“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.
That’s not to say other professionals entirely ignored it. They just never considered it an appropriate medium for an exhibitable or publishable final product. But tryouts were a different story, and one of the pleasures of the show at Atlas was that it included a number of them, such as what must have been a final test for one of Helmut Newton’s most famous images, Sylvia in My Studio (1981). I’ve never had a taste for the German fashion and glamour photographer’s brand of cold and stylized eroticism, yet the instant print put this composition in a different light–warmer and almost empathetic. A true Newton fan would probably dismiss it for just that reason, but for me it allowed his brilliant composition to emerge without the distraction of his creepy class and gender politics.
“Shake It” put artists’ and photographers’ interpretations of the Polaroid’s potential in a broader context by including examples of its myriad uses: recording anthropological data; location scouting by the filmmaker Wim Wenders; casting sessions for a modeling agency; a prop in a magician’s stage act (he claims to conjure up images of things his audience members imagine); and, of course, a forensic device favored by police, who have been quick to see the utility of all forms of photography from the beginning. It is interesting to learn that Polaroid had a separate business unit devoted to law enforcement photography. And everyday amateur uses for fun and sentiment were represented through selections from the Found Magazine archives.
Even more than with other forms, I suspect, instant photography’s erotic and autoerotic potential was a great part of its success. (This is, of course, something else it has in common with the digital photography that’s replaced it.) For amateurs, needing neither to be acquainted with the darkroom nor to put one’s kinks in the hands of commercial developing houses was an obvious boon. But even for serious practitioners, Polaroids seemed to possess a special aura of privacy that allowed them to record their fantasies with sometimes shocking directness, as in Araki’s bondage photos. Still, to make this aspect of the medium really clear, I wish that either of the two exhibitions had included something by my two favorite Polaroidists: the Italian architect-designer Carlo Mollino, who created his images of local streetwalkers in the early 1960s in an apartment he never lived in and seems to have been designed solely as a backdrop to his photographic fantasies; and Mark Morrisroe, “Boston’s first punk,” as Nan Goldin once called him, the drag queen and onetime hustler who obsessively recorded himself and the gay underworld in the 1980s. Each made something transcendent out of his perversity, something that would become manifest to others only after his death.
Beyond the pragmatic advantages that I’ve mentioned, what made Polaroid photography ideal for such extravagantly intimate artistic visions were its specific material qualities, which, especially in color, were quite unlike those of any other photographs. No other kinds of photographs are quite so tactile in their appeal: there is something strangely fleshy about their surfaces. The colors tend to lack contrast, but as a result, those colors often seem to caress the surfaces they describe, to slowly, smoothly flow across them with a kind of alert tenderness. The very colors seem imbued with sensuality.
No wonder Polaroid’s aficionados lament its passing. But perhaps the mourning is premature. In October 2008 a group calling itself The Impossible Project leased a former Polaroid film factory in Enschede, Holland, and hired former Polaroid engineers and chemists in an endeavor to recommence production of the film for existing Polaroid cameras. They hope to have it on the market by the middle of 2010. “Now” still may be part of our future–and present–after all.