Yen Issue 43: A life through a different lens

05-23-81

Filmmaker, circus performer and photographer Jamie Livingston took a Polaroid photograph every day from March 1979 to October 1997 – the day he died.

What can one glean from 6697 Polaroid photos? Jamie’s visual diary begins in his student days studying film at Bard College in New York. From very early on his obsessions and interests are evident. Film equipment, musical instruments, circus paraphernalia, baseball games, friends – all were a constant theme in his life. The photos were by far his biggest obsession though and numerous times we see them spread over the floor of his loft, or in later years, when the collection became much larger, a basketball court.

Many of the photos are truly beautiful and it is clear that Jamie became quite the Polaroid pro, figuring out, how to, for example, capture time lapse or multiple exposure compositions on the unsophisticated beast that is the polaroid camera.

We do become privy to his thoughts too – in little editorials in the form of permanent marker on walls or the photos themselves. “Do I hate photo pressure? The photo doesn’t always have to be nice,” Jamie wrote once.

Jamie’s friend, Hugh Crawford is now the custodian of his legacy. After promising Jamie the project wouldn’t die with him, Hugh and another of Jamie’s friends, Betsy Reid, organised an exhibition of  his photos for the 10th anniversary of his death. The collection is also available to view online organised by year and dated in sequence (see Jamie Livingston’s Photo of the Day at photooftheday.hughcrawford.com).

According to Hugh, Jamie acquired a polaroid camera in 1979 and realised he was taking a picture every day in the first week. From then he continued to do so. “Jamie was the sort of person who was able to rather casually get something started and then commit to it,” Hugh says.

“The thing that always impressed me was not so much that he was able to take one photograph everyday but that he was able to take only one photograph every day.”

“There were occasions where Jamie would be there and something really interesting and special would be going on and I’d ask, ‘is this going to be the photograph of the day?’ and he’d say, ‘nah, I already took it, it was, you know, breakfast’ or something like that [laughs].”

Hugh put the photos up online accompanied only by the date they were taken. He originally published them  so friends could readily access the collection and to help with organising the exhibition.

“By having it be so completely anonymous and with no explanation, it really gets people to sort of figure it out on their own. I think one of the reasons that so many people are so interested is having to figure out the story for themselves.”

“The thing I’m amazed at is how many people get it completely right knowing nothing about it before they came to it.”

The photos are not only a documentation of Jamie and his friends’ lives but a record of the times. Key moments of history and the evolution of New York City are captured for prosperity: the period after the fiscal crisis of the mid-70s when the City couldn’t pay its public service; a dead man hanging from a bridge is a reminder of a more violent past; the twin towers are captured in others.

“It sort of goes on till just before 9/11 and that was also a really intense period of artistic activity in New York,” Hugh said. “Especially in the neighbourhoods that (Jamie) lived in. There are a lot of people who see it as sort of a document of a very romantic time in New York City the same way that Paris between the world wars was a bohemian hotbed of sorts.”

The collection is a remarkable record of the process of living, ageing and dying. It is not only each Christmas, Halloween, New Years’ Eve, birthdays, weddings and overseas holidays which are captured here, but Jamie’s everyday life – the ordinary as well as the extraordinary.

In 1988 we first see the melanoma on Jamie’s back, which would eventually take his life. A few days later it has been cut out and the site is stitched up and bandaged over. It would turn cancerous anyway and spread to his brain sometime in the next 10 years. He died on his forty-first birthday. The last photograph in the collection shows Jamie in his hospital bed with his friends by his side.

Jamie’s Photo of the Day is the physical incarnation of his memory. His friend Risa Mickenburg said it best. After Jamie’s death she wrote: “Memory is a sieve that holds curious things. A life is a trail of strange, colourful memories. Jamie’s Photo-of-the-Day works like a life. A still moment from every day for years – remains of the day, immortalised. It is a selection: what we choose to remember, what we add to our collection of days.”