The Art of the Polaroid: “The aesthetic purpose of the new camera is to make available a new medium of expression to those who have an artistic interest in the world around them.” (Edwin Land)
In our increasingly digitalized world there is a strong yearning for authenticity and reality, for the real and genuine, a kind of “that’s the way it was,” as the French philosopher Roland Barthes put it in his famous dictum. The Polaroid is unique: each one is as singular as each moment in time. Today, the now-65-year-old instant photo technology is undergoing an unexpected renaissance.
In New York in February 1947 Edwin Land introduced a new, revolutionary process, which allowed a photograph to be developed immediately after it was taken. This groundbreaking innovation had to do with the material used for the film: each Polaroid contains a kind of miniature darkroom. Immediately after exposure, the developer is evenly spread across the top and bottom of the photo—between positive and negative—as it comes out of the camera. After a waiting period of about a minute you can hold the finished photograph in your hands.
After showing his invention, Land was able to present the first instant cameras in stores in November 1948. At first, production of the highly complicated film was prone to trouble: the first black-and-white film, for instance, turned out sepia tones, and in late 1949 Polaroid had to recall the cameras, since the instant photos would roll up and fade after just a few weeks. Still, the “instant image” fascinated amateur and professional photographers alike around the world. The name of the company, Polaroid—Land, a physicist, had founded the company in the 1930s in order to manufacture the polarizing filters he developed—quickly became a synonym for instant photography. Early on, in 1949, Land hired the American photographer Ansel Adams as a close consultant, and a fruitful collaboration ensued. Together they thought up an unusual, highly successful concept: artists and photographers were invited to use and test the instant material in their work, and thus they were able to influence the continual process of improving the technology. In addition, Adams suggested that outstanding examples of instant photography should be presented in exhibitions. In the 1950s more consultants joined Polaroid, including Minor White, Paul Caponigro, and William Clift. Their photographs were the foundation for the company’s collection—the birth of the legendary Polaroid Collection, which most recently contained more than sixteen thousand works. Finally, in the early 1960s, the consulting activities of the photographers developed into a long-term sponsorship program. The participants—renowned photographers, as well as young, ambitious, up-and-coming talents—received cameras and film in exchange for selected Polaroids.
In the ensuing years many of the greats of photography history devoted themselves to this analogue medium; the names range from Ansel Adams, Sibylle Bergemann, and Walker Evans to Gisèle Freund, Gottfried Helnwein, and Robert Mapplethorpe, to Helmut Newton, Robert Rauschenberg, Oliviero Toscani, Andy Warhol, and William Wegman.
The spectrum of techniques is also fascinating: artists invented diverse ways of manipulating the material. Instant photos were painted, hand-colored, inscribed, scratched, or cut; the developing process was made visible through things such as color irregularities or imperfections, or the photographs were turned into collages or assemblages. Various Polaroid cameras and film formats also expanded the spectrum of artistic expression. The 20-x-24-inch large-format camera, for instance, produced unusual, large Polaroid masterpieces. Many artists—including William Wegman, whose photos of his costumed Weimaraner dogs are famous around the world—wanted to work with camera, which is more than four feet tall and weighs more than 220 pounds. In 1972 the revolutionary integral film was introduced. The development process could now be seen through a transparent positive—it was no longer necessary to separate the layers of film by hand, as photographers used to do in the old process. The ensuing years produced photographic treasures with the legendary white frame so closely associated with Polaroid.
When the Polaroid Company was finally forced to file for bankruptcy in 2008, the era of the instant photograph seemed to be at an end. By then, in the age of cell phone cameras, the digital photograph had long been the new instant photograph. However, the Vienna-based company Impossible not only purchased the last intact Polaroid factory in Enschede, Holland, it is now very successfully producing new instant camera film with the help of former Polaroid employees. And thanks to the initiative of Viennese entrepreneur Peter Coeln, the European part of the famous Polaroid Collection—4400 works by 800 photographers—was saved from being auctioned off. The collecting tradition is now being carried on under the ironic name The Impossible Project, and the photographs are kept in the WestLicht Museum in Vienna. Today, artists and photographers, such as Nobuyoshi Araki, Terry Richardson, and Stefanie Schneider, are using a new generation of Impossible film to create works of art with instant photography once again, reviving the unique search for ways to use the analogue material.
The medium of instant photography seems to be more relevant than ever: many exhibitions and publications in recent years have been devoted to the instant photograph; the very popular Polaframes—magnetic frames for the refrigerator that transform a simple photo into a Polaroid with a white frame; and the no-less successful instant photography calendar Poladarium are evidence of the analogue trend. The extent of Polaroid’s charisma can also be seen in special apps that add the characteristic white frame to smart phone photos. The unique Polaroid nimbus is constantly growing—even in the age of digital image manipulation.
Based on: From Polaroid to Impossible, Masterpieces of Instant Photography – The WestLicht Collection, Hatje Cantz, 2012
October 16, 2012 Stefanie Gommel