This essay was originally published in The Photographer's Handbook (Aperture, 2014).
In her 2007 essay, “The New Color: The Return of Black and White,” Charlotte Cotton writes:
[Today], for cognizant, challenging photography . . . one of the most important factors . . . is our visual recognition that the act of making and defining photographic practice in print form is increasingly nostalgic, and perhaps calls for an aesthetics of nostalgia.
Within many photographic circles, “nostalgia” ([Origin: from Greek nostos 'return home' + algos 'pain, grief, distress') is often considered taboo, or regarded as a dirty word. But as a medium that instantaneously captures and preserves the present as it transforms into the past, photography, it could be argued, inherently possesses varying degrees of nostalgia, both on the part of its practitioners and its viewers.As an assignment, create a photographic work that consciously wrestles with the concept of “nostalgia” and photography’s unique relationship to it. The work can be made in any photographic form (although Cotton’s essay focuses on the black-and-white print, it is important to recognize that all forms of photography—color, digital, photograms, camera-phones, screen-grabs, found-photography, collage, projection, and so on—are equally capable of nostalgic power). Because of the nature of the assignment’s focus, your imagery might explore notions of the past—immediate or ancient—whether it be photographic, cultural, personal, political, environmental, scientific, or otherwise. But be careful to avoid overt irony, over-sentimentalization, or “retro” pastiche. Genuinely engage with this curious and oddly powerful human emotion through the photographic image.