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The Polaroid Years 

Instant Artification

click to enlarge John Maggiotto - Untitled (Superman), 1983 - Polaroid SX-70 print - Collection of William Currie; © John Maggiotto
  • John Maggiotto Untitled (Superman), 1983Polaroid SX-70 printCollection of William Currie; © John Maggiotto

The legend is that Edwin H. Land was taking a photograph of his daughter on a family vacation, when she asked him: "Why can't I see it right away?" Land left the vacation early to work on the problem. In 1947 he announced the invention of the Polaroid camera.

"The Polaroid Years: Instant Photography and Experimentation" at the Loeb Art Center of Vassar College is the first survey of the Polaroid as a medium for art. The show includes 170 pieces by 41 artists, mostly loaned from other institutions. "The Polaroid Years" opens April 12.

Polaroid invented film that would appeal both to the mass market and to professional photographers. Its Artist Support Program gave free cameras and film to fine artists, in return for samples of their work. Eventually Polaroid accumulated a huge archive—estimated between 16,000 and 22,000 photos. The company never rejected any pieces, and in fact encouraged radical experiment. The Artist Support Program amounted to a GI Bill for avant-garde artists.

The new technology freed photographers to take naked shots without the censorship of a developing studio. A young Robert Mapplethorpe began experimenting with Polaroids in 1970 as his first foray into photography, often taking naked self-portraits in black-and-white. Lucas Samaras, an early innovator of Polaroid self-portraiture, is represented by Panorama, a collaged work consisting of roughly 20 Polaroid 808 large-format prints assembled into an image of Samaras bathed in green light, marching nude in his studio like a slightly insane cheerleader.

Ansel Adams was an early adopter of the new medium, taking photos that are almost exactly the opposite of his stately landscape photography: in vivid color, close up, spontaneous. The one in the exhibit, Rusted Blue Metal, shows lurid red-brown rust stains, like bleeding steel.

Even before Polaroid, Andy Warhol loved to take pictures in photo booths. Once the Polaroid SX-70 came out in 1972, allowing the first instant color photos, he and the camera were inseparable. In this show, Andy Warhol appears in drag, wearing a silver wig, bright red lipstick, and a necktie, staring seductively at the viewer. The slightly milky, soft-focus Polaroid image flatters Andy's too-white face.

The Polaroid camera was a democratic medium. It was a "point-and-shoot" device before the term was coined. The original SX-70, for example, had no settings—not even a flash. Along with big-name artists, "The Polaroid Years" includes lesser-known figures like Beatrice Pediconi and Victor Raphael who brought wit and daring to their photography.

Polaroid had numerous iterations during its 60 years. The 20" x 24" camera was, in its time, the largest image directly produced by a camera. "The Polaroid Years" concentrates on the SX-70, but includes other formats, including a self-portrait by Chuck Close using the massive 40 x 80 camera, which required three technicians and filled a room. Only one 40 x 80 was ever made, and has since been dismantled.

In fact, after going bankrupt, Polaroid stopped producing cameras in 2007, though the Impossible Project, and other companies, now market Polaroid film, and the cameras are available on eBay. Now that Polaroid is history, we can begin to understand its meaning. Curator Mary-Kay Lombino found her own taste evolving as she assembled the exhibition. "I had to break my own rules, many times, in the show," she says. For example, normally she would not include a photograph decorated with glitter (My Sparkling Self from 1977 by Ellen Carey).

The show will travel to Northwestern University.

"The Polaroid Years: Instant Photography and Experimentation" will be exhibited at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie from April 12 to June 30.

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