Marc H. Miller and Bettie Ringma documented Amsterdam nightlife through Polaroids in 1979 and 1980.
Artists Miller and Ringma’s collection came about via their shared instinct for more democratic art and that fabled plan for the sensitive and living: let’s turn art into money. Pretty broke in 1979 Amsterdam, Californian-born Miller and Dutch native Ringma needed cash. They recalled seeing photographers selling Polaroids to tourists at Coney Island. The business was set – for a mere 6 guilders, revellers could take home an instant record of lubricated nights out in tolerant, humane and realistic Amsterdam’s electric townhouses.
Miller tells us is wasn’t all tulips, Noel Harrison windmills and bicycles:
Every night we headed out for 4 or 5 hours seeking customers in Amsterdam’s entertainment districts. Although at first we were not sure we would succeed, in retrospect I can see our success was virtually assured. Dutch art history is full of portraits done in bars and taverns, but apparently we were the first to update this tradition with instant photographs. Our Polaroid camera was a money machine fueled by alcohol; each photo sold for 6 guilders (approx. $3) and we usually took more than 50 pictures a night. We were soon a fixture of the city’s nightlife with many regular customers eager to get new pictures whenever we happened to cross their path.
The results are light-and-shadow snapshots laced with freedom and spontaneity, the subject camera-aware but not overly posed and stiff. The trout pout, selfie, boast cards and other photo memes of the digital age would be decades away. And, then, the Dutch are no great fans of celebrity. Go on, try and name a living Dutch ‘VIP’.
The reason that this collection exists at all, is that we went to the Polaroid Corporation one day and said, “Hey, we have the makings of a great exhibition here, if you just give us some free film.” Polaroid ended up giving us five hundred shots. These pictures are essentially duplicates: We would shoot twice, sell one photo, and keep the other photo for ourselves.
The results are terrific.
Miller tells Vice:
There was this one bar called Café de Zon. To call it an exhibitionist bar is probably an overstatement, but there were a few regulars that enjoyed taking their clothes off. But coming into a place where people have been drinking with a camera—that encourages a certain amount of exhibitionism. It made them the center of attention for at least a moment, and exactly what they did with that moment was dependent on their personalities. There were some that took the opportunity to drop their pants, or expose their breasts. Although the alcohol probably had something to do with that, too.
If you look at the collection, you’ll notice that a lot of people wanted pictures with Bettie. Those shots really show the rough and tumble of the Amsterdam nightlife at the time. That picture with the guy with that huge knife; you can tell he’s completely out of it.
We never really had a bad incident, but it was an adventure. Fortunately, Bettie is very good with people, and that was really important—especially when it came to collecting the money. Sometimes that was the hardest part—dealing with drunken people and getting them to pay.