New York

Sandi Fellman

Elise Meyer, Inc.

When I was at Sandi Fellman’s show, I asked the gallery for a vita sheet, a checklist of the exhibition, some reproduction prints—the usual stuff I request at any show I attend. When I went through the material from Fellman’s show later, however, I realized that what I had thought to be copies of pieces about her were actually about the 20by-24-inch Polaroid, the camera with which all the pictures in her show had been made. This struck me as somewhat peculiar. I couldn’t imagine any of the contemporary 8-by-10-inch photographers throwing in a piece on their Deardorffs. Would an Henri Cartier-Bresson show promote the Leica M1? Does Richard Avedon include literature on the Rolleiflex? Did Eugene Atget send his clients brochures extolling the rectilinear lens or singing the praises of printing-out paper?

One of the Xeroxes from the Fellman show was actually an ad for “The 20 x 24 Studio at Polaroid,” where a “professional technical staff” is provided to assist the photographer. “Just bring your creativity and props,” invites the ad. I began to get the impression that these pictures had been made by Polaroid rather than Fellman, as if the camera and film had a creative life of their own independent of any photographer.

Unfortunately, I think that this is so. Used under the right lighting conditions, which the “20 x 24 Studio” no doubt guarantees, this Polaroid film produces colors that do seem to have a life of their own, or at least a will of their own. The film shows off at the photographer’s expense. It compels the photographer to work in a certain way, to seek the effects of which it is capable. The subject of the photograph is reduced to a mere “prop,” as the Polaroid ad says. The film lends itself particularly to still lifes, which are what Fellman does. There is a human subject present in each picture, but that presence is kept to a minimum—a hand here, a knee there, a foot somewhere else. Living human flesh looks out of place in the exquisitely appointed world Fellman has created. The subjects with which she works best are feathers, flowers, and fabric. The uniformity of the materials invites alliteration. It makes you want to speak in sibilants. The light is suffused; the textures are soft, sensuous, silky, et cetera. The result is what I think of as art direction, not art.

What can the photographer do with colors as lush and luxurious as these? They’re so rich that they seem absolute, intractable. They defy human imagination. Kodachrome II suffered from a comparable perfection. In the slides, the color seemed to hang in the air. It was almost stifling. I don’t know of any photographer who was able to do serious work in Kodachrome II, and I suspect that the same fate will befall this advanced Polaroid process. Chuck Close has succeeded with large-format Polaroid photographs only because his transformations into other media methodically destroy the film’s quality. Lucas Samaras attacks the problem similarly, by attacking the film. Only Marie Cosindas has been able to make an imagery uniquely her own out of the properties that inhere in Polaroid film. At best Fellman’s work is derivative of Cosindas’. At worst, it raises questions about Cosindas’ own achievement.

Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr.