In an age of increasingly complex digital technology and artistic possibilities, why do we continue to look to the aesthetics of the past? What does it mean to look back in the most surreal year of our lives? In this interview, we speak to photographers and filmmakers Chioma Ejimofo and Meredithe Ettrich about the role of nostalgia in photography and how it shapes their work.
MN: What role does nostalgia play in your work?
CE: Nostalgia plays a really significant role for me. I think that nostalgia manifests in so many different ways for people, and it's the same for my work. Sometimes it’s captured in unplanned moments between random people, and other times it's a nostalgia experienced when looking back at my own work months later. As I get older, capturing the notion of nostalgia has definitely become more important to me; some of my older work takes on new personal meanings for me - old houses I used to live and take photos in, and friends that I haven’t seen in a long time.
ME: Ask me that in 20 years.
MN: Of analogue photography, Bartholeyns said:
‘There was greater nostalgia for the warmth of these renderings than for the people and things they depicted’
How do your subjects and your exploration of nostalgia connect? Does nostalgia influence who and what you capture, or vice versa?
ME: When I was 18 I was so angry. I resented the fact I had to stay put in my hometown after graduation. I always felt out of place in the cookie cutter suburb I grew up in and I was so far from who I wanted to be. During this time, I was in constant conversation with my future self. This self lived in a city, she was a full time photographer, and even though I was unhappy, I knew one day she would long for this time period. So to honor that I called up my friend Lacey Tanner and we walked around taking photos of every spot that felt significant to me. The street I lived on, my childhood ice cream shop, the gas station that also served as a meeting spot for preteens, and my car. It did help with my anger. By capturing my present state, I was also promising myself it would change. I am that future self now, and I'm grateful I have the photos, but my nostalgia doesn't look like I thought it would. I thought I would look at the photos and miss the simplicity of the time or the security of living with my mom. Instead I feel a softness for my past self.
CE: I think that it's a mix between the two. On a personal level, my connection to all my work feels very led by the need to remember a moment or a feeling. Most of my portraits, or images with people in them, I either know or used to know. And during most of those shoots, I'm only with them for a few hours, or a day and because we're busy, or move away to do our own things - these photos become the only proof that we ever shared a close bond for a short time. Taking pictures of people can feel quite intimate and special, especially when you all trust each other, and that's what I remember when I look back. When I look at my photos, it always feels as if I've been thrown back into that day all over again. It's a really emotional and bittersweet feeling when you acknowledge that the moment was two years ago when it only feels like it happened yesterday. So that for me is where the connection usually happens; whether it's a place or a person, I think what I capture usually generates nostalgia for me.
MN: Chioma - in a previous interview with us, you said you saw nostalgia as ‘changeable, spontaneous and hard to verbally articulate’ - how does this perspective inform your creative process?
CE: I think it allows for a very specific type of freedom in the way that I create my work. At the beginning of my photography, my aim was usually to bring my conceptual ideas to life - having a plan beforehand. Once I started consistently taking photos, I realised that I preferred a more spontaneous and fluid process. I like to think that some of my photos are just moments revealing themselves, that I was lucky to be able to capture in time. For example, one of my favourite photos that I took was ‘Sunset at Margate’ in 2019 - it was after a festival there. I just so happened to bring my camera along, and afterwards, a few people I'd met that day and I went to the beach instead of an after-party. The sun was setting and I stood back a bit, watching them run into the water together, while I captured it. It's difficult to fully describe why the moment was so beautiful for me, but I immediately knew that it was something I wanted to capture and hold onto because the moment felt so special, yet fleeting. I try to maintain a similar creative process now; I enjoy creating pieces that evoke those similar feelings of spontaneity and wonder. And in my portraits, I prefer capturing dreamlike and surreal imagery, because for me nostalgia and good memories tend to have a hazy glow over them.
MN: In a period in which many of us are longing for ‘the way things once were’, what new bearing does nostalgia have on visual arts? Has COVID-19 changed the way you think about your own methodologies?
ME: The pandemic has forced me to be practical and precise with my screenwriting. Shooting in public spaces or with large groups of people is out of the question. Every scene must take place in my home or in an isolated outdoor area. I try to see this as a good thing - ingenuity is born out of restriction. I think we're probably going to see more focused, character based stories in the future because of this.
CE: The new changes have definitely led me to be more creative on a smaller scale - I have to work with what I’ve go, so during the middle of the lockdown that meant shooting portraits within my bubble and my family. Some of my older photos taken during lockdown have taken on a personal significance and I do feel nostalgic when looking at them. I think that may resonate for a lot of visual artists during this time as well too.
My usual way of working feels a bit more uncertain now, it was always sporadic but as a person who enjoys capturing intimate and spontaneous moments with new people, it's made it a bit harder. Knowing I can’t always meet up with people and create in the same way I previously did has meant I spend a lot of time looking back at old work and learning from it. I've definitely looked back at my archived work and felt a kind of loss for the way things used to be, so in my recent work, I try to keep it centred on the things that I find comforting. People, vivid colours, as well as editing, but I'm also focusing on experimenting more and taking risks. In some ways, the spare time has helped me move out of my comfort zone; working with my family has been really lovely. It’s removed a pressure to always actively create, and instead work within a space I’m used to in my own time.
MN: How do you think the digital age has cultivated our cultural obsession with nostalgia?
ME: Well sites like Instagram and Facebook are a personal catalog. It makes sense we're a little nostalgic, we have constant access to our timelines.
CE: The digital age has made a lot of things much easier and accessible. Searching for things and connecting with people and art is such a fast process, so trends pop up and disappear so quickly.
Especially now, with the popularity of apps like TikTok and social media in general, a lot of old trends and music make their way back into popular culture. For me, I think it bridges that once unattainable gap between memories and the present. I used to spend a lot of time gleaning for old songs or obscure media from my childhood based on the few facts I had in my head, and it's crazy how quickly you can reunite with them thanks to digital advances now.
The digital age has brought along a collective nostalgia too, you’ll find a song that meant a lot to you growing up on YouTube, and realise hundreds of other people are there as well experiencing those exact feelings. Suddenly you’re bonding with strangers across the world over something with a nostalgic haze over it. So I think nostalgia and the digital age go hand in hand; the relationship that it's brought along is kind of overwhelming - with everything so readily available, I wonder if it fades that original nostalgic attachment over time, and kind of feeds into the need for the next 'thing' for people to obsess over again.
MN: Both of you have mentioned that ‘childlike curiosity’, to use Meredithe’s words, informs your work - how does this connect with your exploration of nostalgia?
ME: I don't really think they intersect. For me, the childlike curiosity is more of an approach to the actual shooting. When you're small you're a lot closer to the earth. There's a lot of lying down on lawns, picking apart grass strand by strand. You're allowed to be amazed by the texture of walls and the shape of clouds. You don't have bills to pay, so you can just take in your surroundings.
CE: I think that approaching my work with a more childlike curiosity allows my overall process to be more freeing and exciting. From the moment I started doing photography on a more regular basis, it immediately felt like I was reconnecting with a childlike part of myself. When I was younger, bringing my ideas to life (whether it was filming, stop motion or painting) was a very sporadic and fun process. I’d get my friends and siblings involved and use whatever resources I had available and it was just a really imaginative process. It never felt like there were barriers in the way or things to overthink, and that's the kind of approach that works really well for me and my subjects. So reenacting that childlike way of working is almost second nature to me, and as a result, brings up very nostalgic and comforting feelings too.
MN: David Lowenthal said:
‘We crave evidence that the past endures in recoverable form. Some agency, some mechanism, some faith will enable us not just to know it, but to see and feel it’
To what extent do you feel nostalgia is connected to attempts to preserve or control? What bearing do these ideas have on your work?
ME: I think nostalgia is a saucy little minx and a damned liar. What's more seductive than the idea that your life is good, your history is good, your people are good, you are good. When you control the narrative of the past, you also control the future. We saw that concept play out when Trump was elected: the idea that the U.S. was good and could be great. It's there when you're called back home to your family. They were good, you are good, go home. I think the role of the artist is to explore what is actually good and deserving of rose tinted glasses.
CE: I personally would say it’s quite a large extent. Growing up, I definitely absorbed the romanticism around capturing memories and preserving moments. A lot of that is due to the films I remember watching that placed emphasis on holding onto memories, or realising how fleeting life is, and they’ve all stuck with me in a really visceral way. Before I started doing photography regularly, I would still try to capture most of my life in some way. Short videos on my phone, notes, diaries and photos just as an attempt to have physical proof that I was there and it was a moment I witnessed. For many people, I think that preserving memories is extremely important. It can be ritualistic, and embedded into us from an early age with baby photos and videos, keeping old clothes and toys. Even though the work I post doesn't always outwardly showcase that I'm preserving something, I do have my own personal things like adding the year, or, at times, a short note about who the model was or the place. In my bio, I stated that my photography account was a diary, and looking back and knowing that's what I did on that specific day is comforting, in the same way I imagine a physical diary can be.
MN: Meredithe - you have mentioned your work is largely inspired by an interest in art history. To what extent is your engagement with art history nostalgic?
ME: On a personal level I feel nostalgia towards art history because it is the subject I grew up loving. It's what gave me context for our world. I probably also romanticize painters because I identify with them.
MN: Why is looking to aesthetics or narratives of the past important?
ME: As an artist you need context for your field and your place in it. There's the saying you gotta know the rules to break the rules. I think emulating the classics is also a way to legitimize your work. Collective nostalgia can be used to your advantage.
MN: Where do you hope to take your work next?
ME: I'd love to start directing more narrative pieces. The idea of being a writer/director is very exciting to me. I also have an obsession with comedies and softer hyper realistic movies. My favorite movies are "Wet Hot American Summer" and "The Florida Project". I've always wished I didn't have to choose between beautiful and irreverent movies.
CE: I would love to branch out and do some more storytelling with my photos and build a world around them. The thought of expanding the stories I tell through my photos is really exciting, and I want to be able to represent a diverse range through my art. I'd also really like to collaborate with other creatives and people, and keep on challenging myself to grow as an artist and take risks. Although I love photography, my main goal is to be a director, so, ideally, with my future projects, I want to be able to merge them and convey deeper themes and feelings to the people that view my work. I'm really interested in exploring spaces more as well, I have a lot of archived work that focuses less on people and more on the beauty of places I have visited, and that's a personal goal of mine - to showcase that side of my work too someday.
For the future, I definitely want to look at exploring other themes too - even though I think my work will always be strongly rooted in nostalgia and memory, I want to look at different ways of representing them visually alongside other themes and ideas.
HOSTED BY MILLIE NORMAN