four-foot tall terror of ‘The Jersey Shore.’ The Jersey Shore is the photographer reclaiming the innocent and pure world—according to her—of the Shore’s natural state. This natural state predates the arrival of our generation’s biggest embarrassment. In this regard, the photo series is practically a moral exercise in restoration (not unlike the Crusades), a salvation of the pastel past from the blasphemous forces “of the world.” This is the most powerful lie of Nostalgia: that the past is an innately pure but diminishing world perpetually besieged at every frontier by the destructive and ruinous shame of the present.
Here we could apply the wisdom of García Márquez, advising us to “always remember that the past was a lie, that memory has no return…and that [the Jersey Shore, figured in the retroactive images of Christine Zona’s childhood memory] was an ephemeral truth in the end.” The mythic, pristine, happy Shore of Zona’s memory was never a whole reality, nor does it come close to a ‘natural state’ or fundamental truth about that place. Let us not forget that before the Jersey Shore became ‘The Jersey Shore’, it was the setting of Requiem for a Dream (2000)—hardly the innocent boardwalk of a child’s foggy recollections.
Equally fascinating, if not more so, is the level on which Zona has deployed Nostalgia to recreate the long lost, mythically perfect Jersey Shore: the very material of the series. While the average iPhotographers are digitally affecting the coloration of Nostalgia with filters and apps, Zona is using the material of Nostalgia itself: an old school Polaroid Spectra Camera and “a backpack full of expired film” (as well as the kung fu compositional skills I’ve already talked about). The filtered smart phone photos that populate our Instagrams and Facebook profiles—mine included—are weakly simulated artifacts of a present overlapping the past. Snap-shot frames of our friends, pets and breakfast plates are instantaneously invested with the sanctified nostalgic value once reserved for photos discovered in the dusty corners of our grandparents attics. But these are not the material of Nostalgia; they affect it; their vintage appearance is their pretence and their raison d’être.
Unlike these, The Jersey Shore photos series is the thing itself. Though produced as the recreation of a (idealized) world from her childhood, Zona’s images acquire the unaffected veracity that only a genuine artifact can possess, the veracity of the real thing. By this I mean that, between its subject matter and its materiality, the series could just as easily be the very photos Christine Zona’s mother might have kept from a first trip to the Shore with her daughter. They have transcended the mundane, present reality of pseudo-vintage, confused, simulated artifacts—Image being nostalgic—and are practically the artifacts themselves, testifying to the truth of Zona’s unintentional myth. They are no longer images of childhood memories, but potentially objects from childhood.
What affects to be a simple exercise, indulgently nostalgic and innocent, is in fact a profoundly fascinating exploration of Nostalgia’s construction of Memory through Image and material objects. And this is why, though they appear primed to fill the cosmos of vintage-driven blogs and Tumblrs, they are fundamentally separate from what can be found on your Instagram. They are Nostalgia manifesting itself through the power of Image. Fortunately since they’ve been digitized for your convenience you are safe from that scary reality. They are also primarily light hearted and happy—they are images from childhood, after all—and so all my babbling can’t render them too serious to enjoy.