Polaroids are one-of-a-kind photographs. Canadian visual sociologist Kyler Zeleny has amassed over 6,000 of them largely because he values their “oneness.”
“The Polaroid itself can never be reproduced,” Zeleny explains. “The chemicals and the process that take place in a certain time and space can never be redone.”
Through the digital audio connections made available by Skype software, Zeleny and I chat about the mystique of the tactile photographs’ “object journeys,” in their voyages from getting instantaneously snapped and developed as far back as the 1970s, on into his personal vault–which he describes as “an obscure closet on a farm” that’s “in the middle of nowhere.” These pictures sit in stacked boxes, organized by each batch he had collected.
Dozens of Zeleny’s Polaroid portraits are now available for public visual viewing in the digital form. He has curated about 130 portraits that he posted on the site, Found Polaroids. The project also welcomes public submissions of flash-fiction short stories that interpretively or imaginatively describe the characters documented in these timeworn pictures.
So, whether you feel intrigued by the clawing hands of the (then) young lady who sits behind a cluttered desk in Polaroid #88, or inspired by the semi-smiling, suntanned older man who stands ready to barbecue in robustly red attire in #117, you are invited to speculate on their circumstances with your very own words.
“I do like the stories that have the little quip at the end,” Zeleny comments on the submissions he’s been receiving, which are 250-300 words in length.
Found Polaroids was recently featured on The Guardian, who described the project as a mission to connect with the actual individuals depicted. Numerous articles consequently reported this spin, Zeleny says. He continues that though Found Polaroids had originally experimented with the re-connection approach, they realized that it was probably unlikely, so shifted the focus more to welcoming creative narratives.
Alas, one of the women photographed in Found Polaroids actually did contact Zeleny; the parties have since been in correspondence via email.
In the future–possibly in five years’ time–Zeleny plans to cull from the Found Polaroids short stories and publish a book with the respective images. He also envisions a live exhibition, in which the portraits will be posted on the wall, accompanied by headphones so that attendants can immerse in the original visual and created audio experiences of the pictures.
Another idea he has is to eventually let others sift through his thousands of Polaroid pictures and pick ones they want to feature for the project.
Zeleny acknowledges that although these Polaroid themselves are existentially unique, working with photo archives is not a rare idea, noting that the archive has been greatly “explored in recent years.” As he sees it, in our increasingly digital-centered contemporary culture, individuals “are really reconnecting with physical images in a time where we take more photos than ever but develop far less than what would be proportionate to decades ago.”
Feature photo courtesy of Terri Monahan.
All Polaroid photos courtesy of Found Polaroids.