New York

“A Survey Of Polaroid Color Photography”

International Center of Photography Museum (ICP)

To stay healthy, any art needs a continuous replenishment of its sense of magic, of energy, of lightness and play. At its best, Polaroid photography seems to provide this kind of nourishment to photography today. It is a technical innovation which also restores a vigorous crudeness and naïveté to the medium. It reduces the number of procedural variables; it intensifies decisions about the framing and timing of the photograph. It holds out the promise that anyone can achieve its results while at the same time allowing expert photographers to do things that are harder than they look.

Such at least seemed to be the premise of the International Center of Photography’s show of color Polaroid work. The feeling that Polaroid work is likely to become an increasingly important aspect of the medium is emphasized by the variety of the examples on display here. The Polaroid people’s distribution of free film has produced a large body of work by both established and younger photographers. Walker Evans and Ansel Adams, Philippe Halsman and Eliott Erwitt, are represented here as well as Lucas Samaras and Jane Tuckerman Foley.

Evans’s case is illustrative of the medium. The topics of his Polaroid work are similar to those of his most famous pictures: a wrecked Ford pick-up, the gingerbread front of a cottage, a sign in a post office. But these pictures work to record details in the close, snapshot format of the Polaroid. They are supremely conscious of their limitations. Very often their topics are flat images, admission of the picture’s inability to grasp a whole object, and token of its function as a handy, disposable sort of document which can be only partially successful. Evans’s almost colorless study of the post-office wall, with its crudely lettered signs and its mail slots, can allude to an unreachable space behind. This image, as well as one other, of the cover to a water valve in a New Haven street, could be part of some sort of public works presentation to the city council. Their crudeness is also businesslike, up front about its weaknesses, and yet somehow, in the end, expressive of a kind of marveling at a world in which, as Evans said shortly before his death, “the thing itself is such a secret and so unapproachable.”

The Polaroid print mediates the strange elusiveness of the object in the context of documentation. The Polaroid process juxtaposes enigma and familiarity in a continuous way, in that the immediate results obtained by the print betray the object on the spot. Having the modesty of a sketch, the print is a crude but partially notational tool, characterized by its own shifting of colors and by the limitations which the small square places on composition. This reduced space allows less room for the Polaroid photographer to hide from the task—and the difficulty—of documentation.

Confronting this task, the picture takes advantage of its own debilities. Jock Gill’s wonderful image of an ice cream ad painted on wire screening is an example—“Rainbo is good.” The missing letter at the end of the rainbow, like a receding pot of gold, bears witness to the photograph’s sense of the object’s absence, for all the technical immediacy of the medium. All that is left is detail; the attention is on the physical shape of the painted letters, the way the paint clings to the spaces between the wire.

In other images, the sense of an open space at the middle, a piece of deep space or a bit of lonely atmosphere cleverly framed is the real subject of the photograph. A photographer like Michael Kostiuk, in his shot of an empty Texas street with receding wall and telephone pole, is teasing with the notion of a picture of nothing, of something that moved before he could catch it. In fact, however, the social role of the poster accentuates, by contrast, the depopulated, almost colorless, space.

In some cases, like Frank Siteman’s portraits, there is a nearly opposite effort to cram the field with a person’s bust, leaving almost no edge at all. These sensitive views are titled not with the people’s names, however, but simply with the name of the place where they were taken. (Titles of any sort are rare in this show, incidentally. The absent object, the elusive detail or atmosphere is named at most by the place and time of the photographer’s encounter with it.) Siteman’s pictures, or Art Kane’s images of Mexico, have the air of travel pictures with near parodies of the simplicity and mistakes of the businessman operating his expensive camera for the first time.

As Bhupendra Karia, one of the show’s organizers, indicates in his posted essay, these photographers are fascinated by the imperfections of their method. The object is elusive because the medium, for all its pretensions of technical wondrousness, is unreliable as a record of perception. These photographers like unpredictable, almost funny-paper hues. They like the uniqueness and unreproduceability of every print. (There is no reusable negative with this film). And they like the sense of the photograph as an object to hold in the hand, an object of one size only, not an abstract image which can be blown up to huge size. Like postcards from a nonexistent or nonvisitable country, these pictures hold a special fascination in their naïveté.

Phil Patton