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The Value of a Polaroid Summer
Last month, when I wrote about the sterile world of infinite choice, a reader named Terryn left a short comment about how she was countering that sterility in her own life: by spending the summer taking pictures on polaroids. She linked to a brief newsletter she’d written about it, which I clicked on immediately, and when I was finished reading, I came back to the comment and did the thing that only I, as the author of this newsletter, can do: I clicked on her commenting name and found her email address. I then sent Terryn an email (prefaced with “I hope this isn’t too weird”) asking if she’d be up for elaborating on her project and her general thinking on photography — and I’m just so thrilled she agreed.
First off, I promise I will only my access to your email addresses in ways like this — and second, I hope you join me in following Terryn’s newsletter, which has the sort of lovely and sporadic and poignant life observations I miss from blog culture. Read on and you’ll see exactly what I mean.
As a sort of introduction, can you tell me what you mean when you say that you’re from “a picture family”? As you write: “Black Southern material culture is so rich and sometimes I forget how enmeshed it is in my daily life.”
We have always taken pictures. Like for everything. Glamour shots. Olan Mills family pictures. School pictures. Polaroids at the cookout. Church directory family pictures (which were a thing!) My grandmother kept a picture in her living room of her father's family in Mississippi from the early 1900s. It's nice to look at a black-and-white photo from the Reconstruction era and be able to look at a face and say, "I know that face, that's my face!" My grandmother was a medical librarian so she archived everything into picture albums. There's always been a sense of, 'documenting our lives is important' that I really appreciate now that I'm older.
What was your past relationship with taking photos? What sort of cameras have you used, what was your favorite filter on early Instagram, etc. etc.? And how did you arrive at the idea of polaroid summer?
My favorite OG Instagram filter is the puppy ears, I feel like everyone had that one. Now I love a cute sparkle filter or one that clears up my skin, but I also like having no filter sometimes too. It can be easy, especially with all the filters and editing software, to try to micromanage imperfections. And a lot of filters now do this thing where they actively lighten darker skin tones or thin out your features, which is not what I want.
As far as my relationship with taking pictures, I *love* being behind the camera. You can be curious about the world with a camera in a way that is way different than being curious with, say, writing. I've had all the types of cameras you can imagine — the camera on my flip phone, 35mm disposable film cameras, DSLRs, all that.. Now I have my iPhone, my two Polaroid instant cameras, and a vintage Brownie Hawkeye that does not work.
As far as being in front of a camera, it's fine. I do get self-conscious – one of my eyes is bigger than the other, I busted my lip as a little kid so my smile is kind of lopsided, stuff like that. But when I get (or someone else captures) a picture of me that really gets me, it feels like a revelation! Also I had a ton of traumatic experiences on school picture day because my mom wasn't really great at doing hair, so I remember the distinct feeling of wanting to take a picture but not loving the set up.
As far as having a Polaroid summer, the inspiration was finding my PolaroidNow, and wanting to tinker with it again. I'd been in a creative slump since the end of last year when my grandma died, and writing felt overwhelming. Polaroids were a low stakes way to be interested in the world around me and jump back into the groove of things. It was an excuse to get nosey.
When you had a limited number of photos available….how did it change the way you thought about capturing experiences? Did you feel more or less present? Take this one any direction you’d like.
Working with physical film puts some of the fear factor back into taking pictures, which is a feeling I never really have when I've taken pictures on my phone or on a DSLR camera (though to be fair, I consistently run out of space on my phone for pictures so I'm always having to go back and winnow out duplicates or memes that are taking up space). Using physical film, whether it's the inexpensive i-Type film for my PolaroidNow or the hella expensive pack film for my Land camera, I am more considerate of the things I take pictures of.
What working with a vintage camera has quickly taught me is that you really need to have a strong understanding of how light operates. Period. Especially since I am normally photographing my family and my dog, and a lot of camera technology is not built to capture darker skin tones well. So I'm learning a lot about how to look for good light outdoors and indoors so I can get a decent picture. I enjoy it though, and the limit on the number of shots means that I need to be learning with every picture I take. Even when they are shitty or it's just a blank piece of film that comes out of the Land camera, I make notes on the back of the photo to remember the settings I had and what works and doesn't work. These first couple of packs of film for my old Polaroid have been about learning.
What are your favorite photos from this summer — and why do they shine?
I’ll give one from my PolaroidNow and twofrom my vintage Land camera
This is a photo on my newer camera of my dog Jo. It makes me laugh because the vibe in this Polaroid gives 1980s rattan peacock chair vibes. He has a dark, glossy coat so I am always trying to learn different techniques around lighting so he wont show up so flat on film. The biggest thing with Polaroid, especially photographing indoors or darker tones, is using the flash. In this picture his dark fur contrasts with the white wall, and you can even pick up how the brown of his eyes are similar to the wood floor.
The following two photos I took on my vintage Polaroid Land Camera, with expired Fujifilm FP-3000b film.
This is a Pentecostal church in Durham, and it caught my eye because it reminded me of the small country church my grandad pastored when I was a kid. I love it because it looks like it could be from 1883 but it's from 2023! It's also the first clear shot I got out of my Polaroid 320 Land camera, and it's because the light was so bright that day.
The final picture is from this past Labor Day weekend – my mom was doing my sister's hair for a wedding she was going to. The light outdoors was bright but inside it was low, even though it seemed decent to the naked eye. The result is almost ghostly. I love it because even though it's grainy you can still make out the tenderness of the moment.
Tell me about Love Theory. What’s a photo taken without love, and what’s one that’s brimming with it? (I feel like the video for On My Mama, which you embed at the end of your post and we’ll embed below, exudes love, is SOAKED in it — you could chalk it up to the feel of the light and the song itself but it’s something more, right?)
Love theory is something I just came up with after realizing some of the best pictures I’ve ever taken or have taken of me are from people who love me. It blows when you want to take a decent picture and the person behind the camera is ambivalent or nonchalant about how it turns out. No! Flick me up! Make my shit look fly! Sometimes it feels like there's a disdain around taking pictures – like it's frivolous or declassé. But visual culture and cues are so important. And I want to be captured honestly, and I think you get that honesty when there is love behind the lens.
On My Mama, like you mentioned, is a perfect example of the theory in action. The whole video is a love letter to Black dance, Black meme culture, early 2000 Southern rap from someone who is wholly a part of those cultures. The result is something that feels nostalgic without being cheesy, and fresh at the same time.
All of that to say this: you can tell when people like and respect you. If they don't, or don't really care about you on a human level, it's gonna come out in whatever they are making whether it's food or photographs. So when taking pictures, you want your photographer to love you or at the very least, respect you, so you can get a good pic.
What are your plans for the photos you took this summer — and what are your plans for photos in the future?
Honestly, no plans, just vibes. I went to the opening of Lyle Ashton Harris' exhibit at the Nasher Museum, and I was blown away at how he incorporates instant photography into his work, just the sense of freedom and play that comes through. So I want to bring some of that energy to taking pictures. I'm also thinking about creative ways to store and display them.
For my newer Polaroid with easier to access film, I'm focused on capturing fun random moments because it's easier to carry. With my vintage camera I'd like to get good enough at taking pictures of people so that I can photograph Hampton's homecoming this year. The only drawback is how expensive pack film is, so I have to be smart with my reserves and pray to Sky Daddy that I can continue to afford it. There's a tactile joy in picking up and examining physical ephemera. My goal is to create more of it. ●
You can find more of Terryn’s writing here.