Sunday, September 6, 2009

Looking For Lost Instants, Polaroids Regained.

The genius of Mr Land, the founder of Polaroid Co and inventor of many things ranging from a sighting system for tank gunners to a system for producing good sun glasses but mainly known for his instant photography, lay in the understanding that the process and indeed the pleasure of remembering needed no delay to be savoured, nothing like a lifetime or the span of many years and not even the few days or hours needed to process a negative and make a print, but instants would suffice. Not only that, but that this pleasure would prove to be enough of a kick for many and almost an addition for some to support a huge worldwide industry, even though the price per print was quite steep and the cameras definitely not cheap. Filmpacks held 8 prints each, and produced an amazing amount of garbage as so much metal and plastic was thoughtlessly discarded with the packaging.

All this is history. Indulge if you will in the many pubblications and find more out. Polaroid has produced many booklets through the years, always keen to keep track and document its corporate history, if somewhat doctored to their PR needs. I have been a sucker for the rainbow boxes since I found out about them, advertised indirectly through a program on Andy Warhol, a prolific – almost compulsive - instant shooter. As soon as I could afford to I joined the number of those professional photographers that used instant films for proofs, shooting many as we zeroed in on the final lighting and composition, then to be sparingly exposed on a few Ektrachrome plates. Maybe a side effect of the inebriating fumes of the developing gel on the fragrant and shining prints that one confidently peeled apart from the sticky negative in one swift motion, many photographers ended up liking their looks on their own merit.

Polaroid produced many different kinds of film, and they all had their own distinct personality and a complement of sexy processing machines and gadgets to go with them. Color or black and white, different speed up to the then staggering 3000 ASA (!), formats from 35 mm all the way to 8x10 inch and larger – although limited to very few professional rental outlets - a 20 x 24 inch camera . Quick to spot commercial opportunities and lavish in the promotion of their material, they supported the concept of Polaroids as professional “final art” material, and published a beautiful P magazine devoted to showing the best of creative photography on their material complemented by a large own photography collection that could mount exhibitions. The one I saw was thrilling, by far better than any competitor.

Some films allowed for unorthodox procedures to obtain unusual results, an approach that came to be known as creative techniques. It involved anything from almost boiling the prints to detach the emulsion layer, to printing the peel apart negative on watercolor paper, wood, metal and anything else that could hold it, cutting SX 70’s open and inserting colors in the underlaying layers or pushing their dyes around with blunt instruments during development thus giving it a painterly effect or warped shapes. So on we played, pulling and peeling up to the day when digital photography put an end to it, almost overnight. Those like me who were not quick enough to see the end coming are stuck with the relics of that gone by era: the processors and holders for films that are no longer available. And boxes full of prints.

Recently I have been asked about creative techniques again. Much to my surprise there seems to be some slowly creeping interest in analog photography among the younger art directors, maybe a wish to find out what they may have missed out on. Oblargingly I embarked on the painstakingly Proustian effort of digging into the archive and produce some evidence of what we were up to in the nineties, when Polaroids were still all the rage if in decline. The common joke on the sixties applies to this later period as well as far as I am concerned: if you can remember them you weren’t there. As I flip through the tiny prints slowly memories and emotions pop up, not all bad actually. The gusto and playfulnes of those experiments with instant is something that digital photography somehow doesn’t stimulate. I think digital is brilliant, but always on the verge of being virtual and immaterial until robustly photoshopped upon, which is an act of sheer will power and comes from a conscious plan and the inner self of the maker. Playing with polaroid was a dialogue and often a debate with the material: one tried things and got results back, also surprising ones, within seconds. You could fool around and stumble on some great stuff, or be serious and dead boring. Part of the fun was taking chances, and it didn’t ever matter because it was “only” a Polaroid.

If we can’t revive the production lines, or stop history, maybe something of the spirit can be kept alive by different means. Either find ways of being playful and experimental with digital means – buy the way, cameras built in phones are becoming far too sharp and good to be interesting – or take a detour and find other avenues to explore. Sometimes I feel one possible way forward could be one giant step back to a time before polas: rewind and replay the analog tape, let’s say from 1950 on? This would be holding back in a way, some (Sally Mann) are actually starting over from 1850 and making great things. It will be hard though to find ways that are as effortless and fun as polaroid was, they really were the short cut to visual emotions.

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