Polaroid Photography on the Road

It’s 4:52 PM, and I’m in New York, buying toothpaste at a Bodega. No, it’s 12:01 PM and I’m in London and I’m packing books for our next pop-up event. Maybe it’s Amsterdam because I definitely heard a foreign language. It’s Polish, so clearly I’m in Greenpoint. I have a Pound, a five Euro note, and a twenty Dollar bill in my pocket. Which do I need? I accidentally give the one pound note to the accordionist of a busking mariachi band on the New York Subway. Or is it the Tube? All I know is I’m not home in San Francisco, though I keep getting emails from there: Where is that blog post? Where are the books for Sydney? When are you coming home?

I come back to my hotel. Which hotel room? Is it 510? 205? 315? 305? I’ve stayed in all of them. I have keycards to prove it. I drop my bag down and kick off my shoes. On the headboard is a line of instant photos: Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe, a sign in Greenpoint advising against the posting of bills, some Williamsburg graffiti, the New York skyline. OK, I know where I am.

Polaroid Display Idea


On the headboard is a line of instant photos… OK, I know where I am.

I travel a lot for Blurb. Recently, as part of Blurb’s Roadshow, I found myself, over three weeks, in three cities, three countries, four hotels, three currencies, three time zones, all while helping Blurb to plan an event on another continent entirely. It’s thrilling work. But it’s easy to lose track of where I am and what I’ve done. I experience extreme dislocation. Jet lag doesn’t help (I’m writing this at 6:00 AM, unable to sleep). That’s where the photos come in. I always travel with at least one instant camera, a Polaroid or Instax (this time both). I take photos—mostly abstracts or pop-inspired compositions. When I come back to my temporary home I find a suitable picture rail—a ledge where I can lean them up. This is my record, my personal gallery, my touch of humanity. I take down photos I don’t find satisfying. I reorder them by time, theme, aesthetics.

This goes back to 2013. I traveled for Blurb for the first time. I was in frigid Chicago and I’d been out shooting with Dan Milnor. I had a 35mm camera and a Polaroid. Later in the evening, I was hanging out with some art students. We talked Polaroids. They perched mine up against the window sill and juried them. We had a laugh. I learned students can be critical. When they left, I left the Polaroids there on the sill. My travel tradition was born.

This is my record, my personal gallery, my touch of humanity.

I do other things to keep me sane too. I keep a journal for writing. I keep a notebook with collages, art from failed Polaroids, photobooth photos. I make self portraits on hotel keycards. But the picture rail is my favorite. Art is what keeps me sane on the road. These days, modern hotels eschew artwork on the walls. I Instagram too, but it’s not the same—my photos there disappear when the phone goes in my pocket. My picture rail gives me continuity, a physical thread that winds from San Francisco to Schiphol to Heathrow to John F Kennedy. The photos come home with me too. Because I work for a company that lets people make books with their photography, I often make books with them. Ultimately they end up in a box or a binder. I go through them every once in a while. But I know that soon it’s going to be time to pack up the Polaroid again, get on a plane, and wonder just where in the hell I am. Thank Edwin Land for those little plastic pictures.

How do you track your travels? Have any photo-related travel rituals? We’d love to hear about them in the comment section.



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