Feature

Exhibit of the week:The Polaroid Years: Instant Photography and Experimentation

The Polaroid camera generated so much more than a surplus of family photo albums.

The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar CollegePoughkeepsie, N.Y.Through June 30

The Polaroid camera generated so much more than a surplus of family photo albums, said Martha Schwendener in The New York Times. Introduced in 1947, the first camera to produce instant prints was eventually embraced by artists from Ansel Adams to David Hockney, many of whom discovered that Polaroid’s point-and-shoots had capabilities that their digital-camera heirs have yet to match. Some 40 artists and collectives are represented in “The Polaroid Years,” a show that provides an unprecedented survey of Polaroid works produced after the 1972 introduction of the SX-70, the first camera able to produce instant color prints. “Like the snapshot-size prints made by the SX-70, the exhibition is compact and somewhat modest.” But it’s also “an excellent introduction” to the myriad ways artists have used Polaroid technology as a distinct expressive medium.

Not all the experimentation happened spontaneously, said The Economist. Eager to promote his camera as an artistic tool, inventor Edwin Land launched an Artist Support Program at Polaroid in 1949, distributing cameras, film, and cash to high-profile artists and encouraging them to seek the cameras’ limits. Even Adams shifted into experimental mode: “The sumptuous tones in Rusted Blue Metal (1972)—mottled-ochre rust spots and deep worn blues—are an intimate counterpoint to the stark black-and-white landscapes” the photographer is known for. Producing Polaroid images could also be an intensely private process, encouraging a young Robert Mapplethorpe to experiment in nude self-portraiture and others to create “a boom in DIY pornography.” In the mid-’70s, Lucas Samaras produced a series of often nude self-portraits whose chemical-laden surfaces were baked, frozen, or otherwise mutilated. The series feels like a hallucination that exists “on the hinterland between photography and painting.”

“The most unexpected aspect of the show” has to be the presence of so many younger photographers who continue the Polaroid tradition, said Richard B. Woodward in The Wall Street Journal. Lisa Oppenheim’s Polaroids (Land of the Free), which appears in the final gallery, was created in 2008, a year after Polaroid manufactured its last film camera. A series of five color fields that hang side by side, the work wasn’t created with a Polaroid but pays homage to the way the color in a Polaroid print changes as it develops before your eyes. To artists like Oppenheim, the magic of photochemistry remains more intriguing than any manipulations made possible by digital photography. “In some ways, Polaroid remains state of the art.”

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