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Week of 15 November 2002 · Vol. VI, No. 12

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Polaroid Collection documents dramatic impact of instant imaging

By Brian Fitzgerald

Point, click, and voilà: art in 60 seconds. The ubiquitous Polaroid camera that ejects instant self- developing photos doesn’t instantly bring to mind Ansel Adams. The SX-70 camera is associated with party pictures, not the 20th-century landscape photographer.

Joyce Neimanas, M.H., 1985: Polaroid SX-70 collage. © Joyce Neimanas

  Joyce Neimanas, M.H., 1985: Polaroid SX-70 collage. © Joyce Neimanas

But in a surprisingly impromptu moment in 1978, Adams snapped his own reflection in a small wall mirror. The photo is part of the exhibition American Perspectives: Photographs from the Polaroid Collection, a collaborative effort between the BU Art Gallery and the Photographic Resource Center (PRC) at Boston University that runs from November 22 to January 26, 2003. Both galleries will split this 90-photo cross section of the historic Polaroid Collection, which numbers 23,000 items and is owned by the Polaroid Corporation.

Polaroid founder Edwin Land hired Adams as a film consultant in 1949, initiating a company tradition of encouraging artists to use and experiment with Polaroid materials. The result was an archive of some of the masters of American photography: Dawoud Bey, Nancy Burson, Chuck Close, David Levinthal, Aaron Siskind, Lucas Samaras, Andy Warhol, and Carrie Mae Weems, among others.

“The Polaroid SX-70 was a spectacular technological breakthrough,” says Stacey McCarroll, acting director and curator of the BU Art Gallery. “It had uses for not only average people, but also artists. There is something exciting about a spontaneous image.”

The idea of an instant-image camera came to Land in 1944 on
a family vacation in New Mexico. After he snapped a photo of his daughter, she asked why they couldn’t see the result immediately. Four years later, Land brought the first instant camera to market, relying on a process in which dye colors passed from a negative to a positive print, all inside the camera body, within about a minute. The company refined the process through the years, devising cameras that delivered instant color images (Polacolor) in 1963 in as little as 10 seconds. In 1972 the SX-70 debuted, and it became a big seller. Featured on the cover of Life magazine that year, it was the first instant camera to use a self-contained pack system instead of messy peel-apart film.

Lucas Samaras, Untitled, 1974: Manipulated Time Zero Supercolor photograph. © Lucas Samaras Photos courtesy of the Polaroid Collection


Lucas Samaras, Untitled, 1974: Manipulated Time Zero Supercolor photograph. © Lucas Samaras Photos courtesy of the Polaroid Collection


“It was really exciting to work with the SX-70, and I am tremendously impressed,” Adams wrote to Land. “The camera itself is a
really remarkable instrument.”

Polaroid’s impact on American culture cannot be disputed, but is it a stretch to think of a Polaroid picture as fine art? In museums across the country, “instant imaging” was a hit. “Even Adams was seduced by Land’s magic,” says McCarroll. “He was unable to resist the spontaneous informality and creative opportunity offered by the small-format instant image.”

Users of the SX-70 also found that they could manipulate the prints for several minutes after ejection to produce all sorts of effects. Like photographers in the first half of the 20th century who altered their images to legitimize photography as an art, Polaroid artists used their cameras “as miniature malleable laboratories,” says Leslie Brown, PRC curator. “Lucas Samaras seized on this. He was one of the first to manipulate Polaroid’s surface with an artistic intent. To create the surreal effects in his 1974 Untitled and other works, Samaras heated, scratched, and marred the emulsion layer in Polaroid prints immediately after taking them.”

In 1976, Polaroid made 20 x 24-inch and 40 x 80-inch cameras to produce high-quality art reproductions for museums. But artists also found uses for the big cameras. In 1979, Adams used the 20 x 24, which weighed 235 pounds, to make a portrait of President Jimmy Carter. Andy Warhol took a series of self-portraits with it. “David Hockney constructed a composite out of hundreds of regular color pictures and shot the result with a 40 x 80-inch camera,” says Brown.

Marie Cosindas, Memories II, 1976: Polaroid Polacolor 8" x 10" film type 808. © Marie Cosindas

  Marie Cosindas, Memories II, 1976: Polaroid Polacolor 8" x 10" film type 808. © Marie Cosindas

However, with the advent of 60-minute photo developing, the camcorder, and digital photography, the golden days of the SX-70 (which Polaroid stopped manufacturing in 1982) and similar instant cameras were in the 1970s and 1980s. “To be able to capture an image and look at it immediately is special,” says McCarroll. “I think that the remarkable nature of that ability has been somewhat forgotten. But if you take a Polaroid camera to a party today, it creates a whole social dynamic. People still find it fascinating.”

Brown agrees, and at the opening reception at the PRC she plans to arm several student interns with Polaroid cameras to add to the fun.
Smile for the camera — it could be making instant art.

The opening reception of American Perspectives: Photographs from the Polaroid Collection at the PRC is from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on November 21 and at the BU Art Gallery from 6 to 8 p.m. For more information, call 617-353-0700.


15 November 2002
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