The founder of cult Instagram account 90s Art School shares what compelled him to start the analog-to-digital archive, and how the profound conversations on loss and the fleeting nature of time fostered by the project keep him going.
BY MATTHEW ATKATZ
“I can only note that the past is beautiful because one never realizes an emotion at the time. It expands later, and thus we don't have complete emotions about the present, only about the past.”
― Virginia Woolf
I have a terrible memory. That’s probably why the 90s Art School photography project has become a bit of an obsession. For the last year, I’ve attempted to create a new digital record from a time when only analog images existed. A reconstruction of memories that until now have languished in shoeboxes in the backs of closets for a quarter of a century. Paradoxically, it's an era that as young artists we documented extensively yet without present-day social media, most of the images have only been seen by a handful of people. It’s an attempt to string together disparate memories from hundreds of artists' images into a collective whole. Bringing them into today’s social sphere unlocks their hidden power.
Why are the 90s so relevant again? Because they’re the foundation on which today’s internet culture was built. We were the first generation who obsessed over minuscule details of pop culture, who methodically memorized lines and references from The Simpsons, who fixated on obscure snippets of Tarantino dialogue. We were making memes before they had a catchy name or a medium to distribute them at scale. And we were working without the aid of Google to catalog and store everything in perpetuity. It's hard to imagine now when all of human knowledge wasn’t on call from our pocket at any time. It was a time when the details of an experience were more subjective—based simply on a vague recollection rather than an empirical digital record.
It was a period of pure self-exploration—artistically, stylistically, personally. No matter who you were, the feeling of arriving at art school freshman year was one of near-instant camaraderie. A bunch of freaks, weirdos, queers, squares, punks, goths, ravers, skaters, hippies, nerds, and druggies all ended up in the same place. And suddenly we all fit in. As young artists, our ignorance was an asset. We were empty vessels filled with strong opinions informed only by gut instinct. We didn’t over-edit. We made what we felt. And with fewer resources, we were scrappier and more resourceful. We had less to lose. We were figuring out who we were and what we wanted to make and be. It was suddenly clear that we weren’t alone in trying to answer those existential questions.
We took these photos without thinking twice. As subjects, we saw the camera lens differently. At the time, we knew we’d probably never see the image snapped in that moment. And if we did, it wouldn’t be for weeks. There was no chance to edit or delete, and there was no self-conscious worry about what the world might think about the photo. Our relationship with the camera was more casual. It was a fun tool for self-expression rather than real-time self-promotion. That innocence, as both subjects and photographers, shows in every image. That's the difference for me. These are images that simply couldn’t be taken today. Not just because of the styles or technology, but because of our ability to be ourselves as the shutter clicked.
Every image produces new dialogues. Opportunities to reconnect and recollect forgotten moments. Events are foggy, not just because of the passage of time, but because many were clouded by Popov vodka, smoke, and malt liquor as they were being developed. The way the images arrive is always an excitement. Every time I look to see who has shared something from our past is a chance to jog a new memory. Biologists say that as dolphins swim side-by-side, they can ‘listen’ to the whole pods' sonar to widen their field of vision–extending it beyond their own. Each batch of images widens our collective memory. Seeing long-forgotten moments from a new point of view sometimes feels like magic or our own version of the dolphin trick.
After art school, some of my best friends began to die. I lost many friends to addiction between graduation and today. Their loss haunted me for many years. The unsaid goodbyes. The longing to have done more. The first photo on the feed is of a lost best friend from freshman year. Since then, I’ve learned of too many more passings. It's an incalculable loss. A tragedy for too many families. Friends have told me that seeing their images again was a meaningful step in their mourning. That there was catharsis in seeing them in life. And that it helped them find closure through the opportunity to reconnect with mutual friends. I know it's helped me. This project has been a gift. Like a mixtape made for a best friend. But instead of songs, this one’s made from pictures.
At its core, 90s Art school is a celebration. It’s a reminder of how fragile and fleeting life can be and an equal reminder of how much joy it can hold. It’s my reminder to live in the moment, to not get too hung up on what the world will think, to over-edit or to second guess. It’s a chance to tap back into the raw exuberance, the collective energy, and support we shared as friends, artists, and dreamers. That, I’ll never forget. And every time I feel like I’m nearing the end of this project, a new image arrives, and with it, a new story worth sharing.
But, it’s not my place to prescribe a single meaning to the whole thing. For some people, it's nostalgia. For others, it's a healing catharsis. And for many more, it’s just fun. It was a special time for the people who were there. And that alone makes it worth remembering.
Matthew Atkatz is a creative director, artist & archivist who’s currently exploring the themes of individual and collective memory, serendipity, and spontaneity through forgotten analog media in the last decade before the digital era: the 1990s.