Today’s post comes from Pilar Jefferson, class of 2015 and Art Center Summer Docent.

As a member of the Millennial generation I’ve always thought of Polaroids as a passing curiosity. Of course I am not unique in this. With the rise of digital photography and the simultaneous decline of the Polaroid Corporation, which declared bankruptcy in 2001, those of us born in the past twenty years for the most part have very little knowledge of this particular kind of photography. Despite our disconnect, upon seeing the Art Center’s current exhibition, The Polaroid Years: Instant Photography and Experimentation, I felt a sense of cross-generational understanding. Where instant digital photography is a defining characteristic, and sometimes artistic medium, of my generation, the idea of the instant inspired an entire generation before us in the form of Polaroids. In addition, photo manipulation, one of the highlights of the exhibit, is something that many people think started with the advent of the beloved program Photoshop. However, people have been editing and experimenting with the limits of photography practically since its invention. Though the way we capture instant photos might be different, the methods through which artists from both eras manipulate them speaks to the expressive nature of photographs and the continued inventiveness of art.

Ellen Carey  Nancy D. Grover, 1995 Large-format Polaroid ER print 24 x 20 in.  Collection of Nancy D. Grover, © Ellen Carey

Ellen Carey
Nancy D. Grover, 1995
Large-format Polaroid ER print
24 x 20 in.
Collection of Nancy D. Grover, © Ellen Carey

Where technological advances have aided today’s digital artists to experiment with their photos, a series of events and circumstances led to the same urge in artists in the 1970s. Polaroids were a means of capturing the world around you in a way that was fast and also, for art’s sake, cheap. One of the chief missions of Polaroid and its founder, Edwin Land, was to be supportive of and accessible to artists. He started consulting with famous landscape photographer Ansel Adams in 1948 and gave away materials to photographers in return for technical feedback and the donation of some of their photos to the company’s collection. This exchange became known as the Artist Support Program and in 1972 with the release of the legendary SX-70 camera it was already in full swing. The spirit of supportive cooperation provided artists with the freedom to openly experiment with their work. This trend extended beyond artists within the support program, in part because at the same time the Conceptual art movement was finally embracing photography as an experimental medium.

Lucas Samaras  Photo Transformation, November 7, 1973  Polaroid SX 70 print 3 1/8 x 3 1/16 in.  The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; © Lucas Samaras

Lucas Samaras
Photo Transformation, November 7, 1973
Polaroid SX 70 print
3 1/8 x 3 1/16 in.
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; © Lucas Samaras

 

The methods used to manipulate Polaroids were extremely inventive. Some artists added to the surface of the prints themselves. My favorite example of this from the show is a series of prints by Ellen Carey titled My Sparkling Self (1977), in which the artist used glitter nail polish to outline her image in the photos. Lucas Samaras, another Polaroid innovator, found a way to keep the emulsion malleable after development by heating the prints, and would use a stylus to move the colors around, highlighting and obscuring different parts of the image to achieve a surrealistic quality. And one of the most remarkable ways to modify a Polaroid is exemplified in the work of Andreas Mahl who would remove the plastic covering and photographic image from the white backing and remount it on a new paper, stretching and creasing the image to distort the picture. One of his untitled works from 1981 shows the black and white head of an androgynous figure whose face has been elongated as if in a funhouse mirror. Creases line the image, following the curve of the figure’s eyebrow, cheek, and neck giving added texture to the normally smooth pictorial surface. These are only a few of the many ways a Polaroid could become more than a simple personal snapshot.

In the age of Instagram and smart phones filled with digital pictures, it is hard to image the physicality behind altering a Polaroid. However, we owe our current technological progress in the realm of photography to innovators like Land and the thousands of artists who adopted the Polaroid as a means of visual expression. Though Polaroid is no longer looked to as the height of invention, its legacy of experimentation, manipulation, and instant photography as artistic practice is still inspiration for photographers today. As Edwin Land predicted, “Photography will never be the same.”

 

 

 

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