With a photograph we can capture a fleeting moment and eternalise it forever so that the image usually outlives the very subject of its focus. For Canadian artist Kyler Zeleny it is the photograph’s unique ability to tell a story which is of particular interest to him. Zeleny has been collecting Polaroids from thrift shops, vintage shops and online sources for years, and his collection now reaches well over 5000 – with each image possessing its own story.
The seemingly random mishmash of Polaroids dating back from the 50s all the way up to the 2000s, now share a connection in the sense that they have all become a part of the photographer’s collection. Zeleny sees himself as more of a curator of the images rather than an owner – just keeping them safe until they set upon their next adventure of course. How did these keep-sakes get lost in the first place and how did they end up with him? These are the questions that inspired a series of projects, including the most recent where Zeleny invites the public to create their own short back-stories to accompany their favourite Polaroid. They say that a picture tells a thousand words, and now it’s up to us to write them.
Tell our readers a bit about yourself. Where did your obsession with photography stem from?
As a photographer I’ve always been interested in photography and I would always look for found-photographs in thrift stores, flea markets, or really weird places, like at the side of the road. I’ve always been interested in vernacular photography, as in the idea of our family albums. For example, we all have these very generic images of a birthday or a wedding that get put into a family album, and yet there are certain things that get left out. I’m interested in what goes into a family album.
In 2011 I bought a large cache of Polaroid images, around 500, on eBay. I assumed that they were all one family album and I was intending on using that as an essay project; I was going to try and figure out how these images had got to me, where their original owners were and the object image journey. But the Polaroids featured all different people and it’s eerie to think that many of the kids I see in them will be grown adults now. At what point did someone get disconnected from what used to be their prized possession? My obsession stems from there and since then I’ve continued collecting and essentially asking the same questions.
Could you tell us a bit more about where you source all of these images?
Like I said, it started in vintage shops, thrift stores or flee markets. There were a few in Europe and I had seen a few in North America, but they’re not as common as you’d think – so for every 20 that you could collect via physical transaction, there are 4 or 5 hundred available online, I call them caches or lots.
So are these people selling their own family albums online or albums that they’ve found themselves and are selling on?
Generally, the sellers themselves don’t know the origins of the photographs and just mentioned that some of them came from estate sales. I guess what happens is that estates close and nobody claims them, and they somehow get filtered down to an individual who sells them on eBay. What you will find in these lots is not one family’s images but a number of families’ images, all put together to become something new. They all existed at different times and places so their only connection is that they’re all Polaroids and they’ve been found and archived by me. It’s really bizarre.
Is it true that one of your projects involves re-uniting people with their lost Polaroids?
The original project in 2011 was just to understand them, and I did that on and off for the following few years. I then thought it would be great to give these images back to their owners, and that became my next goal. We would use the visual keys in the image –the white tongue below would sometimes have a name, or in the visual image we would see a cheerleader outfit with the name of a school– and work it out that way. But the thing with American names is that they’re extremely common, and so you look for an Adam Smith from 30 years ago and he’s a really hard guy to find (laughs). That was pretty futile, so we changed the focus of the project, but in doing that first attempt and getting press I’ve actually been able to locate two girls in one photo and another girl featured in three photos, so we’ve had some success!
A picture can be a very sentimental thing, evoking certain feelings or memories from the past. I wonder if you find a certain satisfaction or sense of accomplishment in reuniting people with their lost Polaroids.
In terms of satisfaction, I’m mostly interested in how I got them and so being able to reunite people with their images is a potential way for me to understand the path to me.
If there were lost images of me out there, I would like to have them back. The images help form memories, and the memories help form images so that we remember certain details. But we also kind of fictionalise images, we believe what the image is showing us, which is why family albums can be so misleading – they don’t show the bad, they only show images of happiness.
Is there a particular Polaroid that stands out as a favourite of yours? Why?
Yes, Polaroid 95. It’s an elderly gentleman with a cream coloured button up shirt and beautiful thick rim glasses, and he’s staring dead pan into the camera. It’s just a lovely image. You can tell that he’s really relaxed and he knows who’s photographing him and he’s fine with it, it’s probably his wife or family member. The colours are extremely poignant; it reminded me of that movie with Sean Penn and Brad Pitt (Tree of Life) that takes place in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s an interesting film that deals with what being an American man was all about and that time, so when I see that individual I feel like I know his story.
Another interesting part of the project is that we ask people to submit a 200-350 word fictitious story to a photo. I can see an image that reminds me of someone I know and I feel like I know their story. Because we can’t really connect people with their images anymore, the goal is to now do something unique and creative with them rather than just letting them disappear. It’s about respecting the image.
50 years from now, do you think a project like this could be undertaken now that everyone stores their photographs digitally?
I think there’s a good indication that we’re moving away from physical albums, with Facebook alone we have the digital album and there are also online storage systems, like iPhone or Lightroom. I think you could do this project 50 years from now about physical images from the 1950s to the 2000s, maybe even upward to 2020.
There is a certain charm to the Polaroid that cannot be found in digital images. What do you like most about this medium of photography, its instantaneity? Its tangible quality? Or maybe its one-off factor and inability to be duplicated the way digital images are?
It’s outside of any other method; it’s special because you cannot reproduce it the same way it’s been produced. That’s related to how easily we transfer images online, like the photo within the photo project which have now been circulated. With film, we can always scan and reproduce film photos or even make a thousand images from the negative, but you can’t do that with a Polaroid. It’s that uniqueness which makes it so important.
How big is your Polaroid collection now?
I have around 6000. They’re nicely kept in my parent’s closet in Edmonton, Alberta, in West Canada. When I moved to Toronto I decided not to bring them with me because there were just too many! Anyway, I work off of all the digital scans now, which is ironic because I’m talking about a project that deals with the physicality of images. The actual Polaroid’s are sitting nicely in a coded archive, waiting for their next adventure.
Do you have any creative influences? If so, what are they?
As a photographer I was originally influenced by the New Topographics movement, so people like Robert Adams, William Eggleston and Stephen Shore were really influential to me because they looked at the banal and found something fresh and magical within it. My historical influences come from rural communities, small-medium sized towns and ruralesque America. In terms of my contemporaries, I collect from everyone. I do have one friend, Sean Stewart, who works out of Pittsburgh and I really like his image and aesthetic, though it’s not something I’ve adopted myself.
In terms of someone who writes about photography, a big influence would be a creative from Holland called Eric Keffels. He works out of Amsterdam as an advertisement guru and he’s quite an interesting character. He has a series of books called In Almost Every Photograph, and he’s another individual who has worked around found photography. He also located a writer who wrote a novel about a person who found a set of images, it’s called Good Luck. I have the book and I love the idea of it, but it’s in Dutch and I can’t read a word (laughs). There’s another creative called Tyler Jones, who is also based out of Toronto. He did a book and had a project called Dear Photograph. He takes a photo from the past and holds it in the present at the same location and lines it up.
In your project “Out West” you deal with themes such as urban vs rural and communities being stuck in time. What is it about the Canadian landscape that interests you as opposed to, say, the American landscape?
Actually I’m wildly fascinated about the American landscape too, but I photograph in Western Canada because it’s home. I grew up in rural Alberta, which is this really obscure prairie province; a lot of these spaces draw similarities to Montana, Nebraska, Idaho, etc. But I wanted to focus on photographing western spaces in Canada to give the Canadian West a Canadian feel. There’s a vast piece of Canada and I can only list a small handful of photographers that are working in a similar way to me; even in the city I grew up in, which has over a million people, there is neither a photography program nor a book culture. When I went to Savannah for a personal project, I was amazed at how many individuals the photography program was churning out. When I work I like to be in a specific mindset, so that if everyone’s looking at one thing, I don’t look at it. Or if there’s something that’s being ignored by everyone else, then it’s possibly worth looking at. Western Canada was that for me.
Finally, your Polaroid collection has never-ending potentiality, do you picture a time where you will stop collecting Polaroids?
That’s a good question. I haven’t actually been collecting over the past couple of years, primarily due to financial reasons – there is a high demand for Polaroids and people charge a lot. I also feel that within the 6000, I have enough that I can play with. That being said, if I saw a decent lot being sold for a good price, I would go for it. I read a statistic that said in the 1970s there were a billion Polaroids being shot every year – a wild number, so you know there is a vast archive of Polaroid images out there. It could really be a never ending project but for now I’m trying to cap it and just focus on the fictional stories, which we have seen a good number of. We would also like to stress that we are looking for submissions, so if anyone feels like they connect to a certain image and can tell a fictitious story about that image then please do so in 250 words!