Cast your mind back to before this year and stop… it’s nice, right? Shops were open, people flowed effortlessly in and out of bars and restaurants and the world didn’t feel like it was going to end. Remember all of that? No? Well, no need to worry as photographer Emily Earl gives us a taste of what life once was in her new monograph “Late Night Polaroids”. Our editor Elliot Linden got the chance to sit over Zoom with Emily to discuss the project, the unbelievable story that started it all, and how her work ended up being viewed by half a million people.
Elliot Linden: Emily thank you so much for speaking with me, just to start with, I wanted to praise you for your work on this book. It really is fantastic, for me, it’s a slice of American night-life that I’m seeing for the first time. With that being said what attracted you to Savannah as a location for this project?
Emily Earl: Thank you so much. Well, I guess because I live here and I kinda grew up around downtown Savannah’s night time scene. Even as a kid I was always downtown, my parents worked there too. This whole project really built up over my whole life of me knowing the city and shooting around it a lot.
EL: And when looking through the book you’ve attached the year to each photo captured and they vary from quite recently to all the way back to 2012. At what point did you decide this could be a serious project?
EE: Yeah so I began shooting in 2012 and it was just started as a casual thing of “Oh I’ve got this cool camera, I have this great film and I’m going downtown tonight anyway so I’ll just take the camera and see what happens!” And maybe two years into shooting I realized that I was getting really good shots from this and I needed to be a little more serious about it. I always knew that it would make a really good book. As well other people would say to me “You know this would make a really great book” and I thought “Totally!” I also have a show up at the museum in Atlanta and I was speaking with the curators and they had talked about turning the series into a book and that it could run alongside the show and that all ended up working out which was great.
EL: That’s amazing. Just going back to what you mentioned about deciding to take the project more seriously, was there a particular moment or even an image in the series that sparked the decision?
EE: I got some really great shots early on which made me feel like “Okay this is not just for fun I really could do something with this”. One of those images for me would have to be ‘Blake’. It’s of this girl, she’s blonde, she’s wearing this 1920’s outfit and she has this long necklace which the flash pops so there’s this starburst. That still remains one of my personal favorites in the project and I remember when I got the shot I was like “Holy shit! This is really something.” At that point too it felt like more than a Polaroid, it felt more serious cause I think Polaroids tend to have this photo for the masses appeal and they’re not seen as this professional way of taking photos.
EL: I agree, I feel that Polaroids are something that someone brings out a party perhaps. They’re not typically a camera that someone would base a project around. In the book, you mention some of your inspirations being Weegee and Brassai, just how big a part did they play in shaping this project for you?
EE: Well I went through a big Weegee obsession when I was younger and he was a press photographer so back in the day he had a 4×5 press camera and it was compact but it folded out and my Polaroid folded out. So there’s that. He was doing all sorts of crazy things though like listening to police radios for who had been murdered and he would photograph these grotesque scenes which I, rather ironically, found really interesting and beautiful. But to answer your question, he would shoot black and white and use a large flash as well as shooting mostly at night so there were some basic similarities between my work and his. As for Brassai, he has a book called ‘Paris at Night’ which features a lot of softer images and is super different from Weegee so the balance of them both really helped me. For me I’ve just grown up around this work, my parents were both photographers and were showing me all of this, and growing up I absorbed it ll. So eventually it was going to come out in my work later in life.
EL: That balance you mentioned there is clear to see in the people you photographed, it’s a lovely mix of young & old, sophisticated & reckless. Were those people quite compliant when you wanted to photograph them?
EE: Oh yeah, yeah people would see me from like a block away saying “PLEASE TAKE MY PICTURE!” And sometimes I would have to say “No… maybe later!” because I just wouldn’t be interested in taking their picture. But then there would be other people who I would see and say “Oh my God I have got to make this picture happen!” I think I was only turned down once or twice ever. The camera itself helps because to most people now it’s very eye-catching and exotic even though it’s from the 1970’s. But people were really into it.
EL: That’s funny you mention the camera as I was recently given my father’s old Minolta XGM from the 80’s. It’s a beauty!
EE: Is that a 35mm?
EL: Yeah it is, it’s gorgeous. And I get the same looks off people saying “What’s that?” or “Where did you get it from?”
EE: It’s crazy too because I’ve gone out with a digital DSLR and its a totally different experience when taking pictures of strangers.
EL: How so?
EE: People are right away very suspicious and I’ve had people get up in my face and be scary even when I’m not taking their picture. It’s a totally different experience between the two cameras. It’s bizarre. I think it’s people who are worried that I’ll post them online or even that I’m press. When you have an old camera, the number one thing people assume is that you’re shooting for more art & creative purposes or you don’t know how to use it so the photos aren’t going to come out good. Whereas with the digital people are much more aware of the things you could do with it, I’m not too sure.
EL: So with that being said how would you advise photographers who look at these photos and would maybe try and replicate them?
EE: Usually the first thing people ask is “What are the photos for?” and so you gotta have a good answer. And your answer is hopefully something that puts them at ease, like “I’m an artist, I’m doing this for a project. Would you mind if I took a photo of you?” It doesn’t ever hurt to praise someone and if you’re appreciating someone for their looks then you gotta let them know that you think that. Some street photographers do this and have a full thirty-minute conversation with the person they’re shooting. I tend not to do that, I’m in and outta there pretty quickly! For me, there’s something special found in those short interactions that I don’t want to ruin by being there for too long. But everybody’s got their own way of shooting I guess.
EL: We mentioned earlier about the camera and the effect that it had on people, and there’s a mention in the opening pages of the book that you bought it for just $2?!
EE: Yeah it was like the luckiest yard sale I ever found!
EL: Wow, and that price is crazy for me because when you look at the camera it doesn’t strike me as only being worth $2! When you saw the camera did you instantly recognize it?
EE: I had a couple of other ones that were not the same model but took the same film because it was quite a common camera back in the day. But when I saw this one I thought “Oh my God, this is next level!” I knew it was going to be good. It was another female photographer from Sweden, I think, who sold it to me as she was moving back home and so she was getting rid of everything. In the end, I managed to scoop up five lightboxes, two Polaroid cameras, and a couple of other things for very little money.
EL: Wow and from there the rest was history.
EE: Well no… when I first got the camera, the AA batteries had corroded and so the flash wasn’t firing properly. And I got pissed off about it and put it in a closet and forgot about it until six months later when I remembered it and thought “Oh hey maybe I can fix this.” And so there’s a trick you can do when you get a pencil eraser and you erase the contact points and that clears up the corrosion and it works again. I managed to do that, it worked, and then I took the camera out later that night for the first time. I took it to a new bar that had opened up and got some shots and later on I started shooting with it at a house party where I realized “Okay I need to start using this more.”
EL: That’s incredible! Did you ever get in contact with the photographer who sold you the camera?
EE: No I never did! I think we’re friends on Facebook. We didn’t know each other or anything, I’ve thought about telling her but I don’t think she’d remember me.
EL: Send her a copy of the book!
EE: Ha! Yeah, maybe!
EL: Now forgive me if this is a stupid question to ask, given all that we’ve said about the camera, but could this project have worked with a camera from today’s era?
EE: Well more recently I was doing a little bit of digital stuff but I think that the success of this project was the camera. The camera itself, as an object, was very intriguing and seductive to people and so it helps ease the awkwardness of going up to people and saying “Hi, we don’t know each other but I really want to take this picture of you.” because the camera was so cool. And not only was the camera so cool looking but you pull out this thing and there’s your photo like fifteen seconds later, most people haven’t seen that and it’s not the type of Polaroid you pull out it’s that peel-apart type. For me, all of those aspects made the project as successful as it’s been.
EL: So is the project still ongoing?
EE: Unfortunately not. The big reason the project ended was because of the film (FP-3000b made by Fujifilm) is no longer being produced now, but when I first started the project I was still working at a photo lab getting that film wholesale with my employee discount and so I was paying about 80 cents a shot. By the end of the project it was about 20 bucks a shot, so that’s $200 a box. So when I first started shooting I would be out from ten at night till roughly four in the morning and I would take sixty Polaroids no problem but towards the end, it was like “Holy shit I can only shoot five pictures tonight” cause that’s $100 right there. So after I finished the project I had to think about whether I could still do something similar but using a digital camera so that it’s of little cost to me, so I decided that I would shoot digital in color and with only available light. No flash either, so I’m shooting at ISO 10000 and I’m having to place the camera on top of tables and using all these weird colored lights and things. It’s a very different experience.
EL: That’s a shame, a real shame actually because I honestly think you could make another book with these kinds of photos.
EE: Well thank you. I could do this forever you know, it was so much fun and I always thought it would be great to try it in multiple cities so I could have a New York one, an LA one, or a New Orleans one. Somewhere outside of the US would be cool too!
EL: I’m sure there would be many people who’d love to see that! Another thing I wanted to ask you while we are on the subject of the film is, we’ve seen a re-birth if you’d like of old mediums such as vinyl’s and from a photography standpoint a rise in more people using film cameras over digital ones. And for you, having used a very old Polaroid camera, where does that attraction for film cameras come from?
EE: That it’s a physical object. That I can show it to you and I can interact with it, the fact that all the little details like the cartridge, the tabs, and everything like that have all been designed and thought through very carefully. Digital just doesn’t have as much soul to it. It’s the same with vinyl too, I have a small record collection but it means a lot to me because there’s a certain depth there that streaming definitely doesn’t have. Like back in high school me and my friends used to make each other mix-tapes but kids don’t do that now I guess they’re just like “Oh I’ve made you a playlist”. But back then we would spend weeks making the inside cover and that would be handmade, collaged, painted, and designed in our own handwriting! It was very personalized. You would also record off of the radio and rewind and fast-forward at the right times too. It meant a lot. Now it’s not like that.
EL: I completely agree. The digital side of things is absolutely more soulless and doesn’t give you that appreciation for craftsmanship. I think I feel that most with a book or even a broadsheet newspaper and a Kindle; the smell of the ink, the feel of the pages, the weight of the book in your hand. There’s a real sensory experience that people miss out on with digital formats and mediums.
EE: Right! And not to be all sciency or whatever but I’ve read a little bit about this and they’ve found that people who read information from a book are more likely to remember it than they would if they read it from a screen. I think having a physical object activates more of our senses, like you said, whether we are conscious of that or not. It makes for a richer experience.
EL: And do you think that the use of film cameras will continue?
EE: I hope so, I hope it does. As more of our life experiences go to digital, internet-based, non-personal experiences then we have to balance out because we’re social animals and we experience things physically. One thing I will say about the film though is that it’s so bad for the planet, I always feel guilty about that and I try to be very mindful of that. Everything else is very positive but that’s the one negative. This is also a little dorky, so I hope you don’t mind, but there’s a thing that happens called the flow state and I read that it happens when someone is doing something that they feel confident and comfortable with. A thing then clicks between the taking in of information in your brain and your body in the physical space. It happens for me when I’m taking photos most of the time and it is the best thing ever, there is no other experience as good as that one.
EL: Having had time to think about the project are you happy with how it turned out?
EE: Yeah I’m very happy with how they [the pictures] came out. It’s weird because especially in the last year or two of shooting this I had become very familiar with the images I had already made, I was starting to understand the story they were telling, what they were and weren’t showing but I was starting to see gaps and I started to imagine what would fill those gaps photography-wise. I would say that I wish there were some images I had gotten like there were certain images I was hoping for that I didn’t ever get. I’m not bummed about it but I just wish I had got those particular images.
EL: But maybe there’s a reason you didn’t get the images this time because you’ll have another chance to get them in the future.
EE: Yeah totally! And I have an overactive imagination so maybe I’m just asking too much! But I’m very pleased and a flip side to that is there are some images that I never could have imagined, that I’m very lucky to have got them. And I’m proud of those nice surprises.
EL: And just on that surprise element, when you were photographing people did you find yourself staging the image, or was it more spontaneous than that?
EE: Oh no it was way more spontaneous than that! The most I would ever do is I would see someone walk down the street towards me where all these bars are and I then work up some courage to ask for their picture and they’d let me take one of them and I’d say “Okay great can I just get you over at this wall here.” And it would kinda happen from there. I would never direct them properly because I wanted it to be like I’d just found them so the project involved very little direction.
EL: I love that. I think that type of candid photography is brilliant because it takes down the shield that we all put up for the world and reveals that person as their true self. And I don’t know if this was the case with you and your ProPack but whenever I bring out my camera the first thing people do is they pose-
EE: Yes, or they smile too!
EL: Oh they do!
EE: And I’m like no don’t smile! The way you were was perfect. As well though for studio photographers you can have all the light, the costumes, the equipment, and everything all set but really it’s all about what happens in that magical minute, that unknowable thing the person is going to do that makes the shot. You can’t manufacture that. It just happens, which to me is very exciting and magical.
EL: That’s amazing. When I was researching you Emily and the book I saw that it’s been featured in a number of forms from The New Yorker to having been featured in its own exhibition and now it’s available as a monograph. Do you prefer one format over another?
EE: Well I always thought it would work well as a book. And I think it’s interesting all the different formats you can show something in. A couple of years ago there was this international photography festival in France that approached me and for the opening night, they invite all these different photographers to make a slideshow presentation of their work accompanied by music that would be displayed on a huge screen. I had never done anything like that before, it was so cool. I think it’s interesting to create something and see all the ways that it can be displayed.
EL: And just picking up on The New Yorker, what was your reaction when they got in touch?
EE: I got an email from their photo editor and I was like “What the fuck?” and I called in my studio partner Jennifer and I was like “Jennifer, look at this email! Is this a spam email?!” I could not believe it, it was a very big deal! And my Mum has subscribed to the magazine since I was a kid so I’ve been interested since I was young. It was a big deal for me. And you know it’s half a million people that follow that account and you refresh your phone and it’s got 500 likes and then you refresh it again and it’s got another 500 likes in seconds! It’s this bizarrely huge reach!
EL: It’s like a shot of adrenaline almost.
EE: Yeah it was very intense because then all these strangers are commenting too and some of them said some not nice things and it was difficult for me, most of it was complimentary but yeah to put yourself out there like that made me very nervous. Overall though it was awesome because it was a week-long take over of their Instagram from Christmas to New Year’s Eve.
EL: Wow that’s –
EE: Yeah which is a kinda crazy slot to get because everyone is off work and their all on their phones so they are all going to see the photos.
EL: Forgive me for saying though, does that not seem like a slot that would be reserved for photos that are more festive?
EE: Well yeah! When they gave me that slot I too was like “Really? Are you sure you don’t want to get somebody with some Christmas pictures?” Yeah, I dunno but it was a fantastic slot to get. And you know technology is so weird like I would wake up it would be freezing in my house so I’d be wrapped in duvets etc and I would post a photo to the page and my work would be seen by half a million people and there I am in my pajamas. The technology is mind-blowing.
EL: That’s insane! And what’s better is that all those people probably think that you’re off somewhere living a lavish life casually posting your work and have no idea that you’re actually all wrapped up in your bed covers uploading to them.
EE: It’s super weird!
EL: And finally Emily, with all that being said what is the end goal with your photography and with your career in the industry?
EE: Basically with the images I shoot I want to give people enough, just enough so they can use it as a jumping-off point to a story that they make up for themselves about what the picture is about. So the images should help you use your imagination. And I think that portrait photography is about exercising empathy and looking at an image of another person and recognizing something in that person you identify with or challenges your perception of other people or of yourself. But it’s also about keeping myself amused and challenged as well as meeting and connecting with interesting people.
EL: Of course.
EE: What’s so interesting about photography and specifically portrait photography is that on the one hand this is a picture of a very real person but simultaneously as a photographer you don’t know that person most of the time and yes you can pick up on certain clues about who that person is but ultimately you are kinda making up in your mind who they are and that depends on who you are and not who the subject is at all and I think that’s just fascinating. It has more to do with your own feelings about yourself whether you realize it or not, you’re projecting so much of yourself on this image of another person and it has nothing to do with them at all.
Special thanks to: Emily Earl, Carson Sanders, Emerald Arguelles, Taylor Curry and to You for taking the time to read the interview.