Exhibition positions the Polaroid at the crossroads between art and technology

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Exhibition positions the Polaroid at the crossroads between art and technology
The exhibition reflects different artistic approaches and temperaments as well as the diverse characteristics of the materials and techniques of Polaroid photography. Photo: Michaela Hille.

HAMBURG.- Polaroid! A brand that has long since become legendary. One look at Instagram is enough to show how instant photography transformed the medium in ways that are still pervasive today. The exhibition positions the Polaroid phenomenon at the crossroads between art and technology. Outstanding artists from Ansel Adams to Andy Warhol used the medium of the instant photo to blaze new trails with their art, leaving a lasting mark on the aesthetics of an entire era. Featuring some 240 photos by 120 artists, The Polaroid Project sheds light on the whole aesthetic spectrum of instant photography while also demonstrating based on 87 camera models and prototypes the innovative technology that made this visual revolution possible in the first place. The Polaroid works on view range from the early days of the company in 1955 through to 2015. The main focus is on art from the 1980s and 90s. Instant camera film, presented to the public for the first time in 1947 by Edwin H. Land in New York, shortened the time needed to make, develop, and view a photograph to just a few minutes. This was the beginning of a mode of picture-making that lives on today in digital photography and the sharing of snapshots or selfies in online photo portals. The current hype for Polaroid apps for smartphones, along with the instant cameras that have been reintroduced onto the market, attest to the lasting popularity of the medium. With today’s flood of digital imagery, however, the quality that makes the Polaroid special has been turned into the opposite: When you take a Polaroid photo of a passing moment or a social occasion, the result is a unique physical, analogue object, which you can hold in your hand while you wait in suspense and anticipation as the image slowly appears as if by magic.

The exhibition reflects different artistic approaches and temperaments as well as the diverse characteristics of the materials and techniques of Polaroid photography. The spectrum ranges from the popular SX-70 snapshot in its distinctive white paper frame, to Polacolor and black-and-white film in medium format, all the way to the fascinating richness of detail in the large 20” x 24” Polaroids (50 x 61 cm). The latter, made in a studio setting using a large-format camera that has to be operated by a special technician, have been used since the late 1970s in particular for elaborately staged still lifes and portraits. The more manageable 3¼” x 4¼” and 4” x 5” formats (8.3 x 10.7 and 10.2 x 12.7 cm) are conducive to recording moments in everyday life, depicting objects in abstract-looking images, capturing fleeting impressions and moods, or creating expressive self-portraits. The object nature of the SX-70 Polaroid with its white frame makes it ideal for collages, overpainting, and experiments with photo paper and the embedded chemicals, resulting in completely nonrepresentational pictorial inventions. The instant availability of the results exerts a powerful fascination on artists, offering as it does a high degree of control over the work process, which lies right in their own two hands. The exhibition is divided into eight chapters illustrating various approaches to using Polaroid: Interrogations, Observations, Impressions, Configurations, Expressions, Theaters, Arrangements, and Instantaneity. Kicking off the show is an image film called SX-70 made by the designers Charles and Ray Eames in 1972 which demonstrates the importance of the artistic aspect for the Polaroid Corporation and the significance of the technology as two factors vital to the evolution of Polaroid photography.

Polaroid itself has worked closely with photographers and artists from the start. One of the earliest advisors to Edwin H. Land, inventor and founder of the Polaroid Corporation, was Ansel Adams, the godfather of American landscape photography. Polaroid collaborates with well-known artists for its branding and marketing, although its core business is the amateur market. In its Artist Support Program, the company provides film and cameras to the art and photography scene. The large-format Polaroid camera has been developed since 1977 expressly for this program. In return, the company receives not only feedback on its products but also selected works for the company collection. For artists, the inventions from Land’s company offer a playground for their own discoveries, with each artist using the technique in his or her own way as a source of fresh inspiration. With its instant availability, the Polaroid lends itself to new forms of expression such as overpainting, manipulation of the surface, and a step-by-step work process. Numerous artists – chief among them Andy Warhol – made extensive use of the medium in the 1980s, securing for the Polaroid a fixed place in the artistic firmament.

The lively exchange between the art world and the company formed the basis for the spectacular Polaroid Collection, which was gradually amassed at corporate headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts, since the 1960s. The Polaroid Project is the first exhibition to combine this American collection, which was discontinued in 2009, with its European counterpart, the International Polaroid Collection, originally based in Amsterdam. With additional photographs loaned by artists or their executors, along with objects from the MIT Museum in Cambridge, the show will present the Polaroid phenomenon in all its variety at the international stations on its tour. A look at the technology behind instant photography demonstrates that the creativity of company founder Edwin H. Land and his team of scientists and engineers was a worthy match for that of the artists who would put the new medium through its paces.

Featuring Polaroids by Ansel Adams, Nobuyoshi Araki, Sibylle Bergemann, Anna and Bernhard Blume, Guy Bourdin, Ellen Carey, Chuck Close, Barbara Crane, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Harold Edgerton, Walker Evans, Gisèle Freund, Toto Frima, Luigi Ghirri, Hans Hansen, David Hockney, Dennis Hopper, Barbara Kasten, André Kertesz, Ulrich Mack, Robert Mapplethorpe, Robert Rauschenberg, Toshio Shibata, Andy Warhol, William Wegman, and many others.

The exhibition The Polaroid Project was developed by the Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography, Minneapolis/New York/Paris/Lausanne, together with the MIT Museum, Cambridge (Massachusetts) and WestLicht. Schauplatz für Fotografie (Vienna) in cooperation with the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg. The curators responsible are Deborah G. Douglas, William A. Ewing, Barbara P. Hitchcock, Rebekka Reuter, and Gary Van Zante.

After being shown in Vienna (WestLicht. Schauplatz für Fotografie: 17 November 2017 until 25 February 2018) and Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe (16 March until 17 June 2018), the show will travel to Berlin (C/O Berlin: 7 July until 23 September 2018), Singapore (National Museum of Singapore: 1 November 2018 until 17 February 2019), and Montreal (Musée McCord: 14 June until 15 September 2019), before its final showing at the MIT Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts (end of 2019).

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