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The Polaroid camera and "photodivination”


The New Inquiry has published a fascinating essay by Jane Yager about the “Baysiders,” a group of Catholics in the 1960s who were devotees of Veronica Lueken, a white working-class woman from Bayside, Queens. Lueken claimed to receive divine messages from dead saints and see visions in poorly developed Polaroid photographs:

The Bayside movement coincided with the advent of the SX-70, and miraculous photographs became a central part of the Baysiders’ devotional practice. The whirr of ejecting film was as characteristic a vigil sound as the chanting of prayers. Only Lueken could see and speak for the divine, but every Baysider could take pictures. Over time, the group developed a divinatory chart for decoding symbols and colors that appeared on the photos: the letter W, for example, signifies worldwide warning, while snakes represent the forces of hell. The color blue indicates Mary, often present in the distinctive “Polaroid blue” cast of SX-70 prints. Folklorist Daniel Wojcik calls the Baysiders’ use of Polaroids “photodivination,” comparing it to Ndembu divination traditions in northwestern Zambia: like Ndembu diviners’ symbols, the symbolic system of miracle photos leaves space for the pilgrim to actively interpret the image.

Vigil photography did not originate at Bayside. Pilgrims took pictures at Marian apparition sites as early as the 1930s, and the oldest known Christian miraculous photograph dates from 1905, just five years after the introduction of the first mass-market camera, the Kodak Brownie. Shot off the Narrows of St. John’s in Newfoundland, it shows an iceberg with a large protrusion in the shape of the Virgin Mary. The Archbishop in St. John’s approved of the photo—so heartily, in fact, that he dubbed it Our Lady of the Fjords and penned a sonnet in praise of the “Crystal Virgin, from the frozen fjords/Where far-off Greenland’s gelid glaciers gleen”…

Many Baysiders have had their cameras blessed by priests. Rose petals are taped onto cameras and rosary beads are draped around them. In a digital era, the Baysiders’ anachronistic photographic practices seem emphatically embodied. Their use of Polaroid cameras has become an assertion that a special miraculous potential resides in Polaroid technology’s combination of the analog and the instantaneous. The development process occurs inaccessibly, yet within an object that is tangibly present. An image “not painted by human hands” takes shape before the Baysider’s eyes, rising up through the chemical layers of the film sheet to emerge into view on its surface. As with traditional acheiropoeita, the miracle depends on the sense of mystery evoked by the conditions of the image’s physical production. In the Baysiders’ Polaroids, a dissident form of direct communication with the divine converges with the photograph’s physicality and immediate creation to produce a miracle.

Read Jane Yager’s essay at The New Inquiry’s website.