UP UNTIL RECENTLY, if you went out downtown, you’d almost certainly find yourself pulled along Congress Street.
People flowed up and down the street, dipping in and out of the bars, moving with the crowd like a current. And the crowd was full of characters, especially on a busy night. The members of Savannah’s nightlife scene do not come to play; they dress up and show out every night.
You probably also caught Emily Earl, moving through the current, with her Polaroid ProPack camera in tow.
Earl was just as part of the crowd, and the sights she saw have turned into Late Night Polaroids, the photographic series she’s worked on since 2012. It’s also the subject and title of her first solo museum show, now on display at the Telfair Museums’ Jepson Center as part of their #art912 program.
A longtime photographer, Earl bought the titular Polaroid for $2 at a yard sale in 2010.
“There were a couple years where I was super into yard sales,” she remembers. “I would just go every weekend, and it was the luckiest one of them all.”
At this serendipitous sale, a female photographer was selling everything she had to move to Europe. Earl bought the camera, a rangefinder that has a decidedly vintage look.
“It folds out, it has a bellows, it’s got a big flash,” Earl says. “It’s not that old of a camera, but to most people, it’s a very exotic thing.”
It’s not the Polaroid that younger generations remember, where you press a button and the camera spits out a photo that develops in minutes. This camera uses a more physical process: after each shot, Earl pulls the film through rollers in the back of the camera, where the chemistry is distributed onto the image.
Two years after she bought the camera, Earl took it out for a spin. Back then, before she helped found Sulfur Studios, she was working at a photo lab and at a coffee shop. She had the freedom to go out late: “it was just what everyone was doing.”
Earl would start at one of her favorite bars, The Sparetime, on the corner of Congress and MLK. She’d let the current take her down Congress, duck into the Rail or the Jinx, then hang a right on Whitaker and catch the show at Hang Fire before turning down Broughton and working her way back to where she started.
“I’d do that eight times a night,” she remembers.
All the while, she’d pick the characters out of the crowd and photographing them, either by pulling them to the side for a portrait or capturing the moment as it was. She captured what it looked like to be a part of the downtown scene.
The result is a stunning series of black and white photography, at times moody, almost feeling suspended in time. Some of the people and places are instantly recognizable, and some less so, but the photos all still feel familiar somehow.
Earl’s street-style photography is influenced by the likes of Weegee and Jill Freedman, but her interest in that genre has been there for quite a while.
Earl’s parents were both photographers: her dad shot nature, her mom took portraits.
“My mom is one of my favorite photographers to this day,” she gushes. “I think she was always showing me a little more portrait work, street photography.”
She received a disposable camera when she was four or five, and she surprised her parents by taking some pretty decent pictures. They taught her the basics, and she’s been into it ever since.
But perhaps the moment that stuck the most happened when Earl was in high school at Savannah Arts Academy.
“We had one roll of film, and we had to go out on the streets, and every image on the roll had to be of a different stranger,” she says.
Earl, who was shy in high school, remembers being terrified to do the assignment, but once she got over her nerves, she enjoyed it.
“It was just this incredible experience for me,” she says. “I always think back to that; that really pointed me in a little bit of a different direction.”
In the assignment, Earl had to ask the strangers’ permission before taking their photo, but in actual street photography, there isn’t always time. Earl recalls walking past Persepolis Lounge on Whitaker and looking through the open French doors to see a couple on a date. They were hitting it off so well that Earl had to stop in her tracks.
“That was the moment—I’m not going to interrupt that moment to ask them for a picture,” she says. “So I took the picture, and then the flash is so bright that they right away were like, ‘Oh! Hi!’”
Late Night Polaroids has been garnering local attention for years, and the #art912 exhibition is no different. The collaboration has been in the works for over a year, when Earl was approached by Telfair’s curators Erin Dunn and Rachel Reese.
“They’re always big supporters of [Sulfur] Studios in general, so they were around a lot and paying attention to what I was doing, which was very nice,” says Earl.
After an official studio visit, Earl was officially presented with the opportunity for the exhibition.
“I feel like I had a lot of freedom,” she said of the curation process. “I pitched them a couple different ideas as I was going through them, and they were super open to everything I wanted to do.”
In conjunction with the exhibition, Earl also published her first monograph, which has been a goal of hers for a while. The book is available for purchase through Aint-Bad, and $5 from each sale will go to National Bail Out, a group of organizers working to end mass incarceration.
It’s definitely a great moment for the Late Night Polaroids series—and it’s also ending. Talk about ending on a high note.
The main reason for the closure of the series is because the camera’s film is no longer being made. But even before that, the price of the film increased almost exponentially, which naturally led to a drop-off in shooting.
“[In the first three years] the film was 80 cents a shot. By the end of the project, it was $10 a shot,” says Earl. “In the beginning, I could go out and shoot 60 Polaroids in a night and not feel too bad about that, but then once it’s $10 a shot I’m doing, like, five.”
Earl loves film photography for its meditative quality and how it requires attention to what you’re shooting, so skyrocketing film prices was a bit of a deal breaker.
“With digital, you can shoot 3,000 photos and you don’t have to think about it so much. With film, you’ve only got so much, and you really have to think and be there to make sure you’re getting the shot,” she says. “Once it started to get so expensive, there were a lot of moments I was like, ‘Well, it’s not worth it, I’ve got to pass that one up because I only have three [shots.]’ It was very challenging towards the end, for sure.”
But one major factor, either conscious or not, is the dissolution of the familiar downtown landscape. Many of the places Earl photographed, from the Sparetime (and then Ampersand) to Hang Fire to the Jinx, are now closed.
Earl never expected herself to shoot Late Night Polaroids for eight years, much less capture a rapidly changing cultural scene.
“It’s been a lot of changes in the past five years, and a lot of those locally owned businesses that these photos were taken at don’t exist, or maybe the owners end that business and open another one a little further south,” says Earl. “I don’t think it’s shocking for me to say that there’s less and less small business on Congress and Broughton.”
The southward trend pushes business towards the Starland district, and that change is reflected in the series. One of the last photos was taken at Lone Wolf Lounge, which is three streets down from Victory Drive.
While there may be more bars and restaurants popping up in the Starland district, the Congress Street current can’t be replicated in a new location. The magic of a night downtown was in knowing that you’d bump into people you knew on the main drag, making new friends and following each other to different places.
Congress is still a hotspot for foot traffic—at least it was before the pandemic—but with many of the locally-owned joints slowly falling by the wayside, downtown just has a different feeling. The current flows differently now.
“There’s just not a circuit quite like that,” she says.
Plus, the only film Earl has left for her ProPack is in color.
“They make color film, so I have some of the color left. I’ve got to use those because they don’t stay good forever,” says Earl. “But I definitely have a deep love for black and white photography. A lot of people are like, ‘Oh my God, I saw a color photograph of yours the other day! I didn’t know that you did that!’”