Even in an age where we are used to snapping pictures on our camera phones and seeing the results appear immediately, the elusive draw of Polaroid endures. For those who have experienced creating images the Polaroid way, nothing beats the anticipation and excitement of waiting for an image to appear, and the joy when it finally comes into view.
That it is even still possible to shoot with analogue instant film is almost entirely thanks to Impossible, which took up the mantle as the sole manufacturer of the film for the original Polaroid camera format in 2008, after Polaroid declared it would cease manufacturing its film. But while Impossible can be credited for preventing the disappearance of Polaroid film and is helping to keep this art form going in a practical sense, they are not the only ones championing and celebrating this type of image-making. The Polaroid Project, a touring exhibition and book, published this month by Thames & Hudson, is also flying the flag for the art of Polaroid photography by looking back at its rich and multi-layered history.
The book, which considers Polaroid’s history from both artistic and technological perspectives, and where the two converge, is truly a team effort. With author and curator William A. Ewing and Todd Brandow, director of the Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography (FEP) at the helm, the project draws on the experience of Barbara P. Hitchcock, former Cultural Affairs director of Polaroid Corporation, and features written contributions from many experts in the field. The essays positioned carefully throughout spotlight key practitioners and their contributions to Polaroid’s history as well as exploring other topics such as Polaroid and the staging of self. These texts add invaluable insight and give the book its fluid structure, while more than 300 illustrations – artworks by the likes of heavyweights Andy Warhol, Guy Bourdin, Chuck Close, Sarah Moon, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, André Kertész, and Ansel Adams, among many others – provide ample visual stimuli. It’s also wonderful to discover images by less obvious names alongside giants of the genre, and there is much here to enjoy in this respect.
This is a book where text and images are neatly balanced, and the presence of each feels as important as the other. For the most part this carefully considered approach works – there are not too many essays and each doesn’t feel too long, and the images have room to breathe – but occasionally the book slips into textbook territory, namely where the focus turns to the cameras themselves and in doing so becomes a little dry. While it’s interesting to learn about the machines that make these magical images possible, their inclusion disrupts the book’s flow, if only slightly and momentarily.
The Polaroid Project is not exhaustive – it can’t be, of course, and nor does it claim to be. Rather, it is a contribution to an evolving topic, the authors say – a “work in progress”. While, as Ewing writes, Polaroid has mostly come and gone, and its legacy isn’t quite what early supporters claimed it would be, (the invention of digital imaging is by the far the more profound revolution), there is nonetheless an important and rich cultural history to be celebrated, which this project, with its multi-platform approaches, does with panache.
The Polaroid Project, a touring exhibition, opens at the Amon Carter Museum for American Art in June 2017, before travelling to Vienna, Hamburg, Berlin, and Massachusetts. For more information visit: www.fep-photo.org/exhibition/polaroid
reviewed by Gemma Padley