Nostalgia has always been key to defining the return of long-gone trends and cultural commentary. We’ve seen it in the resurgence of 90s and Y2K fashion, in the soundtracks to blockbusters and in 80’s styled TV shows. What these returns to the past don't show, however, is that nostalgia comes with a price.
That’s the theme 26-year-old Australian-Filipino photographer, James Robinson – who was once fascinated with movies like Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Once Upon A Time In Hollywood’ and ‘Stranger Things’ – looked to explore in his latest and first solo exhibition On Golden Days.
By styling an exclusively Asian cast in stereotypically Old Hollywood aesthetics – beehive hairstyles, kitty heels and old continental-style suits – Robinson says he wanted to pursue the idea that our notions of western-centric glamour often trump the accuracy of real-life history. In doing so, they erase the stories of minorities from the past.
“I realised that all of these histories are told through the white lens,” Robinson told VICE. “I noticed that I wasn’t really seeing myself in there. And that this version of history that’s being told is erasing the stories of so many people.”
“So the reason that I decided to shoot this series was to take the same techniques that Hollywood often employs to rewrite history and glamorise the past. But do it with an ironic twist - exclusively shooting a cast of Asian talent.”
For Robinson, nostalgia has become an industry: an almost obsolete phenomenon that paints white history in a colour of innocence and purity.
“I think the irony in the nostalgia industry is that it’ll glamorise white history in a way that isn’t even authentic to white history either,” he says.
“It’s a big reference point that shapes western national memory, and the problem with that is the actual trauma and oppression and everything we’ve learned from our ancestors, as queer people and people of colour (POC), is minimized.”
While the oppression of POC and Queer narratives stand as a theme in Robinson’s collection, On Golden Days works more towards presenting its cast through humour and glamour than the normalized storyline of persecution that marginalised groups have often been centred around.
One of his favourite photos comes from unpacking a conversation around Hollywood masculinity in the form of the cowboy.
“We were having this conversation around what the cowboy means to the American mythical landscape, and how all these stories coded this white, really masculine archetype as a symbol to help liberate people who are living in an outlawed society,” he said.
“And how there's this level of colonialism that's inherently attached to it: white men coming into a space and saving all these people who are living this ‘dark life’.”
Robinson, whose career was born from fashion photography, snapping the likes of Vanessa Hudgens and Kylie Jenner, has been dipping his toes into more political content post-covid.
Viral works - like his burning blazer protest which commented on the pervasive nature of toxic masculinity in all boys private schools - have led him down a road where integrity, instead of“selling things”, has become his priority.
On Golden Days moves on the same current.
“If people start ingesting TV, film and culture more than they're actually investigating real history,their image of the past is going to be shaped by this untruth,” he said.
“So that’s what this shoot was for. To re-write the lens of the nostalgia industry.”