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In the 1970s and ’80s the Polaroid instant camera quickly captured family moments and delivered the images on the spot. Canadian artist Kyler Zeleny has over 6,000 of these in his Found Polaroids project, which is asking the public to create new narratives for the images with flash fiction, and to help track down the true stories behind the lost photographs.
Zeleny explained to Hyperallergic that since Polaroids are “unique productions,” with no digital files or negatives, it “means the image I have is the only one in existence. Part of trying to identity them is to understand how these very singular images — as well as precious to someone, I hope — would end up being sold online, in free markets, and discarded in garbage bins. At what point did such magical images lose their value?”
Found Polaroids launched last month, with a homepage gridded with the white-framed photographs, their saturated colors each revealing a portrait. An elderly lady is posed with an exuberant cactus, a man stands next to a Mexican flag against a painted backdrop of a winter mountain, and a pair of very glum children are at what seems to be a school event.
“The photo-as-object is something we’ve lost, and so I think it is important to interrogate this concept when we can,” Zeleny said. “Past and present I’ve used this project to think about family albums, image object journeys, and online archival work.” One of his previous projects, Out West, consisted of a travelogue documenting Canada’s rural towns through photography. Many of the images, shot in communities of between six and 1,000 residents, seemed to come from an earlier era.
With the Polaroid project just getting off the ground, only a few flash fiction stories have been contributed so far. Each is between 250 and 350 words, and most fixate on the instant of the shutter’s snap. One, by Anna Sachs, considers a woman in a bathing suit smiling in a green room: “She stared at the photo and wondered at how strange it was to see something entirely different in herself than she had as a younger woman.” And Kat Ward imagines the history behind a man gazing from a balloon-adorned balcony: “Sighing and staring off into the distance, Howard heard the familiar click, click whir of the Polaroid camera.”
Found Polaroids follows an ongoing curiosity about these retro relics, from Flickr groups dedicated to Polaroids gone astray, to the book FOUND Polaroids by Jason Bitner, co-creator of Found Magazine. The Polaroids not only reveal these private, vulnerable moments, they’re also a lost medium — Polaroid ceased production of the instant film in 2008. It’s now kept alive by initiatives like the Impossible Project. While most of the people and situations in Zeleny’s Polaroids remain mysterious, he did manage to make contact with twins in cheerleading outfits. “I still have the image but hope to send it soon, and hopefully they’ll take a picture of them with the Polaroid,” he said. “I’d love to see the transformation and to see an image move full circle.”
View the photographs and contribute stories at Found Polaroids.