Kim Kardashian has been consumed by 1989. Not the actual year but the look of the year or, perhaps more accurately, an idea of what the year should look like in photographs. The actual year is arbitrary, merely a point to describe Kardashian’s new photographic aesthetic. Her newest obsession, the stylized vintage-looking photography on her social media feeds and website, lives decidedly in the past. Or, at least, it poses as the past. The specific year doesn’t really matter, nor does it matter what 1989 really looked like; nostalgia is the only thing that matters.
Kardashian decided to inhabit in the past sometime in January, after a hotel robbery in Paris, after rumors surrounding her husband’s health and the stability of the Kardashian-West marriage plastered tabloid pages. The timing might be coincidental but, if it were, then it would be the first time that Kim Kardashian treated herself—particularly her photographic self—so haphazardly. The decision to filter both herself and her family three decades into the past is likely a conscious one, and not just for physical flattery, particularly since Kardashian has already mastered the art of the aggressively becoming selfie. Sure, the vintage aesthetic offers a degree of physical erasure, the body’s lines and edges are flattened and unfocused, but the point seems less to filter age or blemish and more to manufacture a kind of alternative reality with a visual record of a new history to match.
The first vintage-filtered photograph Kardashian shared on Twitter was a family snapshot. Kanye West stands in the middle, flanked by Kardashian, who squats to balance Saint West, who holds his sister North’s hand. Only Saint, likely by accident, looks at the photographer; North gazes toward an invisible focal point, parents look at children. The exchange of gazes away from the camera gives the photograph a sense of candidness, as though it’s an outtake from a formal portrait that has yet to be made. “Photographer” is almost an unnecessarily formal term—there is one, but this particular kind of photograph is absorbed into a history of family snapshots, relished not for the photographer’s artistry or formal construction but rather because they capture an element of feeling that only family members can actually see.
That Kardashian chose to share this photograph suggests an invitation into a private family space and into private memories. Indeed, this was reportedly taken in Oklahoma, after the family had made a pilgrimage to Donda West’s grave. According to TMZ, it was the first time the entire family had visited the grave site since her death in 2007. Kardashian didn’t make a direct reference to the visit; instead, she simply captioned the photograph “family.” She didn’t need to say much more, the photograph and its nostalgic aesthetic did the work for her.
It’s not surprising that Kardashian would choose the nostalgic filter for this particular photograph; it marked her return to both Twitter and Instagram after a two-month hiatus. She followed it up with more photographs of herself and her family, all with the same filter, all with the same feeling of a snapshot made prior to the invention of digital photography. In one, she squats again, holding a wobbly Saint as he works to stand, fingers stuck in his mother’s hair as though grasping for balance. In turn, Kardashian’s arms offer a kind of maternal steadiness, the certainty of her embrace a contrast to Saint’s uncertain legs. The pair is off-center and neither looks at the camera. Between the filter and the composition, the photograph works hard to look like an analog photograph, to signify the often accidental feel that is often the result of film rather than the purposeful curation of digital photographs.
Kardashian followed up with a series of photographs, all of her family, all taken in the same house, a house that, by appearances, lacked contemporary finishes. A photograph of her children playing, of Kanye eating, of Kanye and Saint, of Kim and Kanye. Taken as a whole, they are a chapter of a family album, made for pages that have already yellowed—for pages that, by the look of the photographs, have already existed for three decades. The photographs, like all family albums, conjure up the comfort of nostalgia, of halcyon days long gone, of children who are now adults. In doing so, they rewrite a history of the Kardashian-West family, erasing a present defined by rumors and positioning them in an idyllic past that aesthetically holds technology at a distance.
Kardashian’s turn to the past is striking in part because it’s a departure from the photographic Kardashian that lives on social media. Kardashian’s aesthetic has always been highly polished, an embrace of fiction of the image, overt in its performativity. Kardashian’s selfies are fun because she never took up residence in the realm of the natural; never occupied that space of feminine beauty that masks its labor. Her joyful employment of the well-lit, Photoshopped selfie was part of her appeal; the photographs she shared reveled in their obvious reference to own her pseudo-celebrity.
The filtered photos are—to some extent—a turn away from a particularly post-modern approach to celebrity. They are clearly posed but unlike her selfies, they try to pretend that the photograph wasn’t made so much as taken, punctuated with the accidents of analog film. Here, Kardashian doesn’t just filter out the look of a digital photograph, she also filters the presentation of time. The Kardashian-West family, stuck forever in 1985, resist what Susan Sontag called “time’s relentless melt.”
Kardashian isn’t alone in her pursuit of nostalgia. Celebrity, like photography, has always relied on a kind of pseudo-nostalgia. Think of Lana del Rey’s sad girl pin-up aesthetic, the kitschy retro of Katy Perry, or the smoky chanteuse look of Adele; each rely on an image that already exists, cultivated by a history of photography and film. Kardashian’s photographs lay visual claim to an emerging visual history; one barely old enough to be considered “history” by Kardashian and her peers, but old enough that an entire generation can long for a simulacrum of a decade that they can only picture through reproductions. By laying claim to the decade, Kardashian gets to plot the history of what the iconic style of the decade looks like. Naturally, it looks like her.
The recreation of the past, necessarily edited of its political or cultural tensions, offers up the comfort of nostalgia on a platter. The comfort is perhaps for Kardashian—in the past, she’s no longer the subject of rumors or the victim of crime—but more likely to the consumers of Kim Kardashian. The filtered photographs position Kardashian’s image into the realm of timelessness—of timeless beauty or a timeless fashion icon. Kardashian herself is turned into an icon of both past and present. Her turn toward the nostalgic inserts a visual history between herself, her consumer, and the present.
Kardashian’s history also extends to her family. Her children are transformed into heirs of her new historic dynasty, heirs to the peculiarly aristocratic claim of timelessness. The racial politics inherent to the concept of dynasty, particularly its usage in America and Europe, are erased by the filter, blanketing “the past” as a concrete place where the Kardashian-West family can take up residence without strife. The photograph lends easy credence to the notion of dynasty. The medium itself, Sontag noted, “actively promotes nostalgia.” And lineage, with its implications of unbroken time, needs the warm feelings of nostalgia to survive.
Think of how the concept of dynasty slyly presents itself in photographs of Prince George. His clothes look as if they were preserved sometime in the 19th century, tucked into a wardrobe (these kinds of clothes are inevitably stored in an antique wardrobe) where they waited until they fit an appropriately adorable prince. But Prince George’s modern-made, vintage-looking clothes point directly to a long history of reproduction that defines his very person and determines his inheritance: the throne of the United Kingdom. In photographs, Prince George’s clothes seem natural (even when held by his mother in modern clothing) but it is nostalgia that renders the look natural.
Neither Saint nor North have access to such history. Both Kanye West and Kardashian are clearly interested in the ancestry, in the public making of the private family. In between the selfies practically synonymous with Kardashian, she shares numerous childhood pictures of herself and her sisters, particularly the posed family studio portrait that typifies American family photographs. Similarly, during West’s Life of Pablo tour, he sold and often wore a memorial shirt featuring Donda West and Robert Kardashian. The shirts, with “In loving memory,” scrawled above spray-painted portraits had the look of street art graffiti that, by 1989, were airbrushed and synonymous with the camp of mall kiosks. On social media, West has also used that nostalgic filter to share photographs of his family (namely, a Christmas family portrait in December) but Kardashian does it more convincingly, perhaps because photography is her domain.
Kardashian’s filter-produced nostalgia lays claim to a timeless dynasty as well as a future for her children. Kardashian has also shared photographs of her sisters filtered into the past, and lipstick tycoon Kylie Jenner has as well. The nostalgia is less endearing and less convincing when applied to the entirety of the Kardashian-Jenner family, however. Perhaps Kim Kardashian’s claim to timeless is more convincing. Perhaps it’s simply that time is the enemy of nostalgia; it inserts itself between viewer and memory or a sense of memory. It is necessary to forget before the act of remembering can begin. It’s harder to forget the Kardashian-Jenner sisters because their media spectacles are constant.
“Photographs,” Susan Sontag wrote in On Photography, “give people an imaginary possession of the past that is unreal, they also help people take a possession of space in which they are insecure.” If Sontag’s description of the photograph is correct, then Kardashian’s nostalgic filter works as a method of authorship, a means of rendering a fictional past of solely her creation. One of Kardashian’s appeals has always been that she is the author of herself or, at least, her public self—the interest of the narrative she spins may be debatable, but the effectiveness is not. Here, somewhere in 1989, Kardashian’s nostalgic photographs imply that her greatest work of art is herself.