Polaroid Factory / Reviewed by Emily Burns / 17.06.13
We live in a fast-paced age, marked by instant access to communication, travel, and information; manmade machines reach for the stars and plumb unknown depths. The air around us is a soup of digital signals and anyone with a smartphone, tablet or Google Glass can have a question answered immediately through voice recognition alone. Why then, in this era of instant gratification, did we allow the Polaroid instant photography business to go bust in 2001? This is exactly what a small group of former Polaroid staff and investors thought and so, in 2008, just as the last factory at Enschede in the Netherlands was being dismantled, the ‘Impossible Project’ was born.
The vision was simple: to manufacture instant film products for use in existing Polaroid cameras, thus saving analog instant film from extinction. Based at the original factory and armed with the precious expertise of former Polaroid employees and salvaged machinery, the Project’s phoenix-like rise from the embers was almost seamless. Although the original chemical ‘recipe’ for the photographic emulsion was withheld, the Project team have created their own formulae. Driven by the trend for all things vintage, Instagram’s artistically-finished digital snaps have become the vogue, but there is something to be said for the thrill of holding a physical photograph moments after the take, rather than waiting to download it from cyberspace.
The story of the Impossible Project drew the attention of photographer Sean Raggett, who was granted full access to the site at Enschede. The product of his visit, Polaroid Factory, was recently on show at the Print House Gallery in Dalston. The show features six of the thirteen photographs from the series, which work well in the dimly-lit, long space: three large-format prints on lightboxes loom out from three walls, while another smaller trio are hung close together in a corner. Raggett’s approach sensitively bridges the gap between documentary and fine art photography. On the one hand, he captures factory scenes with forensic exactitude to expose their day-to-day functionality and coarseness; while, on the other, he selectively pinpoints details that act as signifiers of more complex, allegorical meanings.
Facing the viewer from the furthest wall, Womb depicts a worker cleaning the emulsion cauldron. Identified as a former Polaroid employee by the logo on his old regulation jeans, the man balances precariously on a stool with his back to the camera, concentrating on his work. The mundane cleaning process is given an enhanced significance by the knowledge that this is the last instrument of its kind in the world. The title alludes to the function of the container as the bearer of something precious, an analogy perpetuated by the ‘midwife’ worker who carefully tends to the machine.
Juxtaposed beside Womb, the small, uncropped print of Partially Dismantled Machinery (Wrapped) recalls the desperate status of the site back in early 2008. Two identical machines sit in parallel: one is complete while the other is swathed in plastic wrapping, evidently a victim of the plant shutdown. The twins sit redundantly on the sideline, now mere spectators to the action and casualties of change. Nearby, Workstation depicts a worktop (numbered ‘4’) decked in old, worn tools. Raggett’s decision not to ‘finish’ and crop the photograph echoes the function of the instruments as a stage in the production process. However, it is unclear whether this workstation is still in use; the absence of human presence and the static, structured pattern of the tools suggest not. Regardless of this, the preservation of the workstation and the two machines is simultaneously a nostalgic reminder of the long history of the factory and a positive marker of its legacy.
A second large-scale print, Discarded Test Film in Large Box and one of the smaller photographs, Discarded Polaroids (Frames), depict film discarded during the production process. The motif of instant film in a bin poignantly mirrors the disposal of Polaroid as a company a few years before. The images also work on a more formal, abstract level. In the former, the shiny ribbons of film take on medusa-esque properties as they snake in and out of focus, flashing luminous red entrails of exposed film drawing the viewer deeper into a central point of focus. In the latter, the multiple square frames filling the box create a cubist montage. One can’t help but think that, had Raggett taken these two photos with a Polaroid camera, they would be a Polaroid self portrait.
The final large format print, Empty Lockers, is loaded with symbolism and is arguably the most effective work in the series. On first glance the scene is unremarkable: we are confronted by row after row of industrial beige metal lockers, their doors swinging open in an empty corridor which is starkly lit in acid yellow tones. On closer viewing, a ghostly roll call of names and numbers of former factory workers can be identified on each cubicle: 904 Vincente, 917 Bell, 919 Koster and so on. Only thirty one staff are employed by the Impossible Project, where there were once 300 employees on site, so the deserted scene conveys a sense of emptiness, isolation and melancholy, as if an evacuation had occurred instantly, without warning. A pair of jeans have been hurriedly discarded on top of the unit; another pair emerges almost playfully from a locker. It is as if the containers are spilling out the entrails of association with their previous owners in a failed attempt to move into the present. Distanced from their human function, the lockers assume the modulaic forms of the instant photos produced on site and, on the wall behind them, beams of plywood echo the uniform pattern as the individual merges into the collective.
Meditating on the vacated spaces that have been partly re-filled, Polaroid Factory typifies Raggett’s interest in portraying what he calls the ‘presence of absence’ and serves as a haunting allegory of change. The six photographs capture the dichotomy represented by the Impossible Project’s attempt to perpetuate something that has met its natural end, which is both endearing in its optimism and limited by its artificiality. Ultimately, Raggett’s survey illustrates the process of decay and renewal inherent in technology: what once was innovative soon finds itself stranded by the development of newer, more convenient solutions. And yet, significantly, Raggett records this process with a traditional Linhoff 5×4″ film camera, suggesting that digital is not always best and marking his solidarity with the Impossible Project’s cause. The digital world has opened up limitless possibilities, but Polaroid Factory reminds us that it has come at a price.
Print House Gallery, 18 Ashwin Street, London E8 3DL