It’s a good moment when a long-term project is finally realized, and the results are even better than anticipated! Selling Polaroids in the Bars of Amsterdam, 1980 brings together over 200 photographs that Bettie Ringma and I took 40 years ago, during a memorable year when we lived on a houseboat on the Prinsengracht opposite the Anne Frank House.
For us selling bar portraits was a way to make money, and initially, most of the photos disappeared into the night. Fortunately, when Polaroid gave us a free case of film to take second shots of our clients for an exhibition, we were able to assemble the collection that is now the basis of this book.
Next week, Selling Polaroids in the Bars of Amsterdam, 1980 will be officially launched at the Amsterdam City Archives that now owns the bulk of the collection. I will be there, along with the book’s editor Leonor Faber-Jonker, and Mark Bergsma, whose essay places the Polaroids in the context of Amsterdam bar history that goes all the way back to the 17th century tavern paintings of Jan Steen. Sadly, Bettie Ringma (1944–2018) is no longer with us to enjoy this moment.
Pages from the book:
Selling portraits in the bars was an immediate success. Every night we headed out for four or five hours seeking customers in the city’s various entertainment areas. I think we sold 25 photos the first time we tried, and by the time we left Amsterdam a year or so later, we were often taking over 100 pictures a night.
The drinking both helped us and caused problems. Drunken people are more likely to want a picture, but occasionally, we would encounter a belligerent drunk who ordered a picture but had no intention of paying. We weren’t looking for fights, so we’d just say “fine,” back away, and keep the photo.
At Madame Arthur, many customers wanted pictures with the drag queens, but it was mostly the performers themselves who ordered photos. When they were performing, we would take pictures and then lay them out on the bar after the show. They would go crazy and almost always buy all of them.
A photo can be incriminating, but back then, before the internet, people were less concerned about this, especially if it was a Polaroid and there was only a single copy. However, many of the pictures did become public when a large selection was published in the magazine Nieuwe Revu. Jan who owned Café Mascotte claimed that his wife left him because of our picture of him with Nettie and another bar girl. He wasn’t that angry though since he continued to let us take photographs in his bar.
Çağlayan (Cascade) was a well established Turkish bar that served food as well as drinks. I remember one lucrative night that began when a man wanted a picture to send back to his family in Turkey. The idea caught on, and soon everyone at Cascade wanted pictures. The owners set up a special corner with a chair that became the photo studio. I think we photographed something like 23 different people in quick succession.
Café Populair was typical for Rembrandtplein: a traditional “brown” bar with an accordion player where the customers tended to be older. According to a guidebook of Amsterdam bars in the 1970s, women liked to stop by this bar after shopping. It’s described as a place with a celebratory atmosphere and a waiter who looked just like “an American movie star.”
The Old Bell was always packed with people, with many tables seating large groups. This was a place where we were often asked to take large group portraits. We got to keep one great shot of a drunken group of men holding up their beers for a toast. It’s the perfect moment, a split second that is frozen and dynamic at the same time. Soon afterwards, the drunkenness degenerated into pure chaos.
The performers at Madame Arthur told us about Bar Festival, the place where they hung out on the days they weren’t working. Almost everyone there was trans or gay. One night a German biker showed up with his Dutch boyfriend and the picture taking became a performance with everyone standing around suggesting poses.
As we made our rounds many men asked and paid to be photographed with Bettie. Bettie usually agreed but always insisted that two photos be taken, and we would keep the second shot. This became the photo series You Want Your Picture With Me? Only 6 Guilders. The most striking of these photos is the one of Bettie with a drunk man holding a huge knife. What we were doing was not without risk and we were relieved when the photo session ended without trouble.