Article submitted to the Polaroid Originals Magazine by DJ Pangburn.
In Amsterdam’s red light district, as the late 70s gave way to the 80s, two conceptual artists from New York City became unlikely documentarians of the area’s lively bar scene. Using a Polaroid SX-70 camera, Marc Miller and Bettie Ringma hopped from gay discos to tourist traps and soccer bars, and many places in between, capturing instant analog portraits of the city’s various denizens, who, much to their surprise, happily paid for photos. The artistic collaborators showed these images in a 1980 exhibition, which they are now resurrecting in the show ‘Amsterdam Polaroids’, recently on display at Stigter Van Doesburg Gallery in Amsterdam.
As Miller tells Polaroid Originals, the pair purchased their first Polaroid camera in 1979, while still living in New York City. They were just a couple of conceptual artists who were using the SX-70 for a performance they were staging at a Soho art gallery, involving the pseudo-celebrity Al Goldstein, who was then famous as the publisher of a sleazy sex tabloid called Screw. Miller and Ringma, along with their neighbor, Curt Hoppe, made what they jokingly referred to as “Paparazzi Self-Portraits”—pictures of themselves with famous people.
“Goldstein, who was a hog for attention, agreed to come to the gallery to sign a painting that Curt made of the two of them together,” Miller recalls. “After the signing, Al posed with members of the audience who each got a photo of themselves with Al taken with our new Polaroid camera.”
When Miller and Ringma moved to Amsterdam later that year, they took the SX-70 with them. It was an early model—one with manual focus that utilized integral print film that developed automatically. As they became more serious about their polaroid photography, the two purchased a newer model SX-70, which came with sonar autofocus and a built-in flash. It proved to be the perfect medium for Amsterdam’s dark bars.
“At first we were unsure if people would actually buy pictures, but it turned out to be amazingly easy,” says Miller. “Amsterdam had a vibrant bar culture, and apparently we were the first to try selling instant photo portraits. We like to think that the Dutch tavern paintings done in the 17th century by artists like Adriaen Brouwer and Jan Steen paved the way.”
Miller notes that Ringma’s “charm and linguistic talents” helped in obtaining permission from bar owners and the subjects, although the fact that customers were often drunk certainly helped. “All we needed to do was say ‘Polaroid photo, 6 guilders’ and show a small board with a couple of examples,” Miller says. “During our first night out we took 20 pictures, and it rapidly grew from there as we learned the best bars and developed a pool of regular customers who wanted new pictures whenever we crossed paths.”
The duo alternated between working the camera and collecting the money while the photos developed. But unlike today’s digital photography, it was never just point-and-click. The film was expensive, and there were no do-overs—unless, of course, the patrons were gracious enough to pay for another.
“The pictures look spontaneous but we actually directed most of them,” says Miller. “If there was something distracting in the background, we changed our angle or asked people to move. If you look closely you can see that people are aware of the camera. We’d try to hype them up a bit and waited for just the right animated moment.”
Miller and Ringma typically visited bars two or three times a week. Eventually, everyone came to know them—they were part of the scene, not outsiders. The equation changed a bit when the two began taking Polaroid photographs for their own project, but by then the trust factor had been established. And it didn’t take long before Miller and Ringma decided they wanted to take photos for an exhibition of Polaroid photos.
At the time, Polaroid gave grants to artists, so the two approached the company’s representative in Amsterdam, who gave them a free case of film for the exhibition. Miller and Ringma also later approached the Netherlands’s Department of Cultural Affairs, which agreed to hire a video artist to follow them around as they took photographs. And a number of regular portrait customers gave the two copies of their pictures so they could appear in the exhibition.
“We plastered the bars with posters about a month before the exhibition—it was quite an event,” Miller remembers. “All the newspapers in Holland wrote about it. The popular weekly magazine Nieuwe Revu paid us for a six-page color spread. We were suddenly celebrities.”
Subsequently, whenever the two went out to take pictures, people greeted them by name. Some even followed Miller and Ringma from bar to bar.
“At that point we were taking over 100 pictures a night—about one picture every three minutes,” Miller estimates. “Since we had announced in the Nieuwe Revu article that we were returning to New York, a couple of competitors emerged eager to take over the business.”
Miller and Ringma call the process of using the SX-70 and integral print film “pure magic,” allowing the duo to capture uninhibited pictures of an amazing variety of people. Upon return to New York, an art history professor saw their Polaroid photographs and arranged for them to be displayed along large, open, street-level passageway at the Graduate Center of City University on 42nd Street, right across from the New York Public Library.
By this time Miller and Ringma had separated and were no longer working together. While Ringma continued taking Polaroid photos in New York clubs and Barcelona bars, Miller says the process was never quite as easy as it was in Amsterdam. Miller, meanwhile, got involved with a video magazine covering art, storing his archive of Polaroid photos in a Brooklyn basement.
While recently talking to a Dutch Vice reporter about the duo’s earlier project, Bettie Visits CBGB, Miller mentioned the Amsterdam Polaroid photos in passing. Vice soon did a follow-up piece on these Polaroid photographs, which laid the groundwork for the recent exhibition at Stigter Van Doesburg Gallery, arranged by their friends, Oscar Van Gelderen and Manuela Klerkx.
“One of the things that make the Amsterdam Polaroid images unique is that cumulatively they embody a commercial photography practice that has now largely disappeared because of the advent of cellphone cameras,” says Miller. “In most instances, Polaroid photos sold in bars have scattered to the wind. We have generally resisted selling individual Polaroid photographs because we feel it is important to keep the collection together.”
The gallery suggested that Miller and Ringma put together a core collection of 250 photos, which would only be sold as a single unit to either a museum or serious art collector. Some Polaroid photos are being sold individually, while the duo scanned and made digital print enlargements from select others. Miller notes that he and Ringma have been surprised by just how easily these analog images can be scanned and enlarged digitally without loss of clarity.
“The SX-70 camera was an amazing invention,” says Miller. “Our whole photographic practice was based on the camera’s ability to deliver attractive pictures in just a matter of minutes. Today the pictures seem like little jewels rich in color and detail.”