Candid Polaroid Photos of Black Lives Matter at the Art Gallery of Ontario

Smiles.

Families.

Moms. Dads.

Son. Girls.

Grandmothers. Grandfathers.

Aunts. Uncles.

Small children. Big kids.

Toronto artist Zun Lee has found the remarkable in the ordinary. Hidden in plain sight. One step from the trash can.

Friends.

Friends and girlfriends. Boyfriends and boyfriends.

Dressed. Dressed.

yards. Dens.

Holidays. Vacations.

Motorcycles. Cars. Bikes.

Beautiful people. Hopeful people. Funny people.

Caring people. Proud people. Happy people.

Pictured are the incredibly ordinary experiences of black Americans. The same experiences lived and photographed by white Americans. By all Americans.

Why, then, are black people commonly “other”? Why Black People Are Generally Considered Different By Non-Black People

Questions inherent in “What Matters Most: Photographs of Black Life,” an exhibition from Lee’s collection of found photographs acquired by the Art Gallery of Ontario in 2018, which is now on view there until January 8, 2023 .

“Polaroids and other instant film formats are unique in their ability to capture daily life in such an immediate and sociable way,” Lee told Forbes.com. “These images were taken, shaken, circulated and discussed by black friends and families. There is a non-self-aware performative and aesthetic element in their creation, invisible elsewhere.

This “non-self-aware performative element” reveals itself in stupidity. Tenderness. Intimate, revealing, unguarded moments only show up when surrounded by love and joy. These people, their poses, the images would be completely different if the subjects knew that the images would one day hang in a museum. The photographs Lee has collected provide a rare insight into people, as only those closest to them have seen them. Before putting their defenses in place to face a harsher world outside of their safest comfort zone.

Amazing.

Lee began collecting snapshots of black life 10 years ago. He would find them at garage sales and online. The collection has grown to over 4,000 images from the 1960s to the early 2000s. This first presentation features over 500.

“We know very little about the individual images in this collection – who made them, where and when they were taken, how they were lost,” Lee said.

Tantalizing clues are revealed written in the photographs.

“Sammy’s Baptism.” July 19, 1998.

“October 3, 1975. San Francisco.”

“Neicy, Donta.”

“10-11-78.”

“16-12-77. To daddy. To love. Man.”

“Ashley, mom and dad, 7-8-84. 9 weeks.

Who were these people? What have they become ?

These answers are both unknowable and obvious.

They were you. They were me. They were everyone.

They have had success. They had failures. Good days. Bad days. Hopefully more good than harm.

They lived and live or died.

Like everyone.

“Polaroids and other instant-format photographs will inevitably decay, decay and fade over time — it’s part of their chemistry,” Lee said. “The work of the collection is to resist this, both physically and historically. The exhibition and publication of these images makes it possible to reactivate them, to bring to life the sharing of individual and collective memories.

Missing from “What Matters Most” are the photographic images of black Americans typically shown in mass media: ID photos, protesters, victims, poverty, violence.

A sullen member of the Black Panthers. A moaning mother mourning a shooting. Homeless on the “wrong” side of town.

“We see a vision of black life that is firmly at odds with mainstream post-war narratives,” Lee explains. “We cannot forget that the Moynihan Report of 1965 which did so much to solidify 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 flattened narratives spanning decades.

Written by then-U.S. Department of Labor Assistant Secretary Daniel Patrick Moynihan, what became known as the “Moynihan Report” was officially titled “The Black Family: The Case for National Action.” . The report hypothesized that a nuclear family breakdown in black communities contributed to a greater incidence of poverty in black America than among whites. This finding was then and has been widely repeated since to blame black parents – primarily fathers – for problems in the black community.

Moynihan’s claim that the reason for this breakdown was the history of slavery, abuse and discrimination suffered by black people since arriving in America was ignored. Moynihan, in fact, considered it “extraordinary” that black Americans survived, given the racial terror they endured.

This racial terror continues to this day.

Jayland Walker.

Donovan Lewis.

Fanta Bility.

Lee’s photographs should be copied by the millions and used to line every law enforcement office in America. The police continue to demonstrate that black lives do not matter to them. If the cops saw the smiling black faces, the friendly black faces, the paternal black faces in these images, it’s impossible to believe they would continue their “shoot first, ask questions later” standard operating procedures in regards to concerns black men.

It is impossible to “alter” the people in these photographs. The blacks 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 yet a fantasy.

“There’s the incredible ability of these images to elicit feelings of relatedness – in these images there are things that are so essentially human – that they can help us all come together,” Lee said.

These images have that power. This is why they belong to an art museum although they were not taken by professional photographers or produced to make an artistic statement.

The artistry of “What Matters Most” does not come from the individual images, the artistry comes from the collection as a whole – Lee’s vision and curation in his compilation. Together, the photos present a powerful visual statement about the lives and experiences, culture, relationships, dreams of black people over half a century. Together, this becomes one of the most spectacular and compelling art projects in memory. Found object art. A ready-made of black American culture and life. A safeguard of black visual culture. Recognize the extraordinary in the ordinary.

Genius.

“For black audiences, the existence and exposure of these images is empowering – a rare opportunity to view black culture unfiltered through a lens of white supremacy,” Lee said. “Separating 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 more than 1,000 words.

William E. Bennett