BOOK: SOME PHOTOS OF THAT DAY: 6,564 POLAROIDS BY JAMIE LIVINGSTON 1979–1997
NEWS FLASH: a second book has been added to the rewards and shipping outside the USA is available. Also ALL backers get a thanks in the back matter of the book
This project is to print a book of Jamie Livingston's ( click the link to google him, it's quite amazing ) Polaroid photo every day project. These are the approximately 6,564 SX-70 photos that he made from the last day of March 1979 to the last day of his life, October 25 1997, his 41st birthday. The book will be hardbound 255mm x 343mm or 10x13 1/2 inches with 752 pages. The reproductions won't quite be life sized because the constraints of printing and shipping are such that a slight increase in size would nearly double the cost. Besides, it's a pretty big book already weighing about nine pounds or 4 kg. The official publication date will be on Jamie's 61 birthday, October 25 2017 but whether they will be delivered or on a ship in the middle of the Pacific depends on the vagaries of international commerce.
So, who is Jamie Livingston?
When my friend Jamie Livingston, photographer, filmmaker, circus performer, accordion player, New York Mets fan, and best man at my wedding died on his forty-first birthday, he left behind hundreds of friends and a collection of over 6,500 photographs chronologically organized and neatly stored in a fruit of the month club box and three suitcases.
Jamie was born October 25th 1956 at New York City’s Mt. Sinai Hospital, and grew up in the UN Plaza, a luxury apartment building near the United Nations, of which Jamie said “It’s a really nice building except that Truman Capote pees in the elevator.” In 1975, he went to Bard College, where he studied filmmaking and met many of the friends pictured in his Polaroids. Often sick (he suffered from what was later diagnosed as Crohn's disease), he spent much time sequestered in his dorm room, the gathering place for his friends. It was in this milieu that I met Jamie, We eventually had dorm rooms across the hall from each other which was handy when I shattered my leg skateboarding and had someone to recuperate with.
For eighteen years, Jamie took a single Polaroid once a day, every day, including his last. The photographic project that he eventually named SOME PHOTOS OF THAT DAY, began in 1979 during his last two months at Bard College in New York's Hudson Valley. The Polaroids continued after college as Jamie traveled the world performing with the Janus Circus, then moved through a succession of funky New York City apartments, including a loft on Fulton Street filled with circus stuff and musical instruments that he shared with Chris Wangro. There are photos of many parties, the “Orphans’ Thanksgiving,” film screenings, visits from a world wide network of friends and musical jam sessions. Through it all, he took pictures, made movies, and loved his friends. And the Polaroids capture those intertwined lives filled with creativity, pain, celebrations, illness, joy, and the beauty of the ordinary closely observed.
By the mid-1980s Jamie was a cinematographer and video editor in the early days of MTV, worked on documentaries, TV commercials, music videos and feature films. As a result some of the quotidian Polaroids depict Lionel Richie, Allen Ginsberg, Ed Koch. Kevin Bacon, Mel Brooks, Philip Johnson and other people he filmed.
Jamie was more of a listener than a talker. We felt comfortable telling him our secrets and news of our personal lives. He was particularly good at staying in touch and often was the person who kept the friendship alive. Something of a zookeeper of exotic friends and collector of interesting people, he would loved bringing people together.
I always thought making the Polaroids probably enhanced Jamie’s social life because everyone wanted to be in the photo of the day. The photos were of friends, family, himself, special places he had visited, or just things that caught his eye. In one of his journals Jamie writes of waiting several hours for shadows to line up just right at a place he had visited the day before. Other times it would by just before midnight in a bar and he would gather a lineup of the usual suspects to photograph. On the other hand if he went to a Mets game the Mets game always made the cut.
For the first 10 years on March 30, Jamie would lay all the pictures up to that date on the floor and take an anniversary picture. In ten years the collection grew to 3600+ Polaroids and covered the Gymnasium floor of St. David's School in NYC where the father of a friend of Jamie's was headmaster. Space constraints kept Jamie from continuing, plus it took several days to arrange the Polaroids during a week that school was in session. The eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth years are smaller tableaux and then the next year finds him literally knee deep in a swamp and the spell is broken. Yet the photos continue day by day.
When Jamie died in 1997 on his 41st birthday in New York City’s Mt. Sinai Hospital, he had set up the camera to frame the very last picture of his body in the hospital bed, completing the story he had begun six and a half thousand pictures earlier.
I was in Redmond Washington on October 25, 1997 when I got a call telling me that Jamie had died. I cut my trip short and flew home to New York. A couple of days later a huge crowd of people gathered on the ruins of the old White Star Line pier at 12th street in Manhattan for a memorial and to launch some of Jamie's ashes over the Hudson river in a rocket. The odd thing was that although a hundred or so of us had known each other for ten or twenty years it seemed that there were almost as many people we didn't know who all said that they were there because Jamie was their best friend.
But Jamie's story doesn’t end there. In 2005, after years of people thinking that "someone" should "do something" with Jamie Livingston's Polaroids, Betsy Reid helped me re-photograph each Polaroid. In October 2007, on the tenth anniversary of his death, a group of Jamie's friends pooled some money to print reproductions of the Polaroids for an exhibit at Bard College. Six and a half thousand Polaroids are a lot of photographs, a little more than 2x36 meters or 7x120 feet if you hang them on the wall which is what we did in Bard's Bertelsmann Student Center. Students were fascinated by the life story that had begun when the photographer was their age in the place they were standing.
Want to see what the show looked like in detail? Try these links.
His photos fit into four suitcases and a fruit of the month club box.
At about the same time I created a website of the Polaroids, organized by year and day, mostly as a way to keep Jamie's memory alive among his friends some of whom couldn't travel to the show.
Then things get sort of weird and sort of wonderful.
SOME PHOTOS OF THAT DAY, the website that I created, was not quite finished in 2007. It was on the Internet but few other than a small group of friends knew about it. It didn’t even have a name or a home page much less a description. I had mentioned it a comment on Mike Johnston's The Online Photographer ( typical "you can't make this up" coincidences abound in the linked post as well as some moving comments) blog and apparently it seeped into the Internet from there.
And then something happened. Chris Higgins, a reporter writing for the popular Internet site Mental Floss, discovered the website by accident.
He wrote in a post titled He Took a Polaroid Every Day, Until the Day He Died
Yesterday I came across a slightly mysterious website -- a collection of Polaroids, one per day, from March 31, 1979 through October 25, 1997. There's no author listed, no contact info, and no other indication as to where these came from. So, naturally, I started looking through the photos. I was stunned by what I found.
In 1979 the photos start casually, with pictures of friends, picnics, dinners, and so on . . . October 24, 1997 The next day the photographer dies.
What started for me as an amusing collection of photos -- who takes photos every day for eighteen years? -- ended with a shock. Who was this man? How did his photos end up on the web? I went on a two-day hunt, examined the source code of the website, and tried various Google tricks.
Finally my investigation turned up the photographer as Jamie Livingston, and he did indeed take a photo every day for eighteen years, until the day he died, using a Polaroid SX-70 camera. He called the project "Photo of the Day" and presumably planned to collect them at some point -- had he lived. He died on October 25, 1997 -- his 41st birthday. ,,,,
After Higgins’s story went up on Mental Floss everything changed: The SOME PHOTOS OF THAT DAY website went viral and was soon viewed by millions of people around the world. Within a couple of days a biographical page for Livingston mysteriously appeared on Wikipedia. Betsy Reid, Chris Higgins, and I were interviewed on Canadian Broadcasting Company Radio.
Vice magazine ran a particularly good selection of photographs and an interview by Christopher Harding with an introduction by James Knight.
David Shaftel in The New York Times, October 10, 2008 wrote:
"AS a senior at Bard College in 1979, Jamie Livingston acquired a Polaroid camera. After a few weeks, he noticed that he was taking about one picture a day, and shortly thereafter he decided to continue doing so.
The project, which quickly evolved into something of an obsession, began with a snapshot of Mindy Goldstein, Mr. Livingston’s girlfriend at the time, along with another friend, both of them smiling at something outside the frame. It ended 18 years and more than 6,000 photos later with a self-portrait of the photographer on his deathbed on his 41st birthday.
The narrative that unfolds between those two images tells the story not only of the friendships Mr. Livingston forged over the years but also the evolution of a city. It charts New York’s progression from an era of urban decay and fiscal crisis to a place characterized by the economic recovery that had arrived by the time of Mr. Livingston’s death, of melanoma, in 1997. This was especially true downtown, where he lived for much of the period covered in the photographs."
Johnny Dee in the Guardian writes:
Over the years it occurred to Livingston that he would have to continue with his pictures either for the rest of his life or until they stopped making Polaroid film (which eventually came to pass in February this year). The collection itself features in a number of the photographs and in the late 80s was nearly lost entirely when he was evicted from his apartment and the refuse collectors mistakenly took all his belongings - he got them back but had to sort through the whole truck to find them.
For first-time visitors to the website, Livingston's death, from a brain tumour on his 41st birthday, comes as a dramatic shock, but clues of his poor health lurk within all those thousands of shots and several pictures of a malignant mole in 1989. His friends have long regarded the collection - which went on display at his old college on what would have been his 50th birthday - as his legacy and a reminder of thousands of tiny details that would otherwise have gone forgotten.
In the ten years since it has "gone viral" in one country or another almost every week. For a few weeks it had a huge amount of traffic from Moldavia. Just this year the site was included in an exhibition at the Zachęta National Gallery of Art (Polish: Narodowa Galeria Sztuki), in Warsaw, Poland.
Recently Mental Floss posted an update video by Chris Higgins on Facebook that has been viewed 35 million times.
Jamie died before there were cameras in cell phones, before the rise of blogging and social media. Before “selfies” or at least the word “selfies.” in some way, his work is a relevant precursor to what is now a common phenomenon, the daily photographing of one’s life as well as building and recording a virtual community decades before facebook.
In the Vice interview mentioned above I put it this way
"You have to remember that when Jamie started the project it was during the late 70s and early 80s in downtown Manhattan. We were all soaking in the Mekas brothers’ film-making, Warren Sonbert was a frequent dinner guest, which you can see in the photos, as was Adolfas Mekas. Jamie’s neighbour upstairs in the loft was Cindy Sherman, so there was a lot of that autobiographical art-making in the air. The work that Jamie was producing in stills and other film-makers were creating in music videos and advertising spread that sensibility to a broader public and was a precursor to a lot of what we see on the Internet today. Jamie wasn’t keeping any secrets. All of the overlapping relationships were there to see, much like some of the more live-your-life-in-public blogs of today. I think that Jamie was sort of ahead of his time and, by keeping his work in the public realm, people can see that."
Among his friends Jamie would say "Snap your map?" when he wanted to photograph them for the photo of the day. I always wondered what he said to strangers, something that I had a hard time with in similar circumstances.
Showing his work over the last ten years I have discovered that people who are at the same stage in their life as Jamie was when he began making the photographs see the work as aspirational, as an example of the life they would like to live as an artist, musician, filmmaker, or circus performer and as a passionately engaged human being. They see his life very full, of love, travel, work and romance in spite of the fact that he died on his 41st birthday. At the Bard College exhibition I heard students say “That’s what I want to do.”
In contrast, Jamie Livingston’s and my contemporaries experienced the era portrayed in the photographs first hand and can feel both the tragedy of Jamie’s early death, and remember the passion and possibilities of their youth even if they did not do the things he did.
SOME PHOTOS OF THAT DAY is not simply a personal narrative of one man’s exceptional life, but documents a time of transitions in New York City history as it mirrors the rise of the downtown club scene, the advent of punk rock, new wave and no wave music, the rise and fall of Soho and the East Village as centers of art and culture, when empty or underutilized spaces in lower Manhattan were taken over by a vital demimonde of kids too “interesting” for their hometown re-inventing themselves in the city. The time when the Twin Towers were surrounded by vacant lots, flanked by an abandoned and crumbling elevated highway, and across the street from a beach where construction had stopped in the 1970s. It records the Reagan, Bush and Clinton eras and ends just four years before 9/11, a day that not only changed New York but cast his Polaroids as mementos of a lost and distant world. His work contains a time and place that is as close as our collective memory but forever out of our grasp.
Nostalgia is a funny word.
"It is listed among the "endemic diseases" in the "Cyclopaedia of Practical Medicine" [London, 1833, edited by three M.D.s], which defines it as "The concourse of depressing symptoms which sometimes arise in persons who are absent from their native country, when they are seized with a longing desire of returning to their home and friends and the scenes their youth ...." It was a military medical diagnosis principally, and was considered a serious medical problem by the North in the American Civil War:
In the first two years of the war, there were reported 2588 cases of nostalgia, and 13 deaths from this cause. These numbers scarcely express the real extent to which nostalgia influenced the sickness and mortality of the army. To the depressing influence of home-sickness must be attributed the fatal result in many cases which might otherwise have terminated favorably. ["Sanitary Memoirs of the War," U.S. Sanitary Commission, N.Y.: 1867] - Online Etymology Dictionary
So maybe there's that.
Jamie’s quotidian visual record of New York City records its progress from a time of urban decay to a gilded age of overdevelopment. The beginning is is set in the disco / punk rock / graffiti era. Empty or underutilized spaces in lower Manhattan were taken over by a vital demimonde of kids too “interesting” for their hometown re-inventing themselves in the city.
I'm not going to try to describe the photos here.
Why some pictures have an emotional punch that goes far beyond what is there in the picture or why some photographs are things of beauty, or why some pictures are one or the other or sometimes both is the ineffable nature of photography and Jamie's photos are more ineffable than most.
Are they six and a half thousand images? Well obviously they are that, but do they stand alone individually or do they tell a story? Is it a memento mori or thousands of celebrations of life in all of its wonderful tentative mess? One story or six and a half thousand declarations of now? The stories Jamie tells or that hundreds of other people tell and how can they all be true at once?
The early photos were taken with a Polaroid SX-70. The film formula changed in early 1980 to Time Zero Supercolor; this is one of the reasons the look of the photos changes, although the changes are mostly a result of Jamie finding his groove. The palate of the photos goes from muted and cool to more vivid with a characteristic red that Jamie used to good effect, even though he complained about the newer film for years.
If you are reading this you have probably already seen and read about this elsewhere and obviously I'm not so much a word person otherwise this wouldn't be so ridiculously long, but after a lot of the what there remains a little bit of why you should support this.
Why a book?
Woody Allen famously said “I don't want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying. I don't want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.”
That said, books are about as close to cheating death as the technology of the last few centuries gets.
Why do the photos over?
Some notes about the rewards
One of the components of some of the reward levels is your choice of the photo from the date of your choosing reproduced as an instant print slightly smaller than the originals tipped into the first page of the book as shown in the mock-up below.
Backers outside the United States
Thanks to a generous donor a limited number of books that can be shipped outside the USA are available.
One last thing
Risks and challenges
The big challenges in this project are:
1) Re-photographing all of the Polaroids. Doing anything six and a half thousand time gets complicated. But I've done it once and l know how to do it a lot better now. Also all the scripts and tools to rename, label, organize, and lay out the images have been done already.
2) Laying out the book. I have already designed the layout for all the photographs and have a script that can generate the layout from the new photos in about 15 minutes.
3) Printing. I have a bid in hand from a printer that I feel confident will do an excellent and economical job. After much consultation with the printer I have settled on a design is the maximum size that can be shipped economically and can be printed 16 pages to a sheet of paper.
4) Shipping and fulfillment. Oh what a nightmare that was! After a lot of research it's much better now thank you. I have arranged for shipping from Hong Kong to California from where I will re-ship the books individually. The standard disclaimer for shipping by container is that labor strikes, customs delays, and weather can delay things.
Shipping books in the USA is pretty easy and very reasonably priced. Shipping outside the USA is almost as easy but not reasonably priced at all. The book is sized to just fit into an international flat rate United States Postal Service box, which is the least expensive option for much of the world.
Because of the way Kickstarter works I could easily get a lot of foreign backers, just meet my goal, and in reality be seriously underfunded because the majority of the funds would be used for shipping. Alternatively I could factor in shipping outside of the USA and set my goal four times as high. Neither of these seems like a good idea. What I am going to do is limit the lower tiers of rewards that involve shipping a 4.5 kg / 10 pound package to backers in the USA until the project reaches it's funding goal. At that point it is risk free to fulfill rewards outside the USA.
5) Asteroid strike. That could seriously mess things up.
- (30 days)