Are We Post-Lifestyle?
In an Instagram littered with #sponsored posts, the dream of aspiration is dead
We had macaroni for lunch every day
except Sunday, when a small quail was induced
to be served to us. Why do I tell you these things?
You are not even here.
—John Ashbery, “This Room”
One unseasonably warm January day, I head to the intersection of Washington and Water streets in Brooklyn. This intersection is not a landmark in and of itself, but rather the framing for a photograph. Washington Street runs perpendicular to the water, pointing north toward the Manhattan skyline and the Manhattan Bridge. It’s a view that makes the heart soar — popularized by the poster for Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (1984) — but increasingly, it’s a view to collect.
Groups of friends take turns posing in front of the bridge as it straddles the distant Empire State Building. The young people here are following a map that has already been geotagged by Instagrammers of the past. The “placeness” of the place is not in the cobblestone street below or the towering bridge above, but the intersection’s function as a set of popular photo coordinates.
“How did you find this spot?” I ask a 24-year-old tourist from the Philippines.
“It’s famous,” she says, smiling.
In 1980, French theorist Roland Barthes published Camera Lucida, a slim volume in which he scrutinized his attraction to certain types of photography. An 1854 photograph of Islamic architecture in Granada, Spain, touched him deeply. In the photo, a male figure leans against a crumbling arcade. A palm frond stands erect in the middle distance, and receding turrets suggest a labyrinth just beyond the margins.
“It is quite simply there that I should like to live,” Barthes wrote. The sensation of viewing the photograph came over him as a sort of déjà vu of longing: “It is fantasmic, deriving from a kind of second sight which seems to bear me forward to a utopian time, or to carry me back to somewhere in myself.” Barthes feels like he has been there before. He wants to go there again. “For me, photographs of landscape (urban or country) must be habitable, not…