By Elin Spring
Momentous advances have always been driven by the engine of technology, whether in the sciences or in the arts. Look at the way the digital revolution has made photography both instantaneous and malleable, changing not only the way we make images but how we think about truth. When Edwin Land introduced the Polaroid camera and instant film in 1948, it transformed photography in ways few could have anticipated. The Polaroid Project: At the Intersection of Art and Technology illuminates the myriad effects of Land’s invention, just a few blocks from where it all began in Cambridge, MA. The expansive exhibit will be on view at the MIT Museum in two parts, during which the technical objects will remain on view while the artwork changes. Part I is currently on view through February 23rd, 2020 and Part II will be on view from March 9th– June 21st, 2020.
Polaroid’s first priority was always as a market for amateur photography. And in fact, they became the social media of the late 20th century, alluring buyers with instant souvenirs of shared moments and important events. Remarkably, they simultaneously advanced photographic art in two groundbreaking ways. Firstly, through the shrewd development in the 1960’s of their Artist Support Program to test and offer feedback on new products. Secondly, with the complementary establishment of their dazzling Polaroid Collection, complete with an active traveling exhibition program. Polaroid’s inspired alliance of art, technology and commerce unleashed an explosion of experimentation and led to Polaroid’s marketing success, especially through the 1970’s and 1980’s.
Polaroid’s earliest artistic collaboration was with Ansel Adams, who convinced Edwin Land to recruit others to test its products, from famous artists like Harold Edgerton, André Kertész and Lennart Nilsson to emerging artists like Olivia Parker and David Levinthal. In the 1960’s, Marie Cosindas helped develop Polaroid’s first color product. Her experimental work with filters, heat, and extended development times garnered the attention of John Szarkowski and led to a solo show at MoMA, foreshadowing Polaroid’s importance in the fine art world.
Instant photography was a big deal but Polaroid represented much more than that. Two things in particular ignited the art world: the unique look of Polaroid films, especially Polacolor with its radically lush color saturation and deep blacks and the sheer range of sizes, from the Polaroid SX-70 (introduced in 1972) that produced diminutive 3 ¼”x 3 ¼” prints to the favored darling 20”x 24” camera (1976) to the singular 40”x 80” camera (1977), a space hog that was housed at the MFA, Boston.
Polaroid’s disruptive technology set off a tsunami. Lucas Samaras became a trailblazer with his large grids of wonky self-portraits using double exposure to disjoint his face and body and altered sequencing to expand perceptions of angle and time. Artists like David Hockney and Joyce Neimanas also famously experimented with overlapping images and jagged edges. Others like Bruce Charlesworth, Sheri Lynn Behr and John Reuter blended their photography with different hand-based media, drawing and painting on their prints. Non-photographers like Chuck Close and Robert Rauschenberg were enticed to use Polaroid techniques to integrate printmaking, collage and photography.
In the 1970’s, the performance of image making seemed to become as compelling as the pictures themselves, making Polaroid a cultural icon as artists like Andy Warhol and Robert Mapplethorpe jumped on board. The “object-ness” of Polaroid prints was further highlighted in pieces that incorporated the image frames and even the carriers that held Polaroid films, as in the work of Barbara Crane, Damien Hustinx and Mark Klett. Process became part of the message as artists like Barbara Kasten and Ellen Carey utilized Polaroid film’s chemical markings in their abstract works. Renowned portrait work by Chuck Close, Joyce Tenneson and Dawoud Bey emphasize Polaroid’s immediacy and intimacy.
It is nearly impossible to describe the expansive reach of Polaroid, artistically, culturally, or industrially. Accompanying the impressive array of American artwork, The Polaroid Project expands on the company’s notable technical and industrial contributions and includes work by some European photographers, who joined the fray after Polaroid expanded operations to the Netherlands in the mid-1960’s. But one of my favorite aspects of the exhibit is home-grown. At the close of the exhibit is a large, interactive projection screen featuring the work of local artists like Karl Baden, Judith Black and Vaughn Sills, whose photographs and accompanying testimonials describe how Polaroid’s “intersection of art and technology” advanced their own work.
For more information about this exhibit and associated programming, go to: https://mitmuseum.mit.edu/thepolaroidproject