A Life and a Death in Polaroids

Memory  /  Time Travel
Scroll this

In 2008, people started stumbling across a mysterious web site with no apparent author or contact information — just scans of thousands of Polaroid pictures, carefully archived by year, one for every calendar day since 1979. 18 years worth.  Closer examination showed the photos documented a life in all its small moments, right up until what appeared to be illness and death.

“Initially it wasn’t meant to be looked at by anyone,” says one of the site’s curators. “A group of us were putting on an exhibition of the photos and the site was a place where we could look at the pictures while we talked on the phone.”


But no one likes a good puzzle like netizens; word spread, sleuthing ensued, the server hosting the site started crashing from the load, and at last the mystery was solved. The site was the work of Hugh Crawford and Betsy Reid, a tool to support an exhibit of rephotographs of the actual Polaroids at Bard College entitled PHOTO OF THE DAY: 1979-1997. The photos were taken by their late friend Jamie Livingston, who’d been given a Polaroid SX-70 camera while a film student at Bard. Livingston’s P.O.D (Polaroid a Day) project, a journal of his life stored in small suitcases and wooden fruit crates, started almost immediately after. It would continue until the very day of his death from a brain tumor, the blurred bedside image thick with pathos, yet faithfully catalogued among the rest. Livingston died on his 41st birthday; the exhibit opened on what would have been his 50th. 6,697 photos.

“It was always interesting to see what Jaime deemed worthy of a P.O.D.,” writes Reid. “My husband remembers his own 30th birthday party in his photo studio on Ludlow Street: ‘Hundreds of people filled my loft and the party snaked down Ludlow Street to Stanton. But what did Jamie take a picture of? A potato chip or something. It was a gorgeous shot, though.’ ”

And this is just the thing: Livingston’s images are unvarnished and seemingly random, pre-internet Snapchat posts with a lifespan. They’re both intimate and chaotic as only moments in real life can be, a stark counterpoint to the carefully tended ‘personal brands’ of our era.

There’s a comment section on Crawford and Reid’s site; many of the posts are from friends who recognize themselves in pictures, or fill some of the backstory to particular images. Then there are those who continue to stumble across it, to be stunned:

It is such a strange feeling to be able to look at someone’s life and scan through it – see his happy moments, see his sad moments, see him when he was full of life and finally draining from life. I am amazed, and the familiarity this blog evokes. Although young today, I know the only certainty I have about the future in life, is death – all the things in between it is up to me to decide how my story will go. Thank you Jamie for this, for you, for your artistry. Your work touches me more than any Picasso or Michelangelo in the world.


(You can see the full collection here.)

Next up: A Desperate Swipe at Immortality: Marc Tasman’s 10-Year Polaroid Self-Portrait Project


Also in the series Magic vs. the Bony Guy: Six Lifespan Projects That Speak to Us All