He Took a Polaroid Every Day, Until the Day He Died

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. Here's an example from April 23, 1979 (I believe the photographer of the series is the man in the left foreground in this picture):

By 1980, we start to figure out that the photographer is a filmmaker. He gets a letter from the American Film Festival and takes a photo on January 30, 1980:

January 30, 1980

Some days he doesn't photograph anything interesting, so instead takes a photo of the date. Update: this was an incorrect guess; see the bottom of this post for more info on these date-only pictures.

August 23, 1982

Throughout the 1980s we see more family/fun photos, but also some glimpses of the photographer's filmmaking and music. Here's someone recording audio in a film editing studio from February 5, 1983:

February 5, 1983

The photographer is a big Mets fan. Here's a shot of him and a friend with Mets tickets on April 29, 1986:

April 29, 1986

In the late 1980s we start seeing more evidence that the photographer is also a musician. He plays the accordion, and has friends who play various stringed instruments. What kind of music are they playing? Here's a photo from July 2, 1989 of the photographer with his instrument:

July 2, 1989

In 1991, we see visual evidence of the photographs so far. The photographer has been collecting them in Polaroid boxes inside suitcases, as seen in this photo from March 30, 1991:

March 30, 1991

On December 6, 1993, he marks Frank Zappa's death with this photo:

December 6, 1993

The 1990s seem to be a good time for the photographer. We see him spending more time with friends, and less time photographing street subjects (of which there are many -- I just didn't include them above). Perhaps one of his films made it to IFC, the Independent Film Channel, as seen in this photo from December 18, 1996:

December 18, 1996

Throughout early 1997, we start to see the photographer himself more and more often. Sometimes his face is obscured behind objects. Other times he's passed out on the couch. When he's shown with people, he isn't smiling. On May 2 1997, something bad has happened:

May 2, 1997

By May 4, 1997, it's clear that he has cancer:

May 4, 1997

His health rapidly declining, the photographer takes a mirror-self-portrait on June 2, 1997:

June 2, 1997

By the end of that month, he's completely bald:

June 30, 1997

His health continues to decline through July, August, and September 1997, with several trips to the hospital and apparent chemotherapy. On the bright side, on September 11, 1997, the photographer's hair starts to grow back:

September 11, 1997

On October 5, 1997, it's pretty clear what this picture means:

October 5, 1997

Two days later we see the wedding:

October 7, 1997

And just a few weeks later he's back in the hospital. On October 24, 1997, we see a friend playing music in the hospital room:

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 Livingston's death, his friends Hugh Crawford and Betsy Reid put together a public exhibit and website using the photos and called it PHOTO OF THE DAY: 1979-1997, 6,697 Polaroids, dated in sequence. The physical exhibit opened in 2007 at the Bertelsmann Campus Center at Bard College (where Livingston started the series, as a student, way back when). The exhibit included rephotographs of every Polaroid and took up a 7 x 120 foot space.

You can read more about the project at this blog (apparently written by Crawford?). Or just look at the website. It's a stunning account of a man's life and death. All photos above are from the website.

Update: I've made contact with Hugh Crawford and his wife Louise. Apparently the pictures that are just dates aren't Polaroids -- they're placeholders for days when there was no photo, or the photo was lost.

Update 2: After hitting the Digg homepage, the original site has been taken down by the host. Hopefully it'll be back up overnight; in the meantime if anyone has a mirror of the original site, please leave a link in the comments (you have to leave off the http part).

Update 3: The original website is back up! Hugh has managed to restore service, and it looks like the site is now cached across multiple servers. It's still a little slow due to the huge amount of traffic, but at least it works. Go check it out.

Update 4: Jamie Livingston has been added to Wikipedia.

Update 5: Many people have asked about the Polaroid SX-70 camera. Check out this Eames film explaining the camera.

Update 6: The Impossible Project has begun producing Polaroid-compatible film.

Update 7: You can read the story behind this post in Chris's new book The Blogger Abides.

Follow Chris Higgins on Twitter for more stories like this one.

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Art

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Overexposed: A History of Fotomat

Fotomat locations promised speedy photo processing in the 1970s.
Fotomat locations promised speedy photo processing in the 1970s.
George, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Like the Golden Arches of McDonald’s that came before it, the familiar gold and pyramid-shaped roofs of Fotomat locations acted as a beacon. Instead of hamburgers, Fotomat was in the photography business, offering tiny huts situated in shopping plaza parking lots that were staffed by just one employee. Men were dubbed Fotomacs. Women were known as Fotomates, and management required them to wear short-shorts, or “hot pants,” in a nod to the strategy used for flight attendants at Pacific Southwest Airlines.

Cars pulled up to the Fotomat location and dropped off film they wanted processed. After being shuttled via courier to a local photo lab, it would be ready for pick-up the following day. And aside from selling film and a foray into renting videocassette tapes, this was all Fotomat did.

The idea, which was originally made popular by wealthy aviator Preston Fleet, was almost deceptively simple in concept and execution. At the height of Fotomat’s success in the 1970s and early 1980s, there were more than 4000 of the tiny kiosks located across the United States and Canada. But even with extremely low overhead—the little huts didn’t even have bathrooms—and a widespread love of photography, Fotomat fell victim to its own success. Its legacy even grew to include a former company president who became a federal fugitive from justice.

 

In the 1960s, Americans were fond of Kodak Instamatic cameras and film. People submitted the familiar yellow spools full of images from weddings, birthdays, trips, and other social events to photo processing labs, which might take days to return prints.

That’s where Preston Fleet saw opportunity. Fleet was a wealthy aviation enthusiast. His father, Reuben Fleet, had founded the Consolidated Aircraft Company—later known as Convair—which manufactured aircraft for World War II. Born in Buffalo, New York, Fleet moved with his family when the airplane business was relocated to San Diego. On the West Coast, he met Clifford Graham, an entrepreneur well-known in La Jolla, California, for his multiple business pursuits. Graham also had a reputation for carrying a gun and leading investors astray with questionable business practices.

Fotomat, however, was no hustle. The concept of a kiosk where people could easily drop off and pick up film that would be ready overnight originated in Florida, where Charles Brown opened the first location in 1965. After buying Brown's stock shares and arranging for a royalty, Fleet and Graham founded the Fotomat Corporation in 1967, with Graham president and Fleet vice-president. The concept grew quickly, boasting 1800 sites in its first 18 months of operation. Owing to its color scheme, people often thought Kodak operated the business, which led to complaints from Kodak as well as lawsuits. (Fotomat changed its design in 1970 to avoid confusion.)

While it was relatively easy to slot in a Fotomat hut in a parking lot, a business operating as an island surrounded by traffic had its problems. Remembering an old Fotomat in New Dorp on Staten Island, residents on Facebook recalled plowing into the kiosk or backing into it. (Most notably, terrorists destroy a Fotomat lookalike hut in the Twin Pines Mall lot in 1985’s Back to the Future.)

There was also the matter of bathrooms: They weren’t any. Employees often made arrangements to duck into local supermarkets or other stores when nature demanded it.

Hot pants and a lack of lavatories aside, Fotomat performed so well that Fleet and Graham decided to take it public in 1969, with each man holding stock worth $60 million at one point. But Graham’s controversial business practices made him a short-timer. In 1971, he was ousted from Fotomat over allegations he was misusing funds for his own personal gain, including his political interests—Graham was a supporter of both Richard Nixon and football player-turned-congressman Jack Kemp, who became an assistant to the president in the Fotomat corporation and referred football pros to become franchisees.

 

By the early 1980s, Fotomat—now minus Fleet, who had sold off his shares, and Graham—had opened over 4000 locations. That was both impressive and problematic. Fotomat had far overextended itself, sometimes opening kiosks so close to one another it cannibalized sales. There was also a growing number of pharmacies and grocery stores offering photo development services.

Fotomat locations were usually found in parking lots.David Prasad, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The real death blow for Fotomat, however, wasn’t over-expansion. It was the emergence of the one-hour minilab.

For an investment of $50,000 to $100,000, existing stores could install labs that could process photos in as little as one hour while customers shopped. Minilabs exploded from just 600 locations in 1980 to 14,700 by 1988. And since film never left the sites, it was less likely to get lost. It decimated Fotomat and its copycat businesses, with Fotomat moving from an impressive 18 percent market share in the photo processing industry to just 2 percent by 1988.

The company tried to recalibrate, converting home movies to videotape and even offering VHS rental during the VCR boom of the 1980s, but it wasn’t successful. Mass layoffs and closures followed. (Minilabs would have their own reckoning, both due to the rise of 35mm photography and digital photography.) In 1990, Fotomat was down to just 800 locations.

Fleet, who had exited Fotomat years prior—the company had been sold to Konica—was no worse for the wear. Prior to his death in 1995, he authored a book, Hue and Cry, which called into question the authenticity of works attributed to William Shakespeare. He was a founding director of the San Diego Aerospace Museum in 1963. He also helped popularize Omnimax, an immersive theater experience owned by Imax, installing a screen at the Reuben H. Fleet Space Theater and Space Museum in San Diego in 1973.

Graham’s future after Fotomat was far more colorful. Promoting a bogus gold mining operation he named Au Magnetics, he promised he could turn sand into gold. Instead, he was accused of fleecing investors. When a federal grand jury handed down an indictment that included charges of mail fraud, wire fraud, and tax evasion in 1986, Graham was nowhere to be found. Nor would he ever be located. Associates speculate he either successfully eluded authorities or was possibly killed by an investor who was unhappy with losing money.

As for the Fotomat locations themselves: Following the company’s collapse, many were repurposed into other businesses. Some became coffee shops; others morphed into watch repair kiosks, locksmith huts, windshield wiper dealers, or tailors. Presumably, none of the owners who took over mandated their employees wear hot pants.