Candid Polaroid Pictures Of Black Life At Art Gallery Of Ontario
Little kids. Big kids.
Toronto artist Zun Lee found the remarkable in the ordinary. Hidden in plain sight. One step from the trash bin.
Girl friends and girlfriends. Boy friends and boyfriends.
Dressed up. Dressed down.
Motorcycles. Cars. Bicycles.
Beautiful people. Hopeful people. Funny people.
Caring people. Proud people. Happy people.
Pictured are the incredibly ordinary experiences of Black Americans. The same experiences enjoyed and photographed by white Americans. By all Americans.
Why, then, are Blacks commonly “othered?” Why are Blacks commonly considered different by non-Blacks
Questions inherent in “What Matters Most: Photographs of Black Life,” an exhibition of Lee’s found photography collection acquired by the Art Gallery of Ontario in 2018 now on view there through January 8, 2023.
“Polaroids and other instant film formats are unique in their ability to capture everyday life in such an immediate and sociable way,” Lee told Forbes.com. “These images were taken, shaken, passed around and discussed by Black friends and families. There is hardwired into their creation an un-self-conscious performative element and aesthetic, unseen elsewhere.”
That “un-self-conscious performative element” reveals itself in silliness. Tenderness. The intimate, revealing, unguarded moments only displayed when surrounded by love and joy. These people, their poses, the pictures would look completely different if the subjects knew the images would one day hang in a museum. The photographs Lee has collected provide rare insight into people as only those closest to them saw them. Before they put their defenses up to face a harsher world outside their most secure comfort zone.
Lee began collecting instant print portraits of Black life 10 years ago. He’d find them at yard sales and online. The collection grew to exceed 4,000 pictures from the 1960s through the early 2000s. This debut presentation features more than 500.
“We know very little about the individual images in this collection–who made them, where and when they were taken, how they came to be lost,” Lee said.
Tantalizing hints are revealed in writing on the photographs.
“Sammy’s baptism. July 19, 1998.”
“October 3, 1975. San Francisco.”
“12-16-77. To dad. Love. Butch.”
“Ashley, mom & dad, 7-8-84. 9 weeks old.”
Who were these people? What became of them?
Those answers simultaneously unknowable and obvious.
They were you. They were me. They were everyone.
They had successes. They had failures. Good days. Bad days. Hopefully more good than bad.
They lived and are living or have died.
Same as everyone.
“Polaroids and other instant format photographs will inevitably decompose, decay, and fade over time–it’s part of their chemistry,” Lee said. “The work of the collection is to resist that, both physically and historically. The exhibition and publication of these images allows them to be activated again, to enable the sharing of individual and collective memories to live.”
Absent from “What Matters Most” are the photographic images of Black Americans typically shown in the mass media: mug shots, protestors, victims, poverty, violence.
A scowling member of the Black Panthers. A wailing mother grieving a shooting. Homeless on the “bad” side of town.
“We see a vision of Black life that is firmly at odds with the dominant narratives of the postwar era,” Lee explains. “We cannot forget that the Moynihan Report of 1965 which did so much to concretize the perception of Black families as pathological and dysfunctional is still significant in sociopolitical discourse. These images–of births, graduations, dinners, birthdays-demonstrate a richness and complexity that contradicts these flattening narratives throughout several decades.”
Written by then-assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan, what became known as “the Moynihan Report” was formally titled, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.” The report hypothesized that a breakdown of the nuclear family in Black communities contributed to Black America’s greater incidence of poverty than whites. That finding was then and has ever since been widely repeated to blame Black parents–primarily fathers–for the problems of the Black community.
Ignored was Moynihan’s contention that the reason for this breakdown was the history of slavery, abuse and discrimination experienced by Black people ever since arriving in America. Moynihan, in fact, considered it “extraordinary” that Black people in America survived at all considering the racial terror they endured.
That racial terror continues to the present day.
Lee’s photographs should be copied in the millions and used to wallpaper every law enforcement office in America. Police continue demonstrating that Black lives don’t matter to them. If cops saw the smiling Black faces, the friendly Black faces, the fatherly Black faces on view in these pictures, it’s impossible to believe they would continue their “shoot first, ask questions later” standard operating procedures when it comes to Black men.
It’s impossible to “other” the people in these photographs. The Black people in these photographs. To not value their lives. They look too much like everyone else.
If these were the images of Black people shared in mass media over the past half century, equality in America might be closer to reality, not still a fantasy.
“There is the incredible capacity of these images to prompt feelings of kinship–in these images are things so essentially human–that they can help us all come closer,” Lee said.
These pictures have that power. That’s why they belong in an art museum despite not being taken by professional photographers or produced to make an artistic statement.
The artistry in “What Matters Most” doesn’t come from the individual pictures, the artistry comes from the collection as a whole–Lee’s vision and curation in compiling it. Together, the photos present a powerful visual statement about the lives and experiences, the culture, the relationships, the dreams of Black people over a half-century. Together, it becomes one of the most dramatic and compelling art projects in memory. Found object art. A ready-made of Black American culture and life. A safeguard of Black visual culture. Recognizing the extraordinary in the ordinary.
“For Black audiences, the existence and exhibition of these images is empowering–a rare opportunity to see Black Culture unfiltered through a lens of white supremacy,” Lee said. “The separation of these images from their families is an opportunity for everyone to consider the larger socio-political forces that continue to marginalize Black lives and domestic spaces.”
These pictures are worth a great deal more than 1,000 words.