Moustaches, Knives and Exhibitionism: 1980s Polaroids of People Getting Drunk in Amsterdam's Red Light District
A unique glimpse into a time when moustaches were full, sex was a plenty and rambunctious drunks cheerily flashed their bits in the pub.
This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands
These days it's a familiar sight in most tourist areas: people walking around with Polaroid cameras trying to convince tourists and bargoers to pay and pose for a picture. But back in the late 1970s, artists Marc H. Miller and Bettie Ringma were the first people in Amsterdam to go from bar to bar selling their Polaroid portraits.
The two moved from New York to the Netherlands in 1979, and started selling Polaroids at 6 guilders a pop to make some extra cash. In the process, they captured all the different faces and places that made up Amsterdam nightlife back then – from the Red Light District's rough sailor bars and Turkish cafes to the transvestite club Madame Arthur and the Whiskey A Go-Go near the Leidseplein. Their pictures offer a unique glimpse into a time when moustaches were full, sex was a plenty and rambunctious drunks cheerily flashed their bits in the pub.
I caught up with Marc H. Miller, half of the photography duo, to learn more about his Polaroids.
VICE: How did you get the idea to start selling Polaroids in bars?
Marc H. Miller: Bettie and I had just moved to Holland and we needed money. In New York, we had seen someone that sold Polaroids to people on the beach at Coney Island. We decided to try to do the same thing in the beach town of Zandvoort, but obviously sand is bad for the camera, and trudging through the sand was pretty laborious. And then there was the tension because of the topless women that were sunbathing there – so even though we were selling some photos, it wasn't the best business model. Then we got the idea of doing it in the nightclubs and bars, and that was just a hit from the second we started.
Did you always visit specific bars or did you go door to door?
We just went door to door. One night we would do the Red Light District, and the next we would go to the Leidseplein or the Rembrandtplein area. Bettie and I would alternate, and we often took around 50 shots a night. After a while we developed little routes. The Red Light District was the most interesting, and probably the most lucrative. But there were a lot of little subcultures there too, like the Turkish bars.
They took a very different approach in those bars. We would come in and the owners would set a little area aside where people could pose. Most sent those photos back to Turkey to their families. Those pictures were a lot more formal than in other places – it was a more conventional form of portraiture.
There are a few nude pictures in the collection as well. Was Amsterdam nightlife that wild at the time?
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 centre 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.
Did you ever run into any trouble?
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 camr to collecting the money. Sometimes that was the hardest part – dealing with drunken people and getting them to pay.
The collection didn't initially start as an art project, but it did become one later on. How did that happen?
At first we were just selling the portraits. 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.
At some point, someone also arranged a small grant for us, so we could record a video of the project as well. And we exhibited the collection in Amsterdam, and later in New York.
Were your pictures well received?
The show in Amsterdam was in a small gallery, but we also had an article published in the Dutch magazine Nieuwe Revu with six pages of our pictures. That really caused a commotion. After that article came out, people were literally following us in the streets. Bettie and I went back to New York in 1981, and the article came out about a month before we left. We were shooting as fast as we could shoot in those last few weeks, getting up to about 150 shots a night, and people would follow us from bar to bar – it was pretty amusing.
But we also got a little negative feedback on the article, like one person blamed us for his wife leaving him because of a picture we took.
Did you have a lot of competition?
When we started we were the only ones taking Polaroids in bars. But by the time we left there was someone from Senegal who'd come over from London and was trying to work the bars doing the same, and there was also a young boy who was a mute, and a woman – so I guess seeing us around or reading the article inspired others to try it as well.
Do you think your pictures are an accurate representation of what Amsterdam was like at the time?
I feel like we really captured that year of nightlife. You know, we really went to all sorts of bars, and of course the images are totally authentic. These people chose to have their pictures taken and they chose their poses – all we did was press a button. I mean, we were pretty good photographers, so the quality was better than what they might be getting from others. But I do think this is a unique document of that time in the history of Amsterdam.