The Need for a Visual Diary
Natasha Desai wonders about the personal significance of a visual diary, as she navigates through the Polaroids of Jamie Livingston, who made a picture every day, for 18 years.
Jamie Livingston discovered quite casually that he had shot Polaroids every single day for a few weeks in 1979. And then, just like that, he kept at it for 18 years. Almost everyday, Jamie framed and shot photographs of his rather fun life, immortalised as snapshots from a Polaroid SX-70.
I stumbled across his images quite accidentally and found myself lost almost immediately in the vast online archive; carefully maintained by his friend Hugh Crawford and helped by Betsy Reid, Jamie’s wife, in setting up. With each frame came the overwhelming realisation that I was viewing another’s life, the way he saw it, most of which was well before my time.
What made Jamie document his life so intensely and diligently? As a person who finds it difficult to shoot continuously everyday, I wondered about what drove him. Was it a want or a need to leave a legacy behind? Or was it something as simple as improving one’s aesthetic or technique? Or was it just to hold on to certain memories?
As a filmmaker, photographer and circus performer, Jamie’s photographs were made with a joie de vivre that is hard to miss… You can see the excitement and love for his life in New York, his work and his need to experience life. His carefully composed shots ranged from little delights and important sports wins, to portraits of lovers and quiet moments alone, taken with a self-timer. And then there was the mystery of certain frames, the significance of which only Jamie would have known. I soon came to regard him as someone I knew with a familiar intimacy.
“Jamie was like a shepherd. He would gather his friends together and throw ‘orphan parties’ for those whose family lived far away.”
Along the way, I came across Jamie’s photos of his trips to the hospital. He battled cancer in the midst of his life, documenting it just as he did any other day. He did not hide his illness, nor did he exaggerate it. As I watched his hair get thinner, I also watched him get married, in what seemed like a warm and quiet ceremony.
The last picture was made on the 25th of October, 1997, the day that Jamie turned 41. As the numbness set in, almost as if I had experienced a personal loss, I looked for solace. Reading the comments that people had left under the photographs on the website, I realised that the lives he touched were many, even 20 years after he was gone. A young man discovered Polaroids of himself as a baby and his mother, who died when he was a child. Countless people are brought comfort and happiness, by simply viewing a picture made on their birthday.
Did Jamie ever imagine he would leave such an impression on those who came across his photographs? Did he think his frames would touch people so intensely, long after his untimely demise? Probably not. All he did was pick a moment that would be his ideal ‘Photo of the Day’. In these seemingly random singular acts, Jamie carved out a map of his life. A life that became a part of my own, one little white frame at a time.
This article originally appeared in the January 2017 issue of Better Photography.
All photographs by Jamie Livingston, courtesy Hugh Crawford: www.photooftheday.hughcrawford.com
On a journey to discover her personal, visual voice, Natasha Desai shares her inspiration here, with you. You can find her photos here and you can write to her at email@example.comTags: polaroids, pictures, natasha desai, A Vignette of Thoughts, Jamie Livingston