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The year is 1971 and Polaroid has just released its Big Shot camera. It is a thing of beauty and one of the most unique devices that the company ever introduced: it has a fixed focal distance of a few feet, a fixed focus, a 220mm lens and a built-in flash. And because it is meant for taking portraits only, it catches the attention of a particular artist, who then uses it to create some of the most iconic Polaroid shots in the history of art. Here, of course, we are talking about Andy Warhol, who was a proud owner of the Big Shot even after it was discontinued in 1973; for him, it was a faithful companion until his death in 1987. During those years, Warhol blessed us with his famous pictures of sex parts, torsos, almost every single celebrity of that time is on them, as well as random everyday objects, buildings, faces of other people but also his own, in many varieties. And what a visual diary that was, and still is!

Andy Warhol’s polaroids came in both small and large scale, probably because the artist was fascinated and attracted by the fact they are very quick and easy to make. This concept might not seem particularly interesting today, in an era when everyone and their mother has a smartphone with a mind-blowingly good camera, but analog photography was the only way to go for most of the decades of the past century (and the one before). Polaroids in particular were the most “instant” among all the ways to “shoot” back then, and while each of these pictures was unique, they could also be mass-produced - another reason why the aforementioned Campbell soup aficionado might have been in love with the medium, wink-wink. Polaroid is now called “the Instagram of the old days and is not as nearly widely used as it once was, but the Internet and the digital era still didn’t manage to break it, even though they certainly tried.

 

Andy Warhol Polaroid, Self- Portrait in Drag (Andy Warhol in Drag), 1981

 

A Brief History of the Polaroid

The very first inventions and interventions linked to the creation of the polaroid date back to 1932, when Edwin H. Land came up with the plastic sheet-light polarizer. Five years later, he founded the Polaroid Corporation in Cambridge, Massachusetts and a decade after that, Land introduced a film that gives a sepia-toned image and resolves after only 60 seconds of development. The idea, believe it or not, came to Land from his 3-year-old daughter, who while on vacation asked him why she can’t see the picture he has just taken of her. The Polaroid Land Camera Model 95 is released in 1948 and within minutes it disappeared from the store shelves, announcing a craze, and a crave, for the instant. “Photography will never be the same,” said Land at that moment, and perhaps this revelation can only be equivalent to the one when the digital camera became widely available and used.

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Polaroid continued to make and release different films and cameras, most notably the Polacolor instant color film and the Polaroid Model 100 Land Camera from 1963, but also the OneStep Land of 1977. “Load it! See it! Snap it!” was the motto, and everyone did indeed do so; anyone could be a photographer, with their photographs ready in a small number of seconds. But the Polaroid company did not want to forget actual artists either. With their Artist Support Program, they wanted to offer their films and cameras as yet another way to explore creativity, and to of course market their product to an even wider audience and show that it is definitely not a toy. Among the first photographers to become acquainted with Polaroid was the American legend Ansel Adams, who was friends with Edwin Land. An adventurous soul and a curious explorer, Adams became a brand consultant and helped improve Land’s cameras and processes by taking notes while using them on his travels; he even made a book called “Polaroid Land Photography”, which showcases the beautiful images he took. Satisfied with the results of this collaboration, the company went on to give their 24 x 20 inch Polaroid cameras as a gift to a group of well-known, accomplished artists such as Andy Warhol again, David Hockney, Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Mapplethorpe, Jim Dine, Dennis Hopper, André Kertész, Walker Evans, and Guy Bourdin. The only condition for them was to donate the photographs they make back to the program. These ranged from large collages to snapshots of the streets, people inside the studios and fashion snapshots, providing a versatile range of possibilities and ideas.

In 1982, Edwin Land left Polaroid in pursuit of purely scientific research instead. Many view this event as the beginning of the end of his company. The 1990s brought the digital technology at a high level, ultimately leading to the demise of all things that were not part of it, or using it. Polaroid was facing quite an uncertain future with as many as 16,000 photographs in its archives, courtesy the Artist Support Program, without an idea about what to do with them in case everything goes under. Following the 9/11 attacks, the Polaroid Corporation filed for bankruptcy, and after a brief period of secession again in 2008, after ceasing production completely in 2007. Over the coming years, the Polaroid Collection was sold to museums, namely the WestLicht Museum for Photography in Vienna, but also to private collectors through two Sotheby’s auctions held in New York in 2010.

 

Ryan McGinley + Polaroid Present : 'The New Originals Project'. Photo: Anne Chen/BFA

 

Polaroid Today

In 2010, the people behind THE IMPOSSIBLE PROJECT - what we now know as Polaroid Originals - managed to become owners of the already closed Polaroid manufacturing company and to save the production of the instant film. Thanks to these geniuses, we can now enjoy the magic of Polaroids all over again, and at fair prices too (for instance, the updated version of the OneStep camera, the OneStep+, is sold for 195€ along with 3 packs of i-Type film). I myself am a passionate Polaroid geek, so I can relate to the current rebirth of fascination first-hand - while I also use Instagram on a daily basis, nothing can replace the feeling of “shaking that Polaroid picture” and witnessing your image appear on it gradually, like some sort of sorcery. What you are then left with is a physical memory, a moment captured in time that you can hold on to with your actual hands.  

But even though it’s as instant as analog photography can be, some artists enjoy the very process of creation of a Polaroid photograph - like Ellen Carey, who alters the development on purpose in order to create abstract compositions much like her colleague Lucas Samaras, who altered his images using rubber erasers or pins. There is also William Wegman, who without a doubt has fun while shooting his Weimaners.

There is also a plethora of photographers working with Polaroids as we speak, whose art you can consult if you are looking for inspiration, or simply something nice, nostalgic yet new to look at. Among them are the five young creatives selected by one Ryan McGinley, to celebrate the launch of the Polaroid OneStep 2 camera in 2017: Marcus Branch, with his dreamy portraiture in Philadelphia’s landscapes, or Sabrina Santiago with her series dedicated to African American hair culture. Rochelle Brockington seems to be taking the female body and identity to a whole new level, while the work of Myles Loftin, by his own admission, examines “the black experience, identity, and representation of marginalized individuals.” Finally, Hunter Abrams’s fashion photographs tends to express the photographer’s love for the field beyond clothes.

And so, once again, the traditional photography survives the tides of evolution; one might even dare say that it is because of technology developing at an incredible speed that many tend to back to what they know, back to simpler times and simpler devices. If it isn’t polaroid’s revival story, then it is the one of the vinyls, and even cassettes, testifying to this fact. In any case, here’s hoping that instant photography and polaroids are here to stay, this time for good.

 

Stay Tuned to Kooness magazine for more exciting news from the art world.

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