‘A Requiem for Polaroid’
Open Shutter Gallery pays homage to vanishing art form

“Untitled,” a triptych of Polaroid photographs by Mike Slack.

by Jules Masterjohn

Earlier this year, the Polaroid Corp. announced that it would discontinue its instant self-developing film camera that we lovingly know of as the “Polaroid.” Actually, nearly all of the company’s “instant analog hardware products,” even those used by professional photographers, will be removed from production by the end of 2008.

In an effort to “celebrate and memorialize” this once-groundbreaking but soon-to-be defunct technology, the Open Shutter Gallery and Southwest Colorado Art Perspective magazine teamed up to present the exhibit, “The Polaroid Show,” which invited anyone to send in Polaroid-process photographs for display. The small show presents work by 14 individuals from coast to coast, including many locals.

Given the intention of exhibit organizers to commemorate the photographic process, it was surprising to find that most of the images captured on Polaroid could have been taken with any type of camera. What is unique about the Polaroid process? What are its inherent characteristics? Certain pieces in the exhibit address these questions and show the importance of this photographic and artistic tool. By illustrating its special attributes, the Polaroid’s 60-year lifespan is honored.

Pagosa Springs photographer Al Olson, shows us the beauty in large-format, professional grade negative film, which possesses a marked ability to record a seemingly endless subtlety in value.

His stilllife, “A Requiem for Polaroid,” presents an immaculate study of an Alstroemeria cluster, where each small vein on the petals is translated into varying shimmering tones of grey. The flowers look as if they had been cast in silver, solid and elegantly defined by the distinct changes in tonality. Olson shows us the medium at its finest and how a simple theme, the stilllife, can turn transcendent when the tool, technique and maker are aligned in purpose.

Filmmaker, photographer and Durangoan John Sheedy went beyond image-making into the realm of meaning making. “Found in a Tijuana Garbage Dump” is a collage made of a couple’s Polaroid portrait, which he found in the garbage, combined with the handwritten story of his finding, placed together in a frame. His collage wanders over the border of craft into art and makes reference to the instant and throwaway technology that the Polaroid camera heralded.

Artist Maureen May, too, makes use of what the consumer-quality Polaroid can do best by documenting the spontaneous and casual aspects of her life. Her mixed-media sculpture, “Getting Back to My Normal Business,” is a response to President Bush’s post-9-11 advice that the U.S. citizenry return to their daily routines. With 30 separate small sculptures, one for each day beginning Nov. 1, the sculpture is a journal of May’s attempt to regain her pre-disaster composure. Rising up from each sculpture’s cubed base, covered in 9-11 related newspaper stories from around the world, a vertical wire holds a Polaroid photograph. Each photo is dated in her handwriting and documents a myopic, dreamlike world. May’s piece is a powerful reminder of the sense of disorientation that many have felt since the tragic events of that day.

The Polaroid medium lends itself to a variety of artistic ends that relate specifically to its technical characteristics. A photograph can be used to create a print through a process known as Polaroid image transfer. One of the desirable qualities of this process is that the image can be transferred onto a variety of surfaces and unusual papers. Three floral prints on rice paper by Timm Stubbs and two prints on silk paper by Laurie Dickson are excellent examples of the diversity possibilities that can be attained through the image transfer process.

Absent from the exhibit is the manipulated Polaroid, a process in which the maker draws into the still-wet emulsion on the print’s surface. The resultant image can have a painterly quality, due to the emulsion being moved around on the photo’s surface like paint. The manipulation of the surface can add both textural and psychological components, oftentimes imbuing the image with an ephemeral quality. Popularized in the late 1960s, the images can take on the look of an acid trip gone bad, yet the directness of the process lends itself well to the marriage of technique and idea.

The centerpiece of “The Polaroid Show” is the work of Los Angeles photographer Mike Slack. Slack’s well-composed images are mysterious and minimal, relying on the soft focus and low-key contrast that is characteristic of the Polaroid process known to most of us. His triptychs and diptychs combine images that relate through texture, color or concept. Classically composed, and sometime leaning toward a narrative, Slack’s multi-image pieces are concise collages of the spontaneous point of view that is classic with the Polaroid camera.

Slack came to the attention of Margy Dudley, Open Shutter’s owner, a few years back through his then-recently published book, Ok Ok Ok. The book is a collection of Polaroid instant images of just about anything that happens to cross the photographer’s path. He writes, “I keep a long list of things that I try (and often fail) to avoid shooting.” He goes on to list 50 items, which include “funny-looking bushes; chain link fences … empty parking lots; painted brick walls; curtains; stairs.” In the back of the book, Slack quotes Louis Pasteur who was quoted by Edwin Land, the inventor of the Polaroid (Land) camera. “Chance favors the prepared mind.”

To fully appreciate this reference in Slack’s photographs, a trip to Open Shutter is in order.

And for lovers of the Polaroid process, do not fret. Earlier this month, Polaroid announced it would continue producing an instant camera though it will be digitally based. •

“The Polaroid Show” is on display through Sept. 5 at Open Shutter Gallery, located at 735 Main Ave. The gallery is open every day from 10 a.m.-10 p.m.



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