Image courtesy of Kyler Zeleny. All rights reserved.

Wrapping New Stories Around Old Polaroids

The Found Polaroids Project asks you to infuse anonymous pics with fresh meaning

by Emily von Hoffmann

The homepage of Found Polaroids looks like your parents’ dining room table when they open that shoe box of old photos, except that the people in the images probably aren’t related to you. Or maybe they are, in which case you should talk to Kyler Zeleny, who created the project as a repository for the lone, lost polaroids he’s picked up at flea markets.

Now, years into the project, Kyler’s collected 6,000 images, and realizes that connecting the images with their owners is probably impossible. Instead, Found Polaroids has an online community of fiction writers who invent possible stories for the photos and their mysterious inhabitants. For Polarr, I spoke with Kyler about the images and his new book.

Emily von Hoffmann: So what is Found Polaroids all about?

Kyler Zeleny: Found Polaroids is project that has grown out of a collection of over 6,000 Polaroid images that span time and space. In some instances, we have reasons to believe that the subjects know one another — but others are single images from entirely dissimilar settings and unknown origins. We decided that instead of keeping the images stored in shoeboxes in rural Canada, they should be shared with the world.

Image courtesy of Kyler Zeleny. All rights reserved.

The concept behind the project, which has culminated in an online repository, is to breathe new life into these long-forgotten images by asking creative minds to write stories about them. The project has grown from simply asking for 250–350 word flash fiction submissions into a multifaceted collaboration with photographers, writers, and other artists who also feel that found and vernacular photography should play a role in the collective memories of our society. Often, the project acts as a site of exchange where we can collectively interrogate our interactions with physical images and what that means in a digital world.

Image courtesy of Kyler Zeleny. All rights reserved.

What makes this collection so unique is that most are entirely candid and were captured by someone who had a personal relationship with the subjects of the picture. In that sense, each comes coupled with a story that can really only be told by those in front of or behind the camera — but these stories have been lost.

“The concept behind the project is to breathe new life into these long-forgotten images.”

Initially, we were fixated on knowing the true stories, and then slowly it dawned on us that the importance of stories is not always in their actual truth, but rather in the truth that is reflected in our own lives within these stories. A really great story is simply one that holds a mirror up to our own reality.

EvH: 6,000 images is a pretty vast collection — over what time period and geography did you collect these?

KZ: This took a few years (3–4) and started small, I first collected some in Calgary, while visiting friends. I then found some in Holland and England and thought it was wrote interesting how images of what was seemingly 1970s America could have found their way to Europe. I was so intrigued by their mystery, each one representing what could be thought of as a mini-mystery.

Image courtesy of Kyler Zeleny. All rights reserved.

EvH: What can you share about the process of creating the book? Any new fictional essays you particularly love? How did it come together in the end?

KZ: It’s a proper fine-art quality photobook. The publisher Ain’t Bad and I put a lot of work into making it a beautiful object, a reflection of the magic we see in the instant medium itself. I always wanted to do more than than simply storytelling so I spent a lot of time trying to curate a project that not only combined orphaned images and creative fiction writing but also explored the importance of the Polaroid. This was achieved by essays by myself and Dr. Peter Buse, who recently authored The Camera Does the Rest, the most comprehensive account of Polaroid to date.

The path from narrowing down 400 stories into the best 35 was laborious and involved up to 6 people reading through all the stories and rating them based on their merit. After the averages were calculated I took the top 60 stories and curated the final selection. I tired to ensure the book would have a good balance of ranging stories. I also didn’t want any images to be duplicated, which made the selection hard because great images seemed to inspire great stories.

EvH: How exactly are they found? Do you have any stories of wacky ways in which these artifacts were picked up?

KZ: As for wacky stories, I wish I had some. As I mentioned, I had originally started to collect them from flea markets and thrift shops, then moved to collecting on eBay, the modern mechanism for easy collecting. It was through eBay that I was able to collect over 6,000 Polaroids of other people’s lives. And with many digital interactions they are generally void of any impressive interactions. One thing that I found interesting is after years of collecting these I once found myself in a coffee shop talking to another collector, where we deduced that we were likely bidding against each other on the same images. Working on similar albeit different projects both dealing with Found Polaroids and with a goal of returning the images.

Image courtesy of Kyler Zeleny. All rights reserved.

EvH: How did fiction writing become a part of this project?

KZ: The initial intent of the project was to return the found images back to their original owners, which proved mostly futile, except in a few unique cases. Understanding how futile it was to try to return these images, I thought it was quite a shame to allow them to enter oblivion (like so many other images do), so the idea was to allow people to contribute flash fiction stories about these people, about who they could have been, where they could have gone and what they might have known. It becomes, in a sense, more about the physical image and giving it a new life, a new journey, than it is a search for the person in the photo. It is about placing an importance on a lost image and telling a story about who the person in the image could have been.

Image courtesy of Kyler Zeleny. All rights reserved.

EvH: Have any images been claimed by their subjects or relatives of their subjects? If so, can you tell us about those?

KZ: Well. Not many. Three people have come forward (two of which were featured in the same image). Sadly only one image belongs to them in the entire collection. Speaking about the experience and about finding them, I should say it was a great feeling. The sisters will be answering some questions about the image soon and an image of them today will be posted on our Facebook page shortly!

“I once found myself in a coffee shop talking to another collector. We deduced that we were likely bidding against each other on the same [eBay] images.”

The project was initiated on the idea that we could maybe learn something about the people in the images and if possible return them to their original keepers. Having found another person from the collection we are interested to hear their story, and possibly find out why we ended up with their images and if possible, we may even begin to build a web around this individual as they could link us to others in the collection.

The other individual, who was featured in 3–4 images has since having contacted us wished to remain anonymous, so out of respect for her decision I prefer not to talk about her images. But I can say she was very happy to see them found and hear we were keeping them safe.

Image courtesy of Kyler Zeleny. All rights reserved.

EvH: Do you have any favorites, and if so can you share the stories — real or invented — connected with them?

KZ: I have a lot of favorites, but one that stands out is one that is on the website, Polaroid #95 (below). It is a straight on image of an older man who looks deadpan into the camera, as if it is an image for a police report or a passport office, but you can tell quickly from the background it could be neither. His glasses are great and the cream colored button-up shirt speaks of a man who grew up in the 1950s, you know that America with its endless possibilities. I think he pursued the ‘good life’ doctrine, just not sure if he ever achieved it.

Polaroid #95. Image courtesy of Kyler Zeleny. All rights reserved.

The thing that draws me to this image is it reminds me of a time we no longer know, at least not people coming of age today. This is a time, like any time in the developed world, I guess where we yearn for elements of the past, the nostalgia that invades us, and the way we view or interact with images of the past. This image, like all the others in the collection, is telling us that a story took place, that this man lived a full life, we can see that in the wrinkles on his face. It is our job through the Found Polaroid project to gaze into his eyes and try to figure out what he could have witnessed and then to write about it.

Ian Cooney wrote a great story for it, which can be found here.

Image courtesy of Kyler Zeleny. All rights reserved.

You wrote that the project has expanded as a place for exploring the cultural importance of found photography — tell us more about that. What’s interesting you most about the idea of found or material photography right now?

There is something very special about Polaroid film, its physical and unique. The Ronald Barthes’ claim that “what the photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once” does not hold true for the Polaroid, as a Polaroid image is not reproducible. It has no negative and cannot be reproduced. It really is the only photographic medium that allows us to make that claim. The image is both the negative and the positive — Image and frame compacted into one. This is one of the topics I explore in the essay I wrote for the book. Furthermore, over the last few years we’ve seen a revival in analog technology, vinyl and film photography seem to be the most collected objects, not for their content but rather their form. And there is definitely something magical about the Polaroid, a romanticism of sorts imbedded in a film type that develops right before your eyes, a reminder to us to think in the terms of Marshal McLuhan’s the medium is the message.

Image courtesy of Kyler Zeleny. All rights reserved.

Kyler Zeleny is a PhD student and photographer based in Toronto. Follow the Found Polaroids Project on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook + Tumblr.