Photographer Emily Earl has spent the last eight years prowling the streets of Savannah at night with her Polaroid ProPack Camera in hand, capturing portraits of the denizens of the city’s bar and club scene in vivid black and white.
"Late Night Polaroids" at the Jepson Center chronicles her journey, allowing viewers a peak into a world populated with expressive characters and sensational exploits.
The beginnings of the series, however, were much more humble.
"I kind of came upon the project accidentally," Earl recalled. "I went to a yard sale one day, and I found this awesome Polaroid camera for two bucks. And I took it out one night to test the flash, and realized that I just love everything about it."
The artist had already spent her life up until that point immersed in photography, so it was natural for her to see what she could get out of the old analog device. The daughter of two photographers John and Susan Earl, she first learned about the medium when she was four or five years old.
"I’ve been kind of in love with it forever," she said.
After the purchase, Earl set to taking her new find into the bars. At the time, she was working at a photo lab during the day, then heading to a local coffee shop for the late shift, oftentimes whipping up lattes until past midnight.
"And so I started just taking that camera with me to the coffee shop so that then I could go straight downtown afterwards," Earl explained.
The people she met on those excursions were eager to act as her subjects.
"You go out downtown, at one in the morning, and everybody’s been out there for a while and feeling good, they would like beg me to take their picture sometimes," she laughed.
Part of it had to do with the nature of the camera itself, which contrasts sharply with the digital cameras that everyone carries with them these days.
"There’s something really seductive about that, especially now, in such a digital photography world," said Earl. "And when I’d be out on the street shooting, people were like running up to me to see what I was doing with this crazy looking camera. And people were just so enticed by the physical aspect of it I think."
In those early days, the artist realized that she loved the process, but it wasn’t clear that the project that it would become what it is today. That’s when she received some unexpected words of support.
"I was going to The Sparetime a lot, which was a bar on MLK and Congress," said the artist. "And the two owners there, Jane and Clara Fishel, we became friends from me being there with the camera. And one night Clara was just like, ‘Hey, you know, everybody’s loving you coming here and taking pictures. Come one night and really go for it.’ She was just so encouraging. It really meant a lot to me at the time. And I think having the owner of one of the bars that I was going to kind of come up to me and express this interest, was a big boost to what I was doing."
That led to other venues asking Earl to come by and shoot, many of whom urged her to set up photo booths for her to take shots in.
"That definitely helped me feel a little more confident that I was on to something," she mused. "But I certainly never thought that I was going to be shooting in that way for eight years. And certainly not that it would end up in the Jepson. That all came later."
"Later" is now, as Earl’s "Late Night Polaroids," an exhibition of thirty-plus images from the series, will be occupying the Jepson Center’s #art912 gallery upstairs through April 4, 2021. The work is further chronicled in a book of the same name, currently available through the local independent publisher Aint-Bad. As a native Savannahian, it feels right that she would be the one to deliver this pictorial piece of the city’s after-hours history.
To learn more about Emily Earl visit her website at EmilyEarlPhotography.com or find her on Instagram @emilyearlphoto. Next week I’ll be speaking with painter Sonja Robinson, aka Sonja the Artist.
Tune in to "Art on the Air" every Wednesday from 3-4 p.m. on WRUU 107.5 FM in Savannah, and streaming worldwide at www.wruu.org.
Art off the Air is a digital-only column that is posted every week on dosavannah.com as a companion piece to the WRUU 107.5 FM show "Art on the Air."
Rob Hessler is an artist, host of the radio show Art on the Air on WRUU 107.5 FM Savannah, and Executive Director of Bigger Pie, a Savannah-based arts advocacy organization.