Shake It: An Instant History of the Polaroid

September 23, 2009 § Leave a comment

Do you remember Polaroids? The satisfying cause-and-effect of the click followed by that sticky plastic sliver sliding out of the front of the machine; the distinctive abrupt buzz that accompanied its arrival and the grey square that morphed, as you watched, into an image, like a well-loved building looming out of thick fog. Digital photography is all very clever, of course, but you don’t hold anything in your hand at the end of the process that you didn’t at the beginning. Man cannot live by virtual reality alone, especially as ‘virtual’, lest we forget, means ‘almost’.

Now that Polaroid is defunct – the UK branch of the company in administration, the last batch of film just expired – two galleries are trying to do for the instant camera what it once did for the world: fix it in our memories. It helps that a lot of interesting artists experimented with the medium at various points, although Polaroid can be grimly unforgiving. Andy Warhol, who has pictures at both the Atlas and the Pumphouse galleries, doesn’t show well, and nor does Nobuyoshi Araki, since his trussed nudes look even seedier, if that’s possible, on this small scale.

Why is Polaroid so uncompromising? Because it’s so limited. Size can vary (Roe Etheridge’s giant ‘Popcorn Factory’ has an uneasy banality that is strikingly different from the crisp examination of the ordinary in Walker Evans’s tiny street signs) but there’s no zoom, no wide-angle. The medium, invented by Edwin H Land in 1947, was especially useless for landscape photography. Hockney’s disparaging comment about photography, that it ‘is all right if you don’t mind looking at the world from the point of view of a paralysed Cyclops’, may be grossly unfair to the genre, but it works for Polaroid.

Which is not to say that the instant camera has nothing to offer, quite the contrary. Limitations are artistic Viagra – even a paralysed Cyclops can imagine, or dream. David Bailey manages to superimpose a sharply delineated statue on the trademark Polaroid fog; Marc Quinn paints on the tiles; Bourdin somehow recreates his own world – the gorgeous, ghostly girl, the glorious background, the pervasive miasma of imminent unhappiness – in images that are formed in a finger’s click. Andre Kertesz, working just after his wife died, creates extraordinary, ineffably sad images of loneliness and vanished happiness using glass statues and an out-of-focus background that feels Parisian (despite the fact that the pictures were actually taken in New York); Michael Snow takes a mirror and sticks on it an assemblage of Polaroids so brilliantly self-referential it even incorporates the viewer’s puzzled frown, staring back from behind monochrome images of Snow taking Polaroids in a mirror.

Pumphouse has a 1972 film by Charles and Ray Eames which flags up the simple Polaroid ethos of ‘point, click, shoot’ – then offers such bewildering detail on the machine’s inner workings you’d need a science degree to understand it, and both these exhibitions also veer between the simple (Storm modelling agency casting shots and found photography annotated with tawdry, disconsolate messages of forever love) and the intensely complicated, although many of the images – Jim Goldberg’s Liberians and Bangladeshis, Lucas Samaras’s smeared self-portraits – incorporate a little of both, just as a Polaroid image combines the desire to make lasting art with the craving for the instant visual hit.

Of all the well-known artists who have played around with this beguiling, difficult format, surely the most interesting is David Hockney, whose comments about paralysed Cyclops haven’t prevented him from experimenting with all kinds of photography. Hockney has long complained that most photos can only be looked at for about the same time as it takes to create them, so in the early 1980s, he took up the challenge to get ‘lived time’ into the medium. The results, as his composite image of Nicholas Wilder demonstrates, are descended directly from Cubism.

Polaroids from artists including Richard Hamilton, Andy Warhol, Rut Blees Luxemburg, Walker Evans Nobuyoshi Araki , Guy Bourdin , Tim Braden, Roe Ethridge , Walker Evans, David Hockney, André Kertész , John Latham, Robert Mapplethorpe, Jonathan Monk, Lisa Oppenheim , Lucas Samaras , Michael Snow, Juergen Teller , Wim Wenders are on display at the Pump House Gallery starting on 6 Ocotber 2009, and coincides with the October 2009 expiry date of the last batch of Polaroid film. This exhibition runs until 13 December 2009.

Pump House Gallery
Battersea Park
London
SW11 4NJ

Text credit: Nina Caplan

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