Warning: This post contains nudity.
Even before the massive surge in popularity of cellphone cameras and Instagram, the use of Polaroid had already declined to the point that the company ceased production of their instant magical film in 2008. Paying homage to a very specific part of the company’s history, The Polaroid Years: Instant Photography and Experimentation, published in May, examines the history of the film from its beginnings in 1947 and the use of Polaroid by artists experimenting with the product.
In the book’s introduction, The Polaroid Years exhibition curator Mary-Kay Lombino describes how in 1948 Ansel Adams was hired to test the cameras and films. It marked the start of a tradition of contracting well-known artists to test Polaroid products, as well as extending product grants to artists in exchange for donations of their work to the corporate collection. This arrangement, with access to free equipment and materials, led to a burst in creativity and experimentation and helped advance the cameras and film.
The immediacy of the Polaroid process encouraged photographers to manipulate and experiment with the film—experimentation that included the newfound ability for the average citizen to take images at home without anyone knowing or seeing the prints at the processing studio.
Statements from some of the artists featured in the book illuminate the effect Polaroid had on their processes.
Ellen Carey writes: “What an invention! My love for all things Polaroid was equally instant—l’amour fou—crazy, madly, wildly in love, as ‘seen’ at first sight. It all began in the halcyon days of the 1970s, when Polaroid’s ‘point and shoot’ met my experiments in photography and art: an ideal fit, if ever there was one. It paralleled the cultural sea changes of that time in feminism, war, politics, and music. And where was photography? On the edge, ready for change: for Polaroid, in other words, the shape shifter, an agent of revolution in creative, visual thinking.”
Chuck Close wrote that he “... knew immediately what I had. Not only did I know what I had, but the sitter knew what I had, too, so there was never the sense that somehow I was stealing an image from someone.”He continues: “My two favorite ways of working are with Polaroid and daguerreotype. The daguerreotype, developed about 1840, was one of the first forms of capturing a photographic image, and even though it would seem to occupy the lowest rung on the technological ladder, everything I love about photography was already there: the unbelievable range of grays and the amazing detail and depth of field—the same things I love about Polaroid.”
An exhibition accompanying the book’s release will be on view once again (after an initial run at Vassar College) at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. It opens Sept. 20. The book was published in May by the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College, along with Delmonico Books and Prestel Publishing.
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