Miracle on 214th Street

The instantaneous apparition of Polaroid images creates miraculous and apocalyptic visions

When the Polaroid SX-70 Land Camera debuted in 1972, it was the world’s first affordable and commercially available instant camera, and was hailed as a wonder. Ansel Adams called it, “an absolute miracle,” while a LIFE magazine cover devoted to inventor Edwin Land touted the SX-70 as a “Magic Camera.” The magic and miracle of the instant photograph was meant in an obviously secular sense: the dazzle of an innovative consumer product; an experience of a technology that the user does not understand.

But the instant camera also conjured a very different sort of miracle than the Polaroid Corporation intended. In a letter to the company, a devout Catholic wrote that he had taken a photograph during a vigil at a site where the Virgin Mary was believed to appear. The picture, which he enclosed, showed inexplicable streaks of light and blotches of color. The pilgrim believed he had captured a “miraculous Polaroid,” a divine message written in a code of distorted light. He asked the company whether it could provide a scientific explanation for the anomalous light patterns. Rather remarkably from the perspective of contemporary corporate communications, the camera’s inventor wrote back. Land said that he had no explanation for the image, adding, “So many things occur in our daily lives which have no explanation, and we wonder if this isn’t one of them.”

The pilgrim who sent Polaroid the miraculous photograph belonged to a small but growing group of Catholics known as the Baysiders, who were devotees of Veronica Lueken. A white working-class Catholic housewife from Bayside, Queens, Leuken began experiencing visions in 1968 after hearing on her car radio that Robert Kennedy had been shot. As she prayed for the dying Senator, she felt herself enveloped in the perfume of roses. Thérèse of Lisieux, a saint known as “The Little Flower,” appeared to her shortly thereafter. At first Lueken was terrified, but soon she began to transcribe poems the saint dictated to her during repeated visitations.

“Many people have reported having a mystical experience at some point in their lives,” historian of religion Joseph Laycock writes in The Seer of Bayside, his 2014 book on Lueken and the Baysiders. However, certain historical and social conditions have to be in place, Laycock argues, for a mystical experience to be greeted as a visionary prophecy. A time of general social upheaval, combined with the specific anxiety among Catholic laypeople in the wake of the sweeping modernization ushered in by the Second Vatican Council, created the conditions that made an apparition movement possible in Queens in the late 1960s. As a woman from a humble background with little formal education, Lueken fit the bill for a Marian seer.

Bayside photo believed to depict the Angel of Death, date unknown

Lueken’s visions took a public turn in 1970 after the Virgin Mary appeared in her bedroom and instructed her to establish a shrine to “Our Lady of the Roses” on the grounds of her parish church and hold rosary vigils there. If Lueken faithfully fulfilled this request, Mary promised to use her as the “voice box” for messages from heaven that would spread around the world. Lueken did as she was asked, and beginning in summer 1970, growing crowds gathered for Saturday night vigils on the church grounds where she received divine messages in an ecstatic trance.

As Lueken came into her role as a seer, her visions became graphically apocalyptic. To the chagrin of Church authorities, she prophesied imminent cataclysm in the form of a fiery “Ball of Redemption.” Floods, plagues, stock market crashes and terrorist attacks filled her visions, a doom that could only be averted through prayer and a return to pre-Vatican II Catholic teachings. In its wilder moments, elements of popular culture infused her apocalypse—UFOs, vampires, a “Soviet death ray.”  While the content of Lueken’s visions troubled parish authorities, the crowds of pilgrims that gathered around her mortified the church’s neighbors, middle-class homeowners who regarded Lueken as an interloper from the poor side of the parish and feared for the vigils’ effect on their property values.

The Bayside movement coincided with the advent of the SX-70, and miraculous photographs became a central part of the Baysiders’ devotional practice. The whirr of ejecting film was as characteristic a vigil sound as the chanting of prayers. Only Lueken could see and speak for the divine, but every Baysider could take pictures. Over time, the group developed a divinatory chart for decoding symbols and colors that appeared on the photos: the letter W, for example, signifies worldwide warning, while snakes represent the forces of hell. The color blue indicates Mary, often present in the distinctive “Polaroid blue” cast of SX-70 prints. Folklorist Daniel Wojcik calls the Baysiders’ use of Polaroids “photodivination,” comparing it to Ndembu divination traditions in northwestern Zambia: like Ndembu diviners’ symbols, the symbolic system of miracle photos leaves space for the pilgrim to actively interpret the image.

Vigil photography did not originate at Bayside. Pilgrims took pictures at Marian apparition sites as early as the 1930s, and the oldest known Christian miraculous photograph dates from 1905, just five years after the introduction of the first mass-market camera, the Kodak Brownie. Shot off the Narrows of St. John’s in Newfoundland, it shows an iceberg with a large protrusion in the shape of the Virgin Mary. The Archbishop in St. John’s approved of the photo—so heartily, in fact, that he dubbed it Our Lady of the Fjords and penned a sonnet in praise of the “Crystal Virgin, from the frozen fjords/Where far-off Greenland’s gelid glaciers gleen.”

Bayside photo interpreted as stairway to Heaven, 1981

In an era that saw the search for evidence of the afterlife as a scientific pursuit, the idea that a camera might record supernature as well as nature was not much of a conceptual leap. Nineteenth-century Spiritualists were the first to use the new technology to capture and communicate with the supernatural. In spirit photography, an “extra”—an additional human figure, presumed to be the image of a dead person—appeared on the negative after the photograph was taken. Though the comparison would likely displease both sides, a Spiritualist medium had notable parallels to a Marian seer. Preferably a woman or child, she was supposed to be passive in a particularly receptive way: In Spiritualist language derived from magnetism, the medium’s feminine “negative” charge enabled the spirit to flow into her.

Spiritualists and Theosophists around the turn of the twentieth century debated the mechanics of supernatural photography: Some claimed that spirit photographs simply documented ghosts who happened to be present when the photo was taken; others argued that spiritual forces used images of the dead to imprint messages onto the photographic negative, or that the medium herself was a sort of camera. The Baysiders likewise have a range of explanations for miraculous photography: some say the Holy Spirit enters into the camera to form the images, while others believe that Mary or the saints draw the patterns and symbols onto the film as it develops.

According to a story that resonates deeply with many Baysiders, Saint Veronica—whose name means “true icon”—met Jesus on the Via Dolorosa on the way to Calvary. Jesus wiped his face with her veil, and his image was imprinted on the cloth. The cloth became a holy relic called the Veil of Veronica, which is now stored at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Like the imprint of the crucified Christ on the Shroud of Turin and the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe on Juan Diego’s cloak, the Veil of Veronica is an acheiropoieton, an icon “not painted by human hands.” Icons that come into being without human artistry are seen to possess a special kind of authority; supernatural photography is a technological variation on this miraculous image tradition.

In America, Jean Baudrillard wrote of the Polaroid as a heightened form of photography’s uncanniness:

to hold the object and its image almost simultaneously as if the conception of light of ancient physics or metaphysics, in which each object was thought to secrete doubles or negatives of itself that we pick up with our eyes, has become a reality. It is a dream. It is the optical materialization of a magical process. The Polaroid photo is a sort of ecstatic membrane that has come away from the real object.

The “ecstatic” Polaroid is the perfect technology for miracle photography. “Our Lady has directed that the pictures should be taken with Polaroids or other kinds of instant self-developing cameras,” Bayside literature instructs. Polaroid film has the same immediate quality as the imprint created in a traditional acheiropoieton and is less vulnerable than other photographic film to skeptics’ accusations of tampering with the development process.

This “optical materialization of a magical process” was also a potential threat to institutional religious authority. In The Seer of Bayside Laycock frames the Bayside movement as a “dance of deference and defiance” by a group of people who understand themselves as loyal Catholics defending the traditions of their faith, yet act in ways that challenge Church authorities. The book’s account of the struggle over whether the Baysiders fit within the boundaries of Catholicism reveals the ceaseless process of boundary negotiation in lived religion. While they are not central to Laycock’s analysis, divine Polaroids fit this dynamic of deference and defiance. Miracle photos continue the Catholic tradition that the sacred manifests itself in matter and fulfill the call made at Vatican II for more “external signs” of the Catholic faith. At the same time, Polaroid miracles subvert the Church hierarchy by giving lay Catholics agency to receive divine messages directly and providing them with physical objects that can be used as evidence in arguments with Church authorities.

Ultimately, too many Baysiders defied convention too loudly for the middle-class residential neighborhood where they held their vigils. As the vigils drew busloads of pilgrims from as far away as Canada, they attracted vendors selling ice cream, hot dogs and religious objects. Angry neighbors tried to drive the vigils out by running their lawnmowers or singing patriotic songs to drown out the rosary. In what the New York press dubbed the “Battle of Bayside,” conflict escalated to the point of physical fights between pilgrims and neighbors.

The Diocese of Brooklyn eventually sided with the Bayside homeowners. Having initially ignored Lueken, it now investigated her visions and declared them spurious. Bishops around North America issued statements to their flocks that they should not attend vigils in Bayside, as Lueken’s apparitions were the product of a “fertile imagination.”

In what Laycock describes as “perhaps the only case in which alleged miracles associated with a Marian apparition site were the subject of a criminal investigation,” the fraud bureau of the Queens DA’s office—probably at the instigation of the Brooklyn Diocese—sent nine miraculous photos to the Polaroid Corporation for analysis in 1973, even though “supernatural phenomena are generally beyond the purview of the legal system.” A Polaroid corporate attorney responded with noncommittal explanations of how various forms of manipulation could have affected the images. No fraud charges were ever filed: “Because the courts do not acknowledge the existence of miracles,” Laycock writes, “it is almost impossible to convict someone for fraudulently offering a supernatural (and thus legally non-existent) service.”

Though the miracle fraud case fizzled out, the courts did end the Battle of Bayside in 1975, when the Supreme Court of New York issued an injunction banning the pilgrims from Bayside Hills. Lueken then received a revelation that Mary and Jesus would now appear to her in Flushing Meadows Park, at the site of the Vatican Pavilion from the 1964-65 World’s Fair. The Baysiders moved their vigils to Flushing Meadows, and continue to meet there weekly to this day.

The pilgrims at Flushing Meadows still take Polaroids. Many Baysiders have had their cameras blessed by priests. Rose petals are taped onto cameras and rosary beads are draped around them. In a digital era, the Baysiders’ anachronistic photographic practices seem emphatically embodied. Their use of Polaroid cameras has become an assertion that a special miraculous potential resides in Polaroid technology’s combination of the analog and the instantaneous. The development process occurs inaccessibly, yet within an object that is tangibly present. An image “not painted by human hands” takes shape before the Baysider’s eyes, rising up through the chemical layers of the film sheet to emerge into view on its surface. As with traditional acheiropoeita, the miracle depends on the sense of mystery evoked by the conditions of the image’s physical production. In the Baysiders’ Polaroids, a dissident form of direct communication with the divine converges with the photograph’s physicality and  immediate creation to produce a miracle.