Retro modeling is an example of active nostalgia. An effect of pastness is created by the model and the photographer. The photos are ‘loaded’ with meanings, referring to visual culture from the past, like Hollywood movies, advertisements and pin up paintings. Thus a version of the past is constructed that contributes to the identities of both creators and viewers, individually and within a social group. This interdisciplinary article combines qualitative and quantitative research methods to dive into the psychological and social value of active nostalgia in retro photo shoots. Results of photograph analyses provide an overview of diverse retro styles in photo shoots where the model slips into different roles. However, empirical results show that the majority of retro photo models rather play with nostalgic elements in the „here and now“ instead of truly identifying with historical realities. Overall, active nostalgia is associated with the construction of positive emotions concerning the past.


1 Introduction

1.1 On pastness and practicing nostalgia

Pastness is a creative way to construct a version of the past for present-day needs. Pastness can be related to the actual past (e.g., in scholarly books about history) or can just have to do with an impression of “a” (rather than “the”) past (e.g. in Fantasy fiction like Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings)

Pastness as a concept is used by scholars, like archaeologists Peter Fowler and Cornelius Holtorf and film researcher Paul Grainge, as well as by cultural theorists, like Fredric Jameson. (Fowler1992, Jameson 1992, Grainge 2002, Holtorf  2010). A prominent version of pastness is nostalgia. There are many forms of nostalgia, like: homesickness, melancholy about the irretrievability of the past, resentment, Arcadian visions of a golden era, vintage and retro. Because of the many forms of nostalgia, it is difficult to formulate a common definition, but nostalgia can be described as the idealization of the past for present-day purposes. Emotion is combined with reflection and with memories. Most nostalgia is bitter-sweet, because the idealized past cannot be returned to or be completely reconstructed. The term was introduced by a Swiss physician in the 17th century. He combined the ancient Greek words for “return home” and “pain”.

In this article, the process of nostalgizing, first theorized by media scholar Katharina Niemeyer is discussed (Niemeyer 2014). Nostalgizing is the active creation of nostalgic effects in oneself or in others. This type of “active nostalgia” will be researched in relation to retro photoshoots. How is a version of the past constructed by the photographers and the models? What does a model feel during a retro photo shoot and afterwards when looking at the photos? What is the role of the retro style for the model’s identity and how does the model communicate about the photos? What methods do photo models use to create a nostalgic effect during and after the photo shoot? Why do they want to create this effect and how is this effect for the model and the picture consumer related to the actual past of the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and 1950s? What is the role of media(ted) memories, what of simulated memories?

Sociologist Janelle Wilson also stresses the importance of active nostalgia:  “Individuals decide -in the present- how to recall the past and, in this process, imbue the past with meaning, which has evolved over time and is relevant in the present” (Wilson 2005: 7). In this article by a nostalgia researcher/historian and a retro model (Rina Bambina)/psychologist, the nostalgizing activity is placed in a context of present-day needs. Insights from several disciplines are used, e.g. psychology, sociology, history, semiotics and cultural studies. In this article we combine qualitative research with empirical data from a questionnaire.

1.2 Identity and memory in photography; photos used for recollection and for identity construction

Since the introduction of photography, photos have a mnemonic function (e.g. in family photo albums) and are also used for the construction of identity: what is shown to others about oneself and what’s not (Van Dijck 2008)?

Cultural scholar Nancy Martha West writes about the function of photographs as mnemonic devices “in order to possess pictorial control over our past” (West 2000). According to her, a company like Kodak made sure that people felt obliged to preserve memories with photos in the early days of photography. It was a company that taught Americans ‘‘how to see, to remember, and even love” (West 2000). In this way, Kodak taught Americans (and Europeans) to “apprehend their experiences and memories as objects of nostalgia” (West 2000) without unpleasant aspects (like unflattering “ugly” pictures but also without moments of sorrow and trauma).

Retro photo shoots seem to have no primary function for memory recollection, although they are a playful critique or reworking of memory culture. The photos are mainly tools for identity construction based on pastness. These photos can be seen as cultural tools (Wertsch 2002) and are “loaded” with references that are interpreted or/and constructed by the photographer, the model and the audience. The creators of the pictures have seen media products from the past (or referring to the past) and the audience has seen similar fictions or images. There are multiple meanings in the photos, but all the interpretations can be situated in the same cultural landscape, in which the past is used to “render the present more poignant” (Bartholeyns 2014). The present is placed in the suggested past (like a “revival”, a constructed retro photo), more than that the past is placed in the present (like a “survival” or an authentic photo from the depicted period).

1.3 Individual and collective nostalgia

As stated there are various forms of nostalgia. A common way of discussing nostalgia is to make a division between an individual and a collective type. Individual nostalgia is about personal memories of sugar coated recollection, collective nostalgia has to do with those glowing memories that are shared with others, e.g. in religious, social or gender groups. Different groups are nostalgic in different ways. Nostalgia can be seen as a phenomenon that is actively constructed (like nation or class).

With the research methods of social constructivism this constructed nature of a shared culture can be studied. Social constructionism can be seen as “a constellation of theories articulating the belief that mind, thought, self, and reality are largely products of history, culture, and language. The world – and the self within  it – are not taken-for-granted entities warranted through objective observation but constructions or creations achieved through socially agreed-upon methods of seeing, naming, and interpreting” (Ray 2000).

Nostalgia in the present is often a stylistically evoked emotional construct. Film scholar Paul Grainge writes about the “nostalgia mood and mode”. The nostalgia mood is “a feeling determined by a concept of longing and loss, the nostalgia mode is a consumable style that has been commonly characterized as amnesiac” (Grainge 2002). In retro photo shoots visual stylistics are dominant; they create a nostalgia effect, a glowing emotion related to the past.

2. The psychology of feeling nostalgic

Feelings of Nostalgia are nothing out of the ordinary. There is a warm feeling of familiarity when visiting a flea market and finding an old piece of kitchenware along with the memory of the grandmother that used a similar kitchenware for baking. Watching movies from past decades or visiting a 1950s-inspired diner can provide a form of escapism, meaning diving into a different world, leaving current problems of everyday life behind. Although feeling nostalgic is quite common, the psychological purpose of nostalgia is hard to grasp (Anderson 2011).

Nostalgia certainly has a psychological purpose that can influence human perceptions, thoughts and emotions, as well as behavior (Sedikides, Wildschut, & Routledge 2008). Scientists provided evidence that nostalgia strengthens the resilience to mental stress and feelings of loneliness (Sedikides et al. 2008; Zhou 2008). The restorative function of nostalgia helps people to retain positive emotions from the past by consciously bringing them into awareness. Constantine Sedikides et al. (2008) argued that feeling nostalgic increases the perception of the self as well as self-esteem within a social group.

Most of the time, nostalgic feelings can be triggered by auditorial, olfactory and visual stimuli. In this article, the focus is on retro-inspired photography and its function in identity construction. When browsing through a family photo album and seeing pictures of the past, thoughts and emotions often go beyond the mere visual memory of the moment the picture was taken. There is a deeper feeling of connectivity and romanticizing with this rather positive aspect of the past (Sedikides et al. 2008). Especially analogue photographs mostly display “happy” moments that were wished to be remembered when the current moment had passed. Because analogue cameras allowed to capture only a limited number of moments, photo scenes that were “frozen in time“ were chosen with more care than they are today.

Another important aspect of nostalgia is its importance as a cultural phenomenon (Anderson 2011). Sharing memories as part of a nostalgic practice supports a feeling of belonging and equality, which again enhances self-esteem and confidence in own identities (Wildshut, Sedikides, Arndt & Routledge 2006). Sayings like “those were the days” enables a social group to indulge in memories together, shifting the focus from a negative aspect of the present day to a (seemingly) positive aspect of the past time.

Sharing the favorable features of a certain time period is furthermore an occasion to form a new social group. For instance, the “rockabilly scene” consists of people who enjoy a modern version of the 1950’s Rock’n’Roll lifestyle (Kattari 2014). The current term “rockabilly” is derived from the eponymous music genre that reached its peak in the mid to the late 50’s (Morrison 1996). Staring from the 1980’s the rockabilly community defines itself mostly over the shared preference for the music genre, although more modern interpretations of Rock’n’Roll music are branching off ever since (e.g. psychobilly, Kattari 2011). Besides the music genre, the rockabilly scene shares common ground regarding classic cars, clothing and even moral concepts, to some extent. The shared passion for certain (positively perceived) aspects of the 1950’s lifestyle builds up a social dynamic where all members are treated equally, despite the varying range of age, profession or socioeconomic status. Moreover, group events constitute a form of collective escapism and nostalgia that “transcends social groups and age” (Sedikides et al. 2008, 4).

The rockabilly scene is just one example for nostalgia that is lived out by mimicking a specific time period. Within the generalized practice of nostalgia as an individual or as a group, the term “retro“ is most widely used in the European scene. In this article, “retro” refers to a concept where individuals consciously enjoy or create a look that imitates the trends and style directions of past decades (typically from the 1920’s to the 1950’s). More specifically, this work aims at bringing the experience of nostalgia by looking at original and retro-inspired photographs and the active expression of nostalgia by creating retro photographs together.


3. Nostalgia in Retro-inspired Photography

Photography is a powerful tool to create a momentary image of the present self. It further allows to highlight specific preferences in our lifestyle that can be shared with a like-minded group. With pictures, the individual assigns itself to a distinct group, but also showcases its individuality. Shooting and sharing pictures is used to visualize inside thoughts and emotions, which constitutes a great autobiographical power. Moreover, pictures are a medium of non-verbal communications with an audience, e.g. via social media (Rocamora 2011).

(Self-)portrayal plays an important part in the retro scene, since looks are selected with particular care. In order to find items (e.g. clothing or accessories) that either originate from past decades or are inspired by them, photo models are typically used to present said items in advertisement. Because the designs of past decades are highly particular, retro photo models are preferably used to embody the flair of the era on the runway or in magazines.

The request for retro-inspired photo shoots in customers who want their picures taken is high, even outside of the retro scene. The idea of slipping into a role that lived in a past time has a nostalgic association, however, the pictures mostly serve the purpose of representing a version of ourselves rather than the purpose of memorizing and reminiscence (Renaningtyas, Mutiaz and Syarief 2014).


4.Photography and hegemony

Nostalgic photos connote the idealized good old days. Connotation is a term used in semiotics, by Roland Barthes and others. Apart from the literal meaning of a picture (denotation) there are the implied associations that the viewer has. When someone e.g. sees a heraldic sign he or she may find the sign aesthetic and “old fashioned”, in the sense that a division of society is referred to that has become uncommon.

Here we will discuss the way pastness is connoted in retro photo shoots. Feminist authors have criticized the “male gaze” as a way of looking at women that makes them into aesthetic objects (Mulvey 1975) in photo shoots, both retro, and non retro. In this way masculine power is exerted over them, it is thought. The way women are depicted connotes, according to feminist theory, male heterosexuality and gender divisions from the past. This view has thus been described by a theorist:

“The problem with this tradition of representation, it’s worth emphasizing, is not that it’s wrong for women to want to be attractive or sexy, or that admiring beauty is somehow shallow or immoral. Rather, the problem is how beauty is being defined: as a means to male power through strategic deference. It’s not simply sex or sexiness that’s at stake here, but a particular construction of sexiness in terms of a power relation of male dominance and female subordination” (Streeter)

This may be partly correct, but on the other hand it is a case of oversimplifying: it is not always clear if men can help gaining visual pleasure from pictures: does that make them ideologically suspect or manipulative? On the other hand the role of the women in the pictures is looked over in feminist theory. There seems to be some disdain for the models, who supposedly don’t realize male power is exerted over them. Models in aesthetically pleasing pictures, like retro photographs, may however be said to exert power over the viewer, by the construction of nostalgic femininity. Maybe female power works somewhat differently from male power. The models in this kind of pictures know they are being looked at and playfully communicate with the viewer by their pose and gaze. In retro photography this playful aspect is stressed. The models very well know that they participate in a (re)construction of past gender roles and because of this knowledge the resulting retro pictures are ambivalent, more so than pictures that were actually shot in the time depicted. Nostalgizing pictures are the opposite of one dimensional constructs; they provoke complex reflections and emotions and the combination of both.

There are several methods a photographer can use to evoke the past. Some of the techniques that can be used to manipulate photos into a nostalgic effect are: retouching, montage, color filtering, giving the photo an analogue appearance (e.g. granularity) and pictorial simulation (Noth, 1995).

Especially relevant in this context is the pictorial nostalgia simulation, a variant of the so-called faux-nostalgia: the artificial construction of a glowing past for present day ends. Nostalgia is about the idealization of days gone-by, a representation of a supposedly more wholesome or aesthetic past. Retro photography combines the beautification of the past (through the models) with a vision on gender roles that according to some is old fashioned. Feminist authors Janice Doane and Devon Hodges state that nostalgia is “not just a sentiment but also a rhetorical practice”, in which a golden past is represented, in which men and women had traditional roles (Doane and Hodges 1987).

In what follows six retro photos of model Rina Bambina (Katharina Stenger) are analyzed semiotically: what effects of pastness are created by photographer and model and which mental constructs about women and beautification of the past are represented?

The first picture is homage to artist Gil Elvgren.

Gil Elvgren (1914-1980) was an American pin up artist. His pictures of pretty girls have set standards for present day retro artists, models and photographers. In the Elvgren oil paintings sensuality is combined with innocence. This innocence representing an era that has passed, is part of the nostalgic appeal of Elvgrens work in the present. A (traditional) feminist theorist would argue that the innocence in his pictures are representations of power relationships, in which men are active and powerful and women passive and looked at as objects of the gaze.

In this picture Rina Bambina has taken the same pose as the model in Elvgrens picture. Also the colors and the hair are close to the original. The old telephone adds to the retro look. A black telephone was chosen because the classic black telephone connotes “pastness“ even more than the phone in the Elvgren picture. Props play an imporant role in the recreation of the beauty of the past, as material traces.

A second photo is of Rina Bambina playing to be bathing.

The bathing beauty is a classic theme in pictorial art. Here muted colors are used to give the picture a retro look. The old tub adds to the appeal of the past. Bubbly humor and innocence give the photo its character. The picture looks like an advertisement in a 1950s magazine, in which a wholesome sexuality was displayed.

A third photo refers to the beauty of black and white cinema.

Black and white photography connotes both “art” and “the past”. Here an old photo camera adds to the nostalgic effect, by thematizing photograpy as a nostalgic activity and also showing analogue nostalgia, as opposed to digital media, in which the photo was produced. Media nostalgia can be seen as a way of coping with media change (Menke 2017).

In this picture the era of the Silver Screen, the Hollywood movies from the 1930s to 1950s is referred to. The black, white and grey create an atmosphere of an aesthetic past. Film scholar Paul Grainge has written about monochrome memories as an effect of pastness. Black and white are part of a stylistic code associated with “intellectual abstraction, artistic integrity, documentary realism, archival evidence, fashion chic and film classicism” (Grainge 2002) Most important here are the artistic effect and the reference to “fashion chic” and “film classicism”.

The fourth picture shows Rina Bambina in front of an American oldtimer.

A car accompanied by a model is a classic picture especially known from advertising, a visual cliché. Visual clichés are useful in constructing nostalgia, because through their conventionality they show what is both familiar, culturally accepted and attractive. The hair style and dress of Rina Bambina both add to the pastness of the picture of the old car, but there is also a contrast: the angular “male” automobile and the non-angular female model. The representation of opposites can create nostalgia, think of binary combinations like: the past and the present, time and place, the city and the country, community and society or tranquility and acceleration. Here female and male nostalgia are thematized, by ways of the classic dress and the classic car.

The fifth photo is again of bathing Rina Bambina.

Chaste bathing clothes referring to the past, combined with a hat, ear drops and an artful hairstyle make the viewer wonder about a supposedly more innocent and more beautiful time period. The picture shows the playfulness that was present in pin up pictures from the fifties. It is in a sense a pastiche of the conventions of the pin up pictures from the imitated time period with a cheerful pretty girl in an attractive but not provocative pose. It is about what semioticians call the provenance of the pictorial language: we have seen these kinds of pictures before and that creates the appeal (Kress and van Leeuwen 2002). There is a stark contrast with the pornography and nudity that is omnipresent all over the internet. In this sense the viewer and also the model time travel to a different mentality, a different cultural period.

The sixth photo refers to gangster movies of the past.

The retro model is seen here as a femme fatale in noir fiction. Where the other pictures connote an innocent time, this photo constructs a somewhat different story. The femme fatale is a stock figure in fiction; a noir or gangster movie or book is not complete without a seductive woman. It is a gender stereotype that was present in the fictions of the past, but is of course still used in Hollywood blockbusters. Here associations with Faye Dunaway in Polanski’s China Town are part of the appeal of the retro picture. Rina Bambina has acquired a different persona in this photo from the 1950s pin up retro pictures discussed above. The pose and smile make the photo also somewhat ironic; the model plays a game with the past.


  1. Working as a retro photo model: About authenticity, identity and individuality in the scene

5.1 Preparing and Performing Retro Photo Shoots

The first step of preparing a (retro) photo shoot usually involves gathering inspirations and ideas for the overall theme of the shoot “mood board”). Based on the mood board, outfits, accessories and styling (hair and makeup) will be defined. The scouting for photo shoot location and the determination of the exact time of the day are also important. During the photo shoot, the retro model uses body language, posing and face expressions that are characteristic for a certain time period for performance (e.g. female pinup poses in a 1950’s themed photo shoot). Besides body-related performance, the mindset of the photo model plays an important role in the process of capturing a moment. Trying to block out the outside world, a certain degree of depersonalization takes place, which allows the photo model to focus and “live the moment”.

Another important part of creating a retro photo is the final retouch post hoc. Although digital retouch is usually carried out by the photographer, some retro photo models work on their own pictures or have a say in the process.

When it comes to the motives and the arrangements in retro photo shoots, there are three main fields of interest with partially contradicting observations in the field of retro photography (e.g. Caoduro 2014; Picarelli 2015). The next three sections will give an overview of the aspects that play a role in practicing nostalgia in retro photo shoots.

5.2 Authenticity: True Vintage or Modern Mix?

The looks and designs of the retro scene(s) where photo models are active, are just as diverse as the lifestyle of the past decades themselves. Considering the degree of authenticity, a distinction can be drawn between two groups of retro photo models: On the one hand, there are models who put emphasis on depicting a “true vintage“ scene, meaning that clothes, makeup, hairstyling, accessories and props used in the photo shoot are either original pieces or look exactly alike (“true vintage group”). On the other hand, there are photo models who prefer the combination of present-day items with original ones („modern mix group”). When it comes to clothing and accessories, the latter group rather uses items that mimic the look of a certain time period, but keep with the modern time (e.g. denims, handbags, jewelry or artificial hair flowers).

The two groups often have different approaches to planning and conducting a photo shoot. The true vintage group draws its inspiration preferably from original photo material (e.g. Hollywood portraits from the 1950’s) and tries to come very close to the original regarding dress code, hair and makeup. Original models from the past are typically claimed as role models for the recreation of the photo look. Furthermore, an authentic looking location (e.g. historic or original rebuild location) is preferred for the photo shoot. During the photo shoot, special emphasis is placed on the correct lighting design and technical realization. The goal is to copy the exact photo shoot setup of the past decade in order to recreate the look of the original photograph. In general, true vintage fans try to implement the final look of the picture during the photo shoot as far as possible. This practice can also include using analogue cameras or special lenses on the part of the photographer. Moreover, original props like classic cars and items that can be found in a specific decade are used to clearly represent the look of this particular era. The true vintage photo model usually adapts posing and face expression to the original artwork, trying to copy the genuine photo model as much as possible. The retouching process after the photo shoot has a great impact on creating an authentic looking retro photo. For true vintage photos, the look of the final picture is highly affected by the color correction. When working with digital photography, filters that create a monochrome look (black and white or sepia), are widely used. Contrast and brilliance also play an important role (e.g. in technicolor looks). Artificial grain and scratches can be added and selected areas of the photo can be faded out (e.g. vignettes). In general, digital retouch is used to recreate the look of a true vintage, analogue photograph (Picarelli 2015), however, within a certain set of rules and presets that mostly change hue, saturation and sharpness.

Whereas the true vintage group attaches great importance to the authenticity of photo looks and the usage of original (or historical correct) items during the photo shoot, the modern mix group stretches the rules in the creation of retro images. Photo models are inspired not only by historic photographs, but also by modern trends in photography. In photo shoots, original clothing items are left out entirely or are combined with modern fabric and prints (e.g. animal-, skulls- or cherry-prints). In general, prints and colors appear brighter. It is also allowed to combine elements of different eras, e.g. women embodying show girls in fishnet stockings (fashionable in the early 20th century) with playful shorts (fashionable in the 1960’s). Regarding photo retouching, the focus in this group is not on the exact recreation of original photographs, but on a mixture of a general retro look with a modern touch. Instead of fading out the color of the picture, settings of color and contrast are generally used to produce a brighter and sharper image.

The degree of authenticity that is pursued before, during and after the photo shoot is related to the emotional experience of the photo model. The next section explains how photo models (partially) create an identity based on feelings of pastness that are experienced in the process of taking pictures.

5.3 Identity Construction – Is it really you or just a retro version of you?

Photography is a tool of creation and expression, and is therefore highly connected to the identity of the retro model. Models benefit from playing a role during a photo shoot in order to live out a phantasy (Boym 2008). Romanticizing about the exciting or positive aspects of past decades, models slip into the roles of 1920’s gangsters à la “Bonnie and Clyde“ or Hollywood stars like James Dean and Marilyn Monroe. It is not so much the yearning for living in the according era, but the play with certain characteristics of the era to create a thrilling contrast to the present-day life. Furthermore, identifying with a real person from a past decade (e.g. a celebrity) can affect the construction of the photo model’s own identity.

This form of escapism has an impact on the model’s perceived identity, during the photo shoot as well as afterwards. Another important element is the highlighting of particular personality traits through pictures. Using photo shoots to get in touch with body and emotions is a powerful way of achieving self-acceptance and self-confidence. By showing the “real self” in a retro picture, photo model share a passion that might not always be accepted in their everyday life.

Of particular interest is the continuum of psychological depersonalization and mindfulness for the present-day self while taking pictures and while looking at the final result of the photo shoot. Using original items from a certain time period and shooting in a historic location can evoke an emotional closeness to the previous owner or, more general, to the people that were living in this past decade. Here, the degree of depersonalization can be higher, due to the feeling of taking someone else’s place. In contrast, shifting attention from the authenticity of the scene and clothing style of a specific decade to the personality of the model in the present-day, the expression of individuality is priority.

In sum, choosing the degree of authenticity in a photo shoot has an impact on the model’s self-perception. This identity construction also affects the way the final result of the photo shoot is shared with the model’s community. The next section will provide an overview of the communication about photographs with others, e.g. via social media.

5.4 Group Membership – Conformity or Individuality

When it comes to the publication of photos to an audience, there is an emotional balance between closeness and distance to a social group that affects the model (Picarelli 2015). In this day and age, photo models use their pictures to connect with a like-minded group and to create common ground and feelings of belonging and validation (Murray 2008). Otherwise, photos are used to showcase individuality within a social group, e.g. by combining different styles of past decades to create a more modern, personalized look. By creating a distinctive mark, the model wants to leave his/her trace of life, especially in the context of digital mass consumption (Picarelli 2015). The purpose of portrayal is related to the model’s sense of distance or closeness to the retro community.

Moreover, the motivation of the model to chose the retro look for a photo shoot affects the way of inside emotions and outside communication afterwards. Personal nostalgia, meaning the photo model is motivated by personal interests (e.g. wants to wear the clothes of his/her ancestors) differs from societal nostalgia, where models are inspired by others. The source of motivation plays an important role for the model, regarding both the value of authenticity and the construction of identity in photography.

            In conclusion, all three aspects compose a two-dimensional scale. Regarding authenticity, the desire of creating true vintage scenes and looks contrasts the “wiggle room“ of combining different styles of the past decades with a more modern look. The identity construction of the retro model can be understood as creating a “retro persona” that is differentiated from the present-day or can be understood as the constant awareness of the own identity during and after the photo shoot. Lastly, the group membership provides a platform for discovering similarities, resulting in conformity, or a platform for highlighting the model’s individuality.

The next chapter aims at the empirical measurement of the subjective importance of authenticity, the degree of depersonalization in identity construction and the way of communication with the retro group on the photo model’s part. For data collection, a psychological online-survey with 60 retro photo models was conducted including questions on authenticity, identity construction and group membership.



6. Empirical Questions

Based on the insights of the previous chapter, it is of interest to make the retro model’s inner state measurable. The first idea is to figure out the current trend regarding the practice of nostalgia in retro photo shoots. Therefore, retro models were asked to decide between the two dimensions of the scale “authenticity”, “identity construction” and “group membership” (three questions/items per scale). Secondly, the interaction between the items is interesting for the understanding of the photo model’s psychological state in conjunction with photography.

Scale 1 – Authenticity: In general, does the retro model value true vintage quality of the photo shoot and photo looks or does the retro model prefer the playful combination of different retro styles (or the combination of present-day and retro styles)?

Scale 2 – Identity Construction: In general, does the retro model depersonalize from the own self and slip into a persona or does the retro model represent his/her own true self exclusively?

Scale 3 – Group Membership: In general, does the retro model seek validation, closeness and belonging or does the photo model put the emphasis on individuality by creating a unique mark?

7. Empirical Method

7.1 Participants

Participants were 60 retro photo models (53 females, 7 males, aged between 18-49 (M = 35 years, SD = 7 years). Most of the participants were located in Europe (n = 49)[1]. Mean years of experience as a retro photo model was M = 35 years (SD = 4 years). Forty-five percent of the study sample consisted of professional retro photo models[2]. Participants were recruited via social media (Instagram and Facebook).

7.2 Procedure

Nine questions/items on the topic of authenticity, identity construction and group membership (three questions per topic) were assessed with an online survey tool ( Dichotomous items were rated on a nominal scale (yes/no answers). The questions can be found in attachment (see below).

7.3 Data Analysis

Data were collected via and transferred to SPSS[3] for data analysis. One participant had to be excluded from further analyses due to data variances higher than two standard variations of the mean.

Results of prevalence were calculated using frequencies of ratings per item. Pearson’s correlation coefficients were computed to assess the relationship between the items. For the correlation coefficient, an absolute value of ±1 indicates a perfect linear relationship between two items (Benesty, Chen, Huang, & Cohen,). Levels of significance were p < .01 (highly significant), p < .05 (significant) and p < .10 (marginal signifiant).

8. Results of the Survey

8.1 Results of Prevalence


During the photo shoot, only 15% of the retro models put emphasis on the scenery and outfits being true vintage. The majority (85%) preferred the combination of original and present-day items. When if comes to photo looks in general, 68% preferred modern photos that use certain techniques (e.g. the application of retro filters via smartphone apps) over truly authentic-looking photos (32%). More specifically, 63% preferred a look of „general pastness“ in retro photos, whereas 37% prefer the authentic pictorial representation of a time period (1920’s, 1930’s, 1940’s or 1950’s).

Identity Construction.

Only 15% identified with original figures (role models) from past decades before and during the photo shoot, whereas the majority (85%) presented him/herself exclusively throughout the creative process. Similar to this result, only 13% saw a “retro version/persona” of themselves in the final photo result, whereas 87% saw him/herself exclusively. During the photo shoot, 60% were constantly aware of the present while creating a retro moment, whereas 40% felt truly nostalgic (e.g. “like a time traveler or like in a dream”).

Group membership.

The majority (77%) used retro photography to show individual style, whereas 23% aimed at connecting with a like-minded audience. Regarding the final photo result, 63% of the retro models wanted to create an emotional closeness (e.g. “we are the same”), whereas 37% created emotional distance (e.g. “I’m different”) to their audience. Lastly, the majority of retro models (77%) started taking retro-inspired photographs because of personal nostalgia (rather intrinsic inspiration), whereas 23% were inspired by societal nostalgia.

8.2 Results of Correlations


The results of the Pearson correlation showed a significant positive association between all three items of the authenticity scale. A highly significant positive correlation was found between the general preference in photo looks and the preference for (non-)authenticity during the photoshoot, r = .32, p < .01. A marginal significant positive relationship was evident between the general preference in photo looks and the preference of the pictorial representation of pastness, r = .23, p < .10. The correlation between the preference of the pictorial representation of pastness and the preference for (non-)authenticity during the photoshoot was highly significant, r = .36, p < .01.

Authenticity and Identity Construction.

The preference of the pictorial representation of pastness correlated significantly with the self-identification in the final picture, r = .41, p < .01, as well as with depersonalization during the photo shoot, r = .23, p < .10.

Group Membership.

There was a highly significant correlation between the pictorial connection with the retro group and the emotional position within the retro group, r = .23, p < .10.

Authenticity and Identity Construction.

The pictorial connection with the group correlated with the preference for (non-)authenticity during the photoshoot, r = -.23, p < .10, as well as with the general preference in photo looks, r = -.38, p < .01.

9. Discussion of empirical results

Summary of empirical results.

In general, the combination of retro and modern design elements and looks in retro photo shoots is more popular than historic authenticity. It is also evident that the items of the authenticity scale correlate with each other. Retro models who prefer true vintage photo looks and a historically correct pictorial representation of past decades likely prefer a true vintage scenery and authentic retouch in their own photographic material. Conversely, models who prefer a stylistic combination in photography tend to mix different retro styles (and possible modern elements) in their photo shoots and tend to use different retouch techniques (e.g. smartphone filters) to create a more general retro vibe. The results for the authenticity scale point towards a consistency in nostalgic style preference internalized by the photo model, therefore, a divisibility of models into the two groups.

Furthermore, the preference of (non-)authenticity in photography seems to be related to the feeling of identity during and after the photo shoot. A preference for general pastness over the authentic pictorial representation of a time period in photographs is connected to the awareness of the present self during the photo shoot and the representation of the true self in the final picture. The data implies that the conscious play with different retro styles is used to portray the true self, rather than to mimic original (role) models. This result is in line with the observations by Renaningtyas and colleagues (2014). It seems that depersonalization into vintage personas is not widespread among retro models. However, it should be noted that at least 40% of the models show signs of depersonalizations during the photo shoot (e.g. “feel like a time traveler”), pointing towards a more abstract and emotional, rather than a visual component of identity construction. The enhanced emotional component over visual looks is in line with the observations by Picarelli (2015) on retro-looking photography. Moreover, it can be assumed that although some retro models slip into temporary roles during the photo shoot, they still highlight the present-day self by capturing a moment in the here and now and transforming the result in an old-fashioned style.

The last conclusion is supported by the relationship between authenticity and group membership. Retro models who combine different retro-inspired stylistic elements tend to use the final photo to showcase themselves as an individual, rather than connect with a like-minded audience. However, using modern retouch techniques (e.g. smartphone filters) can be seen as an act of belonging to the retro community.

Regarding group membership, the results are also consistent with the observations by Picarelli (2015), showing that retro models tend to use their final photos to highlight their individuality. However, the general trend is towards feelings of closeness between the model and the like-minded community. It can be noted that individuality and closeness go together in the retro scene, following the slogan “We are the same, but we are different from everybody else”.

Discussion of empirical results.

It should be noted that data collection and analysis are based on explorative hypotheses. Regarding psychological attributes in retro modeling, empirical literature is scarce and further research is needed.

            Another discussion point involves the interpretation of correlative results. Correlations do not imply causation, meaning that conclusions about “the why” of a relationship can not be drawn from the data. Results merely represent trends in linear relationships (Holland, 1986).

Further moderating variables such as age, gender, but also personal factors such as creativity and personality traits play a role in practicing nostalgia in retro photo shoots and should be investigated further.

In this article, the focus on the female perspective was enhanced. Further empirical research should take gender effects into consideration. That also applies to the distribution of the study sample into professional and semi-professional retro photo models. Moreover, the preference towards a certain time period (1920’s versus 1950’s) could affect the way retro models perceive and utilize elements of nostalgia.

Lastly, an expansion of the data research would be of interest, as even photos that don’t depict any retro-inspired item or scenery can be retouched in a retrospective fashion. Renaningtyas et al. (2014) noted that „the ease of photography technology causes the production and consumption of faux vintage photos to become simultaneous and rapid“, meaning that default filters on smartphones allow the full retouch at the touch of a button, frequently without reflection by the user.

10. Conclusion

In the vast literature on nostalgia authors often choose either a qualitative (like semiotics) or a quantitative (empirical) research method. In this article, we have combined the two. Thus it can function as a model for future research on active nostalgia, research that ideally should be interdisciplinary.

In our view, nostalgia is an actively constructed positive emotion concerning the past. The study of retro modeling shows that the models can be playful or serious about the past and sometimes both, when the retro lifestyle is an integral part of identity construction.

1 n (North America) = 8, n (Asia) = 2, n (Australia/Oceania) = 1

2 Declared as „it’s more than a hobby”, meaning that they obtain a payment.

[3] IBM Corp. Released 2017. IBM SPSS Statistics for Macintosh, Version 25.0. Armonk, NY: IBM Corp.

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Questionnaire for the Online-Survey on Nostalgia in Retro Photo Shoots

Scale 1 – Authenticity

Item 1: Authenticity preference during/after the photo shoot

Question: In general, do you combine retro and present-day items for your photos or is it all true vintage (e.g. clothes, styling, accessories, props like cars…)?

Answers: 1 (All True Vintage) OR 2 (Combination)

Item 2: General preference regarding photo looks

Question; In general, do you prefer photos that look authentic/true- vintage or do you prefer modern photography that uses certain techniques (like smartphone filters, photoshop retouch…) to create a retro vibe?

Answers: 1 (Authentic look) OR 2 (Mix of modern & retro vibe)


Item 3: General preference regarding pictorial representation of pastness

Question: Is it important that the exact time period of the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s or 1950s is depicted or is the general effect of pastness more important?

Answer: 1 (exact time period) OR 2 (general pastness)

Scale 2 – Identity Construction

Item 4: Identification before/during the photo shoot

Question: In general, do you identify with certain role models (e.g. Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean…) before/ during a photo shoot or do you present yourself exclusively?

Answer: 1 (I identify with my role model) OR 2 (I identify with myself)


Item 5: Identification in the final picture

Question: If you look at your final picture after a photo shoot, do you see your true self or do you see a „retro version/persona“ of yourself?

Answer: 1 (I see a retro version) OR 2 (I see my true self)


Item 6: Depersonalization during the photo shoot

Question: During a photoshoot, do you feel truly nostalgic (like a time traveler or like you would dream) or are you constantly aware of the present moment but „creating“ a retro moment?

Answer: 1 (I feel far away from the present) OR 2 (I am constantly aware of the present)

Scale 3 – Group Membership

Item 7: Pictorial connection with the retro group

Question: Do you use your retro pictures primarily to connect with a like-minded audience or to show your individuality?

Answer: 1 (I show my group membership) OR 2 (I show my individuality)

Item 8: Emotional position within the group

Question: Looking at your final pictures: Do you want to create emotional closeness (e.g. „we are the same“) or emotional distance (e.g. „I’m different“)  to your audience?

Answer 1 (emotional closeness) OR 2 (emotional distance)


Item 9: Inspiration for nostalgia

Question: What made you start taking retro photos? Was it personal Nostalgia (feeling nostalgic and showing it) or societal Nostalgia (inspired by others)?

Answer: 1 (personal nostalgia) OR 2 (societal nostalgia) – re-coded