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He Took a Polaroid Every Day, Until the Day He Died

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Editor's Note: This was our most popular post of 2008.

Yesterday I came across a slightly mysterious website -- a collection of Polaroids, one per day, from March 31, 1979 through October 25, 1997. There's no author listed, no contact info, and no other indication as to where these came from. So, naturally, I started looking through the photos. I was stunned by what I found.

In 1979 the photos start casually, with pictures of friends, picnics, dinners, and so on. Here's an example from April 23, 1979 (I believe the photographer of the series is the man in the left foreground in this picture):

By 1980, we start to figure out that the photographer is a filmmaker. He gets a letter from the American Film Festival and takes a photo on January 30, 1980:

January 30, 1980

Some days he doesn't photograph anything interesting, so instead takes a photo of the date. Update: this was an incorrect guess; see the bottom of this post for more info on these date-only pictures.

August 23, 1982

Throughout the 1980s we see more family/fun photos, but also some glimpses of the photographer's filmmaking and music. Here's someone recording audio in a film editing studio from February 5, 1983:

February 5, 1983

The photographer is a big Mets fan. Here's a shot of him and a friend with Mets tickets on April 29, 1986:

April 29, 1986

In the late 1980s we start seeing more evidence that the photographer is also a musician. He plays the accordion, and has friends who play various stringed instruments. What kind of music are they playing? Here's a photo from July 2, 1989 of the photographer with his instrument:

July 2, 1989

In 1991, we see visual evidence of the photographs so far. The photographer has been collecting them in Polaroid boxes inside suitcases, as seen in this photo from March 30, 1991:

March 30, 1991

On December 6, 1993, he marks Frank Zappa's death with this photo:

December 6, 1993

The 1990s seem to be a good time for the photographer. We see him spending more time with friends, and less time photographing street subjects (of which there are many -- I just didn't include them above). Perhaps one of his films made it to IFC, the Independent Film Channel, as seen in this photo from December 18, 1996:

December 18, 1996

Throughout early 1997, we start to see the photographer himself more and more often. Sometimes his face is obscured behind objects. Other times he's passed out on the couch. When he's shown with people, he isn't smiling. On May 2 1997, something bad has happened:

May 2, 1997

By May 4, 1997, it's clear that he has cancer:

May 4, 1997

His health rapidly declining, the photographer takes a mirror-self-portrait on June 2, 1997:

June 2, 1997

By the end of that month, he's completely bald:

June 30, 1997

His health continues to decline through July, August, and September 1997, with several trips to the hospital and apparent chemotherapy. On the bright side, on September 11, 1997, the photographer's hair starts to grow back:

September 11, 1997

On October 5, 1997, it's pretty clear what this picture means:

October 5, 1997

Two days later we see the wedding:

October 7, 1997

And just a few weeks later he's back in the hospital. On October 24, 1997, we see a friend playing music in the hospital room:

October 24, 1997

The next day the photographer dies.

What started for me as an amusing collection of photos -- who takes photos every day for eighteen years? -- ended with a shock. Who was this man? How did his photos end up on the web? I went on a two-day hunt, examined the source code of the website, and tried various Google tricks.

Finally my investigation turned up the photographer as Jamie Livingston, and he did indeed take a photo every day for eighteen years, until the day he died, using a Polaroid SX-70 camera. He called the project "Photo of the Day" and presumably planned to collect them at some point -- had he lived. He died on October 25, 1997 -- his 41st birthday.

After Livingston's death, his friends Hugh Crawford and Betsy Reid put together a public exhibit and website using the photos and called it PHOTO OF THE DAY: 1979-1997, 6,697 Polaroids, dated in sequence. The physical exhibit opened in 2007 at the Bertelsmann Campus Center at Bard College (where Livingston started the series, as a student, way back when). The exhibit included rephotographs of every Polaroid and took up a 7 x 120 foot space.

You can read more about the project at this blog (apparently written by Crawford?). Or just look at the website. It's a stunning account of a man's life and death. All photos above are from the website.

Update: I've made contact with Hugh Crawford and his wife Louise. Apparently the pictures that are just dates aren't Polaroids -- they're placeholders for days when there was no photo, or the photo was lost.

Update 2: After hitting the Digg homepage, the original site has been taken down by the host. Hopefully it'll be back up overnight; in the meantime if anyone has a mirror of the original site, please leave a link in the comments (you have to leave off the http part).

Update 3: The original website is back up! Hugh has managed to restore service, and it looks like the site is now cached across multiple servers. It's still a little slow due to the huge amount of traffic, but at least it works. Go check it out.

Update 4: Jamie Livingston has been added to Wikipedia.

Update 5: Many people have asked about the Polaroid SX-70 camera. Check out this Eames film explaining the camera.

Update 6: The Impossible Project has begun producing Polaroid-compatible film.

Update 7: You can read the story behind this post in Chris's new book The Blogger Abides.

Follow Chris Higgins on Twitter for more stories like this one.

If you'd like to leave a comment, click here. To hear a CBC Radio One interview with Chris Higgins about this article, click here.
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
A Chinese Museum Is Offering Cash to Whoever Can Decipher These 3000-Year-Old Inscriptions

During the 19th century, farmers in China’s Henan Province began discovering oracle bones—engraved ox scapulae and tortoise shells used by Shang Dynasty leaders for record-keeping and divination purposes—while plowing their fields. More bones were excavated in subsequent years, and their inscriptions were revealed to be the earliest known form of systematic writing in East Asia. But over the decades, scholars still haven’t come close to cracking half of the mysterious script’s roughly 5000 characters—which is why one Chinese museum is asking member of the public for help, in exchange for a generous cash reward.

As Atlas Obscura reports, the National Museum of Chinese Writing in Anyang, Henan Province has offered to pay citizen researchers about $15,000 for each unknown character translated, and $7500 if they provide a disputed character’s definitive meaning. Submissions must be supported with evidence, and reviewed by at least two language specialists.

The museum began farming out their oracle bone translation efforts in Fall 2016. The costly ongoing project has hit a stalemate, and scholars hope that the public’s collective smarts—combined with new advances in technology, including cloud computing and big data—will yield new information and save them research money.

As of today, more than 200,000 oracle bones have been discovered—around 50,000 of which bear text—so scholars still have a lot to learn about the Shang Dynasty. Many of the ancient script's characters are difficult to verify, as they represent places and people from long ago. However, decoding even just one character could lead to a substantial breakthrough, experts say: "If we interpret a noun or a verb, it can bring many scripts on oracle bones to life, and we can understand ancient history better,” Chinese history professor Zhu Yanmin told the South China Morning Post.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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6 Eponyms Named After the Wrong Person
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Salmonella species growing on agar.

Having something named after you is the ultimate accomplishment for any inventor, mathematician, scientist, or researcher. Unfortunately, the credit for an invention or discovery does not always go to the correct person—senior colleagues sometimes snatch the glory, fakers pull the wool over people's eyes, or the fickle general public just latches onto the wrong name.

1. SALMONELLA (OR SMITHELLA?)

In 1885, while investigating common livestock diseases at the Bureau of Animal Industry in Washington, D.C., pathologist Theobald Smith first isolated the salmonella bacteria in pigs suffering from hog cholera. Smith’s research finally identified the bacteria responsible for one of the most common causes of food poisoning in humans. Unfortunately, Smith’s limelight-grabbing supervisor, Daniel E. Salmon, insisted on taking sole credit for the discovery. As a result, the bacteria was named after him. Don’t feel too sorry for Theobald Smith, though: He soon emerged from Salmon’s shadow, going on to make the important discovery that ticks could be a vector in the spread of disease, among other achievements.

2. AMERICA (OR COLUMBIANA?)

An etching of Amerigo Vespucci
Henry Guttmann/Getty Images

Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci (1451–1512) claimed to have made numerous voyages to the New World, the first in 1497, before Columbus. Textual evidence suggests Vespucci did take part in a number of expeditions across the Atlantic, but generally does not support the idea that he set eyes on the New World before Columbus. Nevertheless, Vespucci’s accounts of his voyages—which today read as far-fetched—were hugely popular and translated into many languages. As a result, when German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller was drawing his map of the Novus Mundi (or New World) in 1507 he marked it with the name "America" in Vespucci’s honor. He later regretted the choice, omitting the name from future maps, but it was too late, and the name stuck.

3. BLOOMERS (OR MILLERS?)

A black and white image of young women wearing bloomers
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Dress reform became a big issue in mid-19th century America, when women were restricted by long, heavy skirts that dragged in the mud and made any sort of physical activity difficult. Women’s rights activist Elizabeth Smith Miller was inspired by traditional Turkish dress to begin wearing loose trousers gathered at the ankle underneath a shorter skirt. Miller’s new outfit immediately caused a splash, with some decrying it as scandalous and others inspired to adopt the garb.

Amelia Jenks Bloomer was editor of the women’s temperance journal The Lily, and she took to copying Miller’s style of dress. She was so impressed with the new freedom it gave her that she began promoting the “reform dress” in her magazine, printing patterns so others might make their own. Bloomer sported the dress when she spoke at events and soon the press began to associate the outfit with her, dubbing it “Bloomer’s costume.” The name stuck.

4. GUILLOTINE (OR LOUISETTE?)

Execution machines had been known prior to the French Revolution, but they were refined after Paris physician and politician Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin suggested they might be a more humane form of execution than the usual methods (hanging, burning alive, etc.). The first guillotine was actually designed by Dr. Antoine Louis, Secretary of the Academy of Surgery, and was known as a louisette. The quick and efficient machine was quickly adopted as the main method of execution in revolutionary France, and as the bodies piled up the public began to refer to it as la guillotine, for the man who first suggested its use. Guillotin was very distressed at the association, and when he died in 1814 his family asked the French government to change the name of the hated machine. The government refused and so the family changed their name instead to escape the dreadful association.

5. BECHDEL TEST (OR WALLACE TEST?)

Alison Bechdel
Alison Bechdel
Steve Jennings/Getty Images

The Bechdel Test is a tool to highlight gender inequality in film, television, and fiction. The idea is that in order to pass the test, the movie, show, or book in question must include at least one scene in which two women have a conversation that isn’t about a man. The test was popularized by the cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985 in her comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” and has since become known by her name. However, Bechdel asserts that the idea originated with her friend Lisa Wallace (and was also inspired by the writer Virginia Woolf), and she would prefer for it to be known as the Bechdel-Wallace test.

6. STIGLER’S LAW OF EPONYMY (OR MERTON’S LAW?)

Influential sociologist Robert K. Merton suggested the idea of the “Matthew Effect” in a 1968 paper noting that senior colleagues who are already famous tend to get the credit for their junior colleagues’ discoveries. (Merton named his phenomenon [PDF] after the parable of talents in the Gospel of Matthew, in which wise servants invest money their master has given them.)

Merton was a well-respected academic, and when he was due to retire in 1979, a book of essays celebrating his work was proposed. One person who contributed an essay was University of Chicago professor of statistics Stephen Stigler, who had corresponded with Merton about his ideas. Stigler decided to pen an essay that celebrated and proved Merton’s theory. As a result, he took Merton’s idea and created Stigler’s Law of Eponymy, which states that “No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer”—the joke being that Stigler himself was taking Merton’s own theory and naming it after himself. To further prove the rule, the “new” law has been adopted by the academic community, and a number of papers and articles have since been written on "Stigler’s Law."

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