The Aesthetics of Commonplace Nostalgia

a digital sketch of a variety of everyday objects

A set of everyday objects sprawl on a slab of cardboard, surrounded by a moat of beige carpet: a yellow iPod Nano slung atop an iPod Classic; the two-tone purple disc of a Advair inhaler; a faded mass market paperback of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; a phone with a tiny built-in keyboard; a burgundy digital camera wrapped in a crimson lanyard; old-school Apple dirty buds with metal mesh over the drivers; a package of 5 gum.

I don't know what it was about this picture of these objects. It's deeply unaesthetic, poorly lit and unedited. But for some reason, I haven't been able to stop thinking about the contents of some unknown person's purse.

I stumbled across it on Pinterest, and I found that when I clicked on it, the link brought me to a Tumblr that'd reposted it, which linked to an error message page heralding a now-deactivated Flickr account.

It's probably one of the most nostalgic sights I've encountered in years. If I had to guess when the photo was taken, I'd say 2009 or 2010. After a bit of poking around, I discovered that a number of Flickr users in the late 2000s and early 2010s (and apparently even today) posted pictures of the contents of their everyday bags. Seems like it was a thing for a while, back in the days when Flickr was popular.

More than half of the objects in the photograph are alien to me, unfamiliar, inscrutable cosmetics. But the familiar things, the items that I listed at the beginning of the post, are hauntingly familiar. I had that exact inhaler; I owned a red digital camera and those iPods and headphones. Back in the late 2000s, I had a friend who constantly chewed 5 gum, though I haven't thought of that brand since then. But seeing the package unlocked a chain of memory.

I think the image hit me so hard because it's such a particular type of nostalgia. It's not the nostalgia I might feel for a song or a movie, something I remember loving. It's nostalgia for things forgotten, everyday objects that used to be a part of my life, commonplace items that I carried with me everywhere like talismans and then abandoned as soon as they were no longer useful.

It reminds me of this Reddit post titled "That one family member's living room that you visited once in your childhood..." and accompanied by an pic of a corner of a very 1990s-looking home. Something unimportant enough to be lost in memory, but specific enough that you're transported back in time as soon as you see it.

It feels like these "what's in my bag" pictures could be an offshoot of the "liminal space" aesthetic, which features empty rooms, dark playgrounds, and deserted malls. Liminal space images are pictures of nostalgic locations without people; this is a photo of nostalgic objects without people.

It tells a story, but an incomplete one. And if it resonates with you, then the story is likely more about you than about the unknown photographer. There's a level of intimacy that's lacking in liminal space images, because the objects from the purse have been laid out and curated by a specific person, and there's a sense that if any of the objects catch your interest, then you have a connection with this stranger. How many unknown people carry the same objects that you do every day?

After this, I can't stop looking at "what's in my bag" shots from prior to 2012 or so. I've collected a Pinterest board of these mundane, ugly views of the junk that people lugged around more than a decade ago. Am I the only one? Or do you also look for instances of commonplace nostalgia?