“Why can’t I see them now?” is the daughter’s question that’s said to have inspired Edwin Land to devise the instant camera eventually produced by his Polaroid Corporation. The camera was announced in 1947 and hit the market in 1948. Sixty years later the company stopped production of its film-based cameras and then of its self-developing film. The last Polaroid film expired on October 9. Today someone’s grandmother might be wondering, “Why can’t I see them anymore?”
The answer, of course, is that digital photography killed the Polaroid, as it is killing much chemically based photography. The immediate gratification, the narcissistic fix offered by the picture that rolls out of the camera and develops right before your eyes, has been granted in a new way by the digital camera. You don’t even need to print out the image–just immediately check it out onscreen. Most of these pictures will never be printed–will never really, in any meaningful way, exist as photographs. They will be gazed at and giggled over for a few moments, and then they will quietly subsist as code until the memory where they sleep is lost or fails. Quite simply, digital technology redefined Polaroid’s “now,” turning it into something even more like “now” than Polaroid had been able to offer. Or maybe it changed the meaning of “now,” or replaced it with something more like “already.”
Polaroid’s “now” having been driven into the past, it has become ripe for nostalgia. Found Magazine, launched in 2001, was well ahead of the Polaroid nostalgia wave and spun off a whole book of Found Polaroids in 2006, when the end of the road was already in sight. But for its author, Jason Bitner, the medium had always been “instant nostalgia–framed and faded, a picture that already looked decades old.”
It’s true. The romance of Polaroid is about more than a photographic process becoming obsolete. It’s also evoked by something embedded in the very medium–a material quality that’s distinct from other types of photographs. I was reminded of this by a couple of exhibitions recently mounted in London to commemorate the passing of the Polaroid: “Shake It: An Instant History of the Polaroid” at the Pump House Gallery, a public space supported by the Borough of Wandsworth; and “Polaroid: Exp.09.10.09,” on view through January 16 at Atlas Gallery, a specialist photography dealer.
There’s some significance in the surprisingly large number of artists whose work appeared in these quite different shows: Nobuyoshi Araki, Walker Evans, André Kertész, Robert Mapplethorpe, Lucas Samaras and Andy Warhol. I suppose we must take these as acknowledged masters of the instant image–but allow me to quietly dissent on Mapplethorpe. They make a curious group, ranging from classic photographers who late in life found renewed inspiration in a new technique–in the case of Kertész, it’s been said that it changed him “from a broken man into a youthful artist”–to artists whose roots were in painting and sculpture and were delighted to find a photographic mode that encouraged them to forget the hallowed and irrelevant purism of the fine gelatin-silver print in favor of something they could handle with spontaneity, even derision. Polaroid work is hardly acknowledged by authoritative general histories of photography. It was precisely the fact that instant photography was an inartistic vernacular that made it attractive to certain practitioners, just as the fact that Polaroids are unique prints, not multiples, may be helping to retroactively make them more interesting to an art economy that thrives on the perception of uniqueness.