I spent a good part of Tuesday night looking at a website of Polaroids taken by Jamie Livingston, a film maker and musician who shot one a day from March 31, 1979 through October 25, 1997, almost 6700 altogether. Sometimes he may have had a friend take the picture, because he appears in quite a few of them. The last one is of him, in a hospital bed on his 41st birthday, the day before he died of cancer.
(I discovered this site via C.monster.net who found it here on Mentalfloss.com,where the blogger Chris Higgens tracked down more information about Livingston and his friends. That’s Livingston at left in the picture above.)
The pictures can be clever, but they don’t strain for effect. The rules are there are no rules. There are shots of people eating, working, hanging around — just the ordinary run of existence, though as it turns out an existence that will run its course too soon. Sometimes he’ll grab an image off a tv screen, but he doesn’t often try to reflect “events” in the larger world, just what strikes him that day. (So a picture of John Lennon appears on Nov. 2, 1988, but not on the day he was murdered, Dec. 8, 1980.) An event in this series can be somebody smiling or just a field of blue and red stripes that caught his eye.
Something about Livingston’s project reminded me that towards the end of his life the photographer Garry Winogrand shot rolls and rolls of film almost aimlessly, just pointing the camera out the window of his car. I think Winogrand was looking for whatever you find when you let go as best you can of the structures of art. (That was an idea that was also basic to what Robert Rauschenberg was doing sometimes.) And I ‘ve always been fascinated by an old movie by the Swiss director Alain Tanner, In the White City. Bruno Ganz plays an engineer on an oil tanker who jumps ship in Lisbon and stays there, periodically sending home to his girlfriend a home movie of his aimless days. By the time he makes the last film his life is dissolving into pure weightless existence, and the movie is just footage of streets going by underfoot.
After Livingston’s death, his pictures were organized by two friends into a show they mounted last year at Bard College, which is where he had begun the series when he was a student there. This kind of pure steady documentation can be very powerful. The Livingston project, because of the way it ends, is heartbreaking, but also wonderful in its attention to every little bit of life. The combination of easy digital photography and the Internet will create more of these sustained accounts of everydayness. (It already has. In the last few years a couple of guys made projects of taking a picture of every meal they ate for a year.) Flickr is a public library of photo diaries. But I’m betting that this one will always be one of the form’s monuments, built one little piece at a time.