This piece was originally published on Metavisual.net in December 2008.
It may well have passed your notice: a year on from the news that the Polaroid Company would cease to manufacture the Polaroid Camera, the word came, on the 8th of February this year, that after its factories have manufactured enough supplies to last through 2009, the company will also halt the production of its film. Could it be that the medium is finally a thing of the past? – That soon those thousands upon thousands of shiny white snaps will suddenly become transfigured from vital images into a blizzard of historical ephemera?
One thing is certain: Polaroid-fanciers will not let the medium die without a fight. Certainly, upon the Polaroid Company’s most recent announcement, indignant instant-addicts began to trawl the web, looking to stock up on the now precious film, and a crop of exhibitions and books cropped up like little artistic mushrooms. For example: Polaroid Retrospective (an exhibition showing at the AOP Gallery in Shoreditch at the moment) exemplifies just some of the ways in which artists have experimented with the medium. At the same time, Andy Warhol’s stark Polaroid self-portraits – the focal points of posters advertising the Hayward exhibition Other Voices, Other Rooms – stare out at bleary-eyed Underground commuters. People sprung forth to defend, protect and pay homage to the endangered art-form.
But why, when so many other types of camera and methods of photography have long since discretely disappeared, are we now so reluctant to let the Polaroid go? Why, half a century after its inception and in an era of digital cameras and camera phones, do so many of us continue to covet, experiment with and work with this anachronistic form? Perhaps the Polaroid photograph, unlike so many other photographic forms, seems immune to the passing of time and the changes in fashion because it’s distinguished by three special features: instantaneity, uniqueness and that particular Polaroid aesthetic.
The main selling point of the Polaroid camera has always been the fact that it allows the photographer to circumvent the photography shop or the dark room – it obliterates both the effort of developing and the often weeks-long period of waiting between the taking of a photo and the holding of it in your hand. Instead, the Polaroid camera gives us the magic of those mere moments of brief, breathless anticipation – the visceral experience of the click, clunk and whirr, the chemical smell, the stickiness and the shaking and then – finally – the delicious moment of watching an image emerge, before your eyes, out of a nebulous, oil-marbled cloud of grey fluid.
The instant Polaroid gives us the almost uncanny experience of seeing real life pressed onto paper before it has had the chance to dry – the image before it has been paled by the passing of time, hindsight and nostalgia.
Even now that digital cameras mean that virtually all contemporary photographs can be viewed instantly, the Polaroid photograph still doggedly retains its special-ness by dint of its fluke-ish-ness – because you never quite know what the lens has seen and the camera caught and what the archaically clunky, plastic Polaroid camera will shortly spit out at you from its jutting jaw. Moreover, the Polaroid is the last remaining manifestation of the daguerreotype (the single-image photograph). In contrast to the millions of digital flicks that clog up Facebook and Myspace, each Polaroid photograph exists only as the physical object it is – every one as individual as
a snowflake or a fingerprint.
Above all else, however, it is the iconic aesthetic of the Polaroid photograph – a look that has become synonymous with the spontaneous, the quotidian and the personal -that has (and may continue to) ensured its longevity. Many have grown to love the immediately identifiable, idiosyncratic look of a Polaroid – the uniformity of the miniature size and square shape; the thick, white, pre-set frame with the caption space and the hazy over-exposure. The Polaroid camera gives us a kind of democratising frame to view the world through – presenting any subject, be it cat, tits, lips, teenager, car or band, within that same small, white window.