How the Polaroid Camera Seduced the Art World

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Guy Bourdin, Charles Jourdan, 1978© The Guy Bourdin Estate 2017, Courtesy of Louise Alexander Gallery

A new publication unpacks the technological and creative possibilities offered by the handheld device able to record memories in an instant

The Polaroid is a picture post-it to be stuck in albums, pinned on walls, magnetised to fridges, kept by lovers. The Polaroid was forever treasured, for it captured a moment in time, making it tangible in mere seconds. Why, then, was its heyday so relatively short-lived? Presented by scientist Edwin Land in 1947, its time in the spotlight was predominantly the 70s, an era when the great SX-70 wowed the world with its almost magic ability to capture and immortalise memories on demand.

Ironically – and as history relates, sadly for the Polaroid – that was the same time the world’s first digital camera was engineered, by Steven Sasson at Kodak. Just 30 years later, in 2001 and again in 2008, Polaroid Corporation filed for bankruptcy. In a flash the modern digital age all but extinguished the Polaroid as a tool for the every day. Instead, it became widely used by artists and photographers as a medium in itself. 

A January 1973 edition of Popular Science heralded the SX-70 as “perhaps the most fiendishly clever invention in the history of photography”, a sentiment that photobook and touring exhibition The Polaroid Project aims to highlight. Focusing on the phenomenon of the photography and how it intersects with science, The Polaroid Project explores the Polaroid in 360°, as “a corporation, a business, an industry, a technology (or, more accurately, a cluster of technologies), and specific products that stood proudly at the forefront of photographic image-making in a Western post-war world that really believed that easier and faster meant better” photographic curator William A. Ewing writes in the book’s introduction.

Including the history of the Polaroid, its engineering and evolution, the book and exhibition also features never-before-seen snapshots taken by Land himself, and other works by eminent artists who have all used – and in some cases, still use – this extraordinary technology.

Such examples include Guy Bourdin, the French photographer who changed the face of fashion image-making forever. A trained painter, colour and expression were integral to Bourdin’s work, and his stories, built around absurd narratives, were often known for their eroticism, surrealism and humour. Patronage from shoe designer Charles Jourdan brought him fame, and in The Polaroid Project we see an image which owes its existence to such sponsorship. Taken in 1978 and shot from the perspective of a red-nailed woman, it reveals her holding a black and white Polaroid infront of a second model. All that is visible beneath the polaroid edge is her feet, dressed in Charles Jourdan shoes.

We also see work by Chinese conceptual photographer, Chen Wei. Everlasting Radio Wave depicts taxidermy bats as if emerging from a radio box, linking the sound waves emitted by the nocturnal creatures for navigation, to the radio waves we humans use for daily communication. Then there’s the Appalachian woman and child by Shelby Lee Adams, the American photographer best known for his work documenting the changing cultural behaviours of the Appalachian people.

Polaroids by American actor Dennis Hopper, Hungarian photographer André Kertész and British artist David Hockney are also included. Indeed, the list of contributing practitioners crosses countries, continents and centuries. If ever there was testament to the global affection for the remarkable visionary, artistic and technological triumph that is the Polaroid, The Polaroid Project is surely it.

The Polaroid Project is available now, published by Thames & Hudson.