Last week I went to hear Kyler Zeleny give a talk about his Found Polaroids project at Nuvango in Toronto, where The Impossible Project, which produces viable instant film for use in both older Polaroid and new Impossible cameras, and the Found Polaroids Project are installed through July 3. Kyler has been collecting Polaroids for a while, often buying them on ebay where there is a robust market for found photographs broken up from collections found in auctions and estate sales. His fascination with Polaroids is in no small part driven by an appreciation that these instant pictures are unique material objects. Each picture traces a path through the world that cannot be tracked through metadata or headers. This is not to say that they can’t be tracked at all and when Kyler purchases a Polaroid archive his first move is to try to repatriate it to its owners, to close the loop.
Most of the photographs, unsurprisingly, are not reunited with their owners, and Kyler, embracing their “lostness,” posts them on his Found Polaroid Project site as part of a flash fiction project, in which visitors are invited to take the photographs as inspiration to write very short stories. This kind of participation involves a level and type of engagement that audiences do not usually commit to photographs, certainly not those of strangers. The writer is encouraged to take a kind of ownership over the picture; the picture becomes a means for the writer to work something out. The photograph is given a new life.
I met Kyler at the opening for Zun Lee’s Fade Resistance exhibit at the Gladstone Hotel, curated by Wedge Curatorial projects, in February, in which Zun displayed some 800 Polaroids from his collection of 3500 found Polaroids depicting African-American life. The possibility of hundreds of people gathering to celebrate pictures on public display that were originally made as private mementos – now disconnected from their owners - spoke to the essential contradiction resonating at the heart of the exhibit. “Who do these pictures belong to?” asked Zun at the symposium later that weekend. “What happened to them?” Why did someone not care enough to hold onto them? This, for Zun, is the price of these pictures that celebrate happy moments: they are no longer with the people for whom they would be most meaningful. In light of this dynamic, the pictures feel less celebratory, more elegiac.
But Zun seeks to make them visible in order to form a counter-narrative to prevailing media narratives, such as those that define Black Lives Matter principally around protest. bell hooks, in her essay “In our Glory: Photography and Black Life”, notes the power of black vernacular photography: “We saw ourselves represented in these images not as caricatures, cartoonlike figures; we were there in full diversity of body, being and expression, multidimensional. Reflecting the way black folks looked at themselves in those private spaces, where those ways of looking were not being overseen by a white colonizing eye, a white supremacist gaze, these images created ruptures in our experience of the visual.” In the everyday, in private, intimate, ordinary moments; in rituals; in play; with family and friends: this, indicates Zun, is what black lives look like as they are lived, as they matter. And not only what is in the images, but again, the physicality of the Polaroids themselves: written on, creased, worn, they show the physical traces of their histories, they are artifacts.
This awareness of the kinds of links that materiality can enliven brings me to “Moon Shot,” a beautiful essay written by my childhood friend Ted Anthony for Midcentury Modern. Ted discusses a photograph that his father made off of a television screen of a moon landing some 45 years ago, touching on the changes in the character of media since then and how different media shape our relationship, as consumers, with knowledge and distances, and with the implications of an image's instant reproducibility. He addresses the photograph's undeniability, as linked to his memories of his father, his own childhood, and what the world felt like decades ago. Here is a photograph that is not lost, and which fully inhabits its aura for Ted. By writing about it to the world, by reproducing it digitally, Ted has created a new life for his cherished image of the moon landing. He has also extended the journey of the original Polaroid, now potentially meaningful to a world of observers, not just to his father's son.
With regard to the purchase of photo collections at auction, the work of Vivian Maier was discovered in the auction of contents of unpaid storage lockers. (Here’s an essay about Vivian Maier I wrote several years ago when her story first broke.) A new Vivian Maier exhibition opens at Stephen Bulger Gallery this week, “Meaning Without Context”, featuring many images by the mysterious nanny-photographer that have never been exhibited before (opening Thursday June 23).
Melissa Catanese’s books drawing from Peter Cohen’s archive of found photographs (not only Polaroids) repurpose found images in the service of beautiful visual narratives, often counter-narratives. The images collectively come to mean something that they could not in their original contexts; her book Dive Dark Dream Slow was shortlisted at Paris Photo/Aperture Photobook Awards in 2012.)
Melissa and Ed Panar run Pittsburgh-based bookshop Spaces Corners. Spaces Corners will open a satellite location at the new ICP, offering a curated selection of books in conjunction with the inaugural exhibition Public/Private/Secret which opens tomorrow, Thursday June 23.
Kyler Zeleny (website, video, Found Polaroids)
INSTANT: The Impossible Project and the Found Polaroid Project
Zun Lee (website, Fade Resistance)
bell hooks 1995 “In Our Glory: Photography and Black Life” in Art on My Mind: Visual Politics, pp. 54-64, New York: The New Press
Ted Anthony 2016 "Moon Shot" Midcentury Modern www.midcenturymodernmag.com
"Meaning without Context" at Stephen Bulger Gallery
Melissa Catanese (Dive Dark Dream Slow, Spaces Corners)