The night my cousin called me cringe, we were eating outdoors in one of those horribly touristy Milan restaurants. It was late, we were jetlagged, and the sauce on my tagliatelle was watery—but it was my first vacation in two years and I was determined to be dutiful in posting about it. I was angling my phone and face in what I hoped was a discreet way, attempting to get the streetlight on my left and the candlelight in front of me to coalesce and create Good LightingTM. That’s when she struck, soft-footed like a thief in the night and blunt like a boulder. “Can you not?” she said, and for the first time in my life, I could put an image to the phrase “through gritted teeth.” “You’re being so cringe.”
I was wounded, but like any good soldier that aims to persevere in the digital age, I enquired, investigated, and finished my under-seasoned pasta. It made sense, chronologically, that an era that saw plastic surgery proliferate wildly and saw one’s face become one’s brand would be followed by one that aimed to de-center the physical self altogether. “Looking good” was now considered symptomatic of being out of touch, of submitting to the patriarchy and its incessant demands of attractiveness and femininity. Looking good was not “authentic.” Eclectic, out-of-focus ’90s-style snaps shot on 32-millimeter disposable film cameras with barely functional flashes were the cool new thing—or an old thing made cool and new again, depending on how you looked at it.
“Get a shot of your Aperol Spritz, but make sure it’s in the corner,” my cousin instructs me, paraphrasing the rule of thirds. Next, a wide shot of a grandmother eating gelato at the entrance to the Duomo, a close-up of the marbled floor at the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, a shot of the street sign that says Via Dante, etc. For all of its projections of laid-back punkness, the photo dump was revealing itself to be just as invested in the process of curation as were the filtered selfies of its foremothers. It brought to mind the “sophisticated kitsch” that Dwight Macdonald wrote about, as in: “There is nothing more vulgar than sophisticated kitsch.”
In many ways, the Instagram photo dump sets out to achieve a goal that is diametrically opposed to its very existence: to capture a leaning-against-the-lockers-after-class cool that is manifestly against the very idea of curation. The photo dump sees out-of-focus sunsets and blurry portraits make their way back onto Instagram, nearly a decade after they first appeared, and for very different reasons. Then, it was due to poor camera quality. Now, it is an affectation employed to signify a kind of ennui with modern social media. The Instagram photo dump is to social media what vinyl records are to streamable music—a signifier used by the young and the restless to make it clear that they aren’t one of the overly manicured heads bleating therapy-speak or hawking an eye cream into a front-facing camera on their phone. They are (likely) a liberal arts student who has studied the work of Ryan McGinley and Nan Goldin, and they would like you to know that.