December 20, 2017

These Found Polaroid Photos Capture Christmases Gone By

Article Submitted to the Polaroid Originals Magazine by DJ Pangburn.

Polaroid photographs can be dreamy and surreal sometimes, vintage and nostalgic at others, depending on the light and the skill of the photographer. But while the likes of Andy Warhol and Nobuyoshi Araki have shown the artistic possibilities of the Polaroid photograph, the vast majority of instant analog images have been taken by the average person. For the last five years, Canadian photographer Kyler Zeleny has been exploring the novice image-maker’s instant analog pictures in his Found Polaroids project, the culmination of which is an eponymously-titled book that features 35 images paired with flash fiction. (Each story attempts to create a narratives out of the discarded photograph it’s based on.) Zeleny launched the Found Polaroids project shortly after coming into possession of some 6,000 Polaroid pictures by presenting them in a random order on his site, and encouraging visitors to submit stories for the images. All told, 400 stories were submitted; Zeleny whittled them down based on quality and variety, then presented the best images and accompanying stories in the book. We’ve curated a festive selection of Polaroid photographs from the Found Polaroids Project and sharing our favorites on our social media channels this holiday period to celebrate the book’s launch.

But let’s take it back a bit. Several years before launching Found Polaroids in 2011, Zeleny had been noticing a trend: western Canada’s thrift store counters, which had previously featured black and white images inside boxes of obscura, were now slowly featuring Polaroid pictures. Confounded by the images, Zeleny wanted to know something about their origins, as well as why they were now sitting in a thrift shop as some sort of re-commodified item.

Later, while working on a research paper for Goldsmiths College in London, he started scouring the internet late at night during bouts of insomnia. It was a time when Zeleny was also buying Polaroid cameras. Somehow, Zeleny jumped from buying cameras to finding batches of Polaroid photos.

For him, it was bizarre that people were selling these images. He ended up bidding on approximately 484 Polaroid photos in an eBay auction, but didn’t win. So Zeleny messaged the seller, asking if they might, in turn, contact the winning buyer about immediately selling the images. The buyer obliged, offloading the Polaroid photos on Zeleny for less than he had bought them in the auction.

“It was whimsical that I was even able to get them,” Zeleny tells Polaroid Originals. “But then I realized there are tons of them on eBay, or in New York, in Amsterdam. They’re at flea markets, it just depends on how much you want to spend.”

Zeleny says he had a real use for the Polaroid pictures – 80 to 90 percent of which featured portraits of family members – and that was a desire to interrogate them. He alludes to a quote from the 1970s which states that North Americans were shooting a billion-plus images a year in just the Polaroid format. Now, people very rarely want a physical image, especially of their extended family members for photo albums.

“How many millennials are carrying around albums and albums of physical prints?” says Zeleny. “But there are literally billions of images in this format out there. There seem to be few people interested in these images outside of myself and some photography researchers,” he adds. “I think it’s part of the regalia of what is vintage and what can we have from the past… But, you look at a lot of the Polaroid images and they don’t have the landscape — they’re very personal. It’s part of the medium itself: it’s a very personal format.”

Zeleny’s collection is not at all like an exhibit of portrait photography, which typically feature complete strangers, but which are often known to the photographer. These Polaroid photographs, instead, have been dug up and presented in a way they weren’t necessarily intended to be.

So, why is Zeleny drawn to the images of complete strangers, which he highlights and takes into the realm of imaginary speculation in Found Polaroids?

Initially, Zeleny wanted to reconnect these lost images with the people who took them. This, as he notes, proved completely futile. Then he started uploading them to the internet, and asking people to submit “random stories from random people about random images,” which culminated in the new Found Polaroids book.

“A lot of the images I would look at and they would remind me of people, or I got a sense of a story or idea of what that image was or what was happening in it,” Zeleny explains. So these are “flash fiction stories about who these people could have been rather than who they actually were in real life.”

“The intent was not to have these amazing professional writers write, it was really to have this creative outlet for anyone who wanted to write,” he adds. “The stuff I really like are the banal stories that really just speak to the every day. From there, I tried to balance the stories so that they weren’t too sad or too happy, so the people who read the book are kind of taken on the rollercoaster of what life is.”

What’s interesting about the Found Polaroids project is that the imaginative flash fiction collides with what Zeleny calls the visual tropes enacted in these Polaroid photos. Some, for instance, have a clear “It’s your birthday, smile” vibe, while others break this trope. All of the images, says Zeleny, tell viewers something general about the human condition.

It is this level of authorial control, often contrived, that makes the Found Polaroids special in Zeleny’s mind. These photographers controlled what went into family albums, and how each person was represented. For this reason, Zeleny finds them both authentic and inauthentic.

“As soon as you disintegrate [the control] and all of these images mold into one another, you get a really random sense of what the visual history of a certain time looks like from the perspective of the family album,” he says. “So, what are we really seeing when we see a family album, and what is a family album in 2017? It doesn’t exist.”

But the outdated family photo album is only one part of the Found Polaroids equation. What do we do with billions of orphaned images? Is it worth archiving them for posterity among humanity’s immense cache of images, of which Polaroid pictures are but one type?

Take the 6,000 images that came into Zeleny’s possession. They were originally taken and stored for private consumption, and no one knows for certain if they were ever intended to be saved beyond the lifetime of the families who took them. Now, the private becomes public.

Zeleny has thought a great deal about this question. One of the first times he spoke publicly about the project was in 2014 at the Canadian Sociological Foundation. One sociologist posed a question: “What are the ethics of this [project]?” Zeleny can’t get the query out of his head.

“It’s a good question and the way I answered it was this: we can just let them be destroyed or discarded, or we can actually do something creative with them,” says Zeleny. “But that doesn’t really fully answer the question because we can’t all do that.”

While Zeleny has shown Found Polaroids in a number of group exhibitions, he is hoping to secure some grant money for a solo exhibition. He would love to create massive prints, then enlist voice actors to read the flash fiction stories aloud. As for the future of the Found Polaroids project, Zeleny isn’t exactly sure what will become of it.

“There are so many projects and so many photographers working with archival material now and weaving it into their work. That’s definitely a movement in photography,” he says. “It’s related to post-photography, which is that we’ve reached a post-internet phase in the way we’re looking at images. We’re kind of seeing this conflation where we’re pulling images from the past and kind of throwing them into the present, and there is this new conversation occurring.”

All photographs courtesy of IG: @foundpolaroids