A strange and ultimately puzzling project by Argentinian photographer Irina Werning is making the rounds—not so much "Back to the Future," which is the project's title, as "forward to the past." Irina has very skillfully made modern replicas of vintage snapshots using the original subjects as they appear today, grown, or aged.
After having thought about this for several days I still don't quite know what to make of it. Her efforts to duplicate the look of the originals and replicate the props is certainly impressive ("this project made me realize I'm a bit obsessive," she says), and it is certainly a parallel to the "rephotographic" projects of buildings and landscapes that often fascinate me and that we've discussed before. But despite the precise parallels, with people it seems to have a very different meaning, somehow. The now-inappropriate props and situations create a creepy overtone to some of the pictures that changes their meaning all out of proportion to the overtly innocent outline of the project (at least, I assume it's innocent—the subjects seem to be having fun with the idea, and so does the photographer). Things like a photo of two grown men in a bubble bath together have a whole different constellation of implications and associations than two little boys in the same situation, and a picture of an adult woman dressed as a little girl holding a teddy bear is a very different proposition from a little girl, appropriately dressed, and holding an age-appropriate toy.
I guess this odd tension between very changed meaning and near-identical replication of the look and feel of the old photographs is what gives the pictures their interest, but at the same time I'm not feeling a richness of deeper meaning there. Except maybe that it's kinda creepy not to act your age.
(Thanks to numerous readers, including Ben Rosengart and Alessandro Berno)
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Judith Wallerius: "It mainly makes me think that I've seen something like that before. Zefrank has a continuing project on his home page called "Young Me / Now Me" which is just like this, only with the people themselves recreating the new picture. I think he started it in 2008.
"Some of them are surprisingly accurately done, and often funny in a way that doesn't translate if it's a stranger (in this case, literally) calling the shots.
"I don't even think she copied the idea, but in this day and age the probability of hearing of a project someone did half a world away is much bigger. It can actually be quite disheartening if you're looking to find your own creative voice, only to find on every corner that there has already been someone who did that, or something like it, before. And probably better, because you are likely to see an already finished project/product. I suspect it keeps people from trying out things that would've led them on to completely new projects and ideas completely their own, simply because they see no point in even starting on that particular road.
"I would be very interested in seeing where this artist is in two or five years, if an element of this project leads her on to something else."
Mike replies: Funny, I did not remember that at all in this context, even though I've seen it before. Thanks.
Featured Comment by B D Smyth: "[Deja voodoo...] 'Then and Now and Here and There.'
[But you didn't ever refer to this...] 'The Arrow of Time.' 'On June 17th, every year, the family goes through a private ritual: we photograph ourselves to stop, for a fleeting moment, the arrow of time passing by." See Diego, Susy, Nicholas, Matias, and Sebastian from 1976 to 2008.
Mike replies: Actually, I've written about the Arrow of Time project too.
But back to the Young Me / Now Me project. I guess I don't see a lot of similarity in these two projects, aside from a superficial similarity, for one all-important reason: Irina Werning's pictures have authorship, whereas the Young Me / Now Me project doesn't—it's directed, but it's voluntary, with each individual submitting both the pictures and the more recent mimickry of it. With Irina's pictures, presumably she chooses the shot to duplicate, the way she'll do so, even the subjects themselves. With all photography—all art—that changes the game; where there is authorship, there is reason to expect intent, and reason to look for deeper meaning. It's the difference between a real snapshot and an artist working within the snapshot aesthetic, which are two very different things. There's a close resemblance between the products of these two projects, but in terms of their meaning they're quite a ways apart, at least to my reading.
Featured Comment by James: "This is a fascinating topic. To me, there's something deeply disquieting and skin-crawling about the photo of the grown men in the bubble bath, but that probably says more about my own prejudices than anything else. And the point of good 'art' is to challenge you into thinking. On the other hand, the photo of the grown girl with the Teddy Bear didn't even make me pause for thought until I read Mike's text.
"I've got in my house two possibly related themes, although by accident and not design. I spent over 20 years in the military, and in the tradition of the British, the bulk of it was spent with one small Regiment of 580 men. Every year, photographs were taken of the whole Regiment (with a large format camera), and you could buy prints. I did, every year. So what I have is the photographic record of me and about 50 other soldiers and officers who joined with me in 1983, going forward for 22 years until I left. You see the same faces maturing, and with seniority, getting closer to the centre of the photograph. In 1983, I'm a fresh-faced, fit young Lieutenant standing on the far left hand side in the second row, and three rows up and off to the far right is Trooper Paul Fox, nearly 18 and my tank driver. The last photo I have in 2005 shows us both sitting next to each other in the centre: he the Regimental Sergeant Major (AKA 'Father of the Regiment'), me the Regimental second in command. Both of us wear identical medals to commemorate shared campaigns and operational tours over more than 20 years. Meanwhile, in the last photo there are two other young men somewhere on the margins who in 20 years time will be sitting together in the middle.
"The other 'similar' concept I have is a series of photographs taken by me of soldiers under my command in different operational theatres over the last 20 years. It doesn't matter how dissimilar they were physically or in character, under tension and the imminent threat of being killed or wounded, they all look the same. If you want to see that look, pick any war since photography was invented and look at the candid and unposed photographs of individuals (Don McCullin is one of my favourite photographers, particularly his images from Biafra, Vietnam, and Northern Ireland). It's a human trait that the camera amplifies."
Featured Comment by David Wilkinson: "This is really weird and looks like a coincidence to me but this very morning In the U.K.'s weekend Guardian newspaper there is a piece by Katherine Rose where she has asked some U.K. comedians to recreate childhood snapshots.
"Remarkably similar in approach and appearance."