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At Vassar: Focus on the Polaroid Years

chuck etc

“Industry is best,” said scientist, visionary, and prolific inventor Edwin H. Land, “at the intersection of science and art.” His revolutionary Polaroid SX-70 camera, marketed from 1972 to 1981, epitomizes this maxim. While Land invented instant photography in 1947, the elegant, portable, and inexpensive SX-70 brought to full flower his egalitarian belief that a mass-marketed product (advertised by none other than Sir Laurence Olivier) could appeal to “lay people” as well as bonafide artists, who Land courted. While the laypeople may have disposed of their snapshots from the analog era, quite a few artists — both iconic and obscure — saved their work. The Polaroid Years: Instant Photography and Experimentation, opening this Friday, April 12, at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College, displays a fascinating array of that work, from SX-70 snaps to bigger versions of Polaroids.

elandThe exhibit, which spans from 1972 to the present, features thirty-nine artists, among them Walker Evans, Chuck Close, Lisa Oppenheim, Robert Mapplethorpe, Land’s longtime friend and collaborator Ansel Adams, and the SX-70-obsessed Andy Warhol. The Warhol Foundation, in fact, is indirectly responsible for the exhibit; their 2008 bequest of hundreds of Polaroids to Vassar inspired curator Mary-Kay Lombino to delve deeper into the heady early years of point-and-shoot expression, when instant gratification was a novelty. She found a heretofore-unseen stratum of art.

Says Lombino: “I realized these small prints, which were once thought of as ephemera, were now entering museum collections, and in turn this, and the fact that they were taken by a major art figure, elevates them to the status of art. It made me wonder what other artists used Polaroid photography in their work. I discovered many not only used Polaroid, but experimented with it in surprising ways.” (André Kertész, above.)

Andre KerteszIndeed. One of the surprises of “The Polaroid Years” is a touching intimacy. Even some of the more esoteric works convey a low-tech bonhomie, due in part to the onetime ubiquity of the medium. (“That looks like something that could be on my fridge!”) The notoriously frosty Andy Warhol, seen in drag in one shot, seems approachable in his self-portrait Polaroids.

This democratization through technology was Land’s plan (later adopted by his great admirer Steve Jobs). With the launch of the SX-70, in fact, Land conceived the Artist Support Program, which offered free equipment and film to artists who would then donate work – and crucial beta-tester feedback – to the Polaroid corporation. An impoverished, impatient Robert Mapplethorpe benefitted from both this and the user-friendly Polaroid technology, finding his voice at last. Like many art photographers, his freedom from dependence on a lab, where his brazen work may raise distracting hackles, was liberating. The Polaroid Years features several of his circa early 1970s nudes.

John CoplansLombino arranged the exhibit into sections: Early Experiments, Manipulation, Montage, Body as Image, Picturing Life, On Television, Abstraction, Conceptual Projects, and Scaling up (large format works). Body as Image features the daring works of John Coplans, who, in contrast to youth-fixated Mapplethorpe and Warhol, shot Polaroids of his own aging body. His work is arresting and beautiful in its bravery. “‘Oldness’ is a taboo in American society,” Coplans says in the handsome book accompanying the exhibit, “which tends to worship beauty and youth. Consequently the aging of old bodies must be hidden from view, for they are imperfect…” As Lombino says, “[Coplan’s Polaroids] have the startling effect of bringing the unseen out in the open.”

janeneimanas1One of the most dazzling pieces is “R at Table (#9),” a collage by Joyce Neimanas, situated in the Montage section. Although her contemporary David Hockney – also represented in Montage – became renowned for creating masterful collages by tiling with Polaroids, Neimanas actually predated him in the process, and, as Lombino says, “She created reality, whereas Hockney depicts it. Yet he got more attention.” With “The Polaroid Years” Lombino hopes to make a stab at correcting this imbalance, providing wall space for, as she says, “the famous and the forgotten.”

Some attendees to The Polaroid Years will likely say, “These look like Instagrams!” That’s because Instagram, the photo sharing and social networking service (purchased by Facebook for $1 billion last year), transforms hyper-clear digital photos into Polaroid lookalikes, offering various filters to convey the wear and tear of bygone analog degradation. In a surprising move, Polaroid has partnered with Instagram to create a handheld camera not unlike the SX-70: the Socialmatic, due next year. This hybrid will bring Instagrams into “the real world.”

To see the humble aesthetic inspiring such modern day hullaballoo, and the homey-yet-space-age hardware that brought to life Edwin Land’s dream of “a kind of photography that’s part of the human being, an adjunct to your memory, something that’s always with you,” turn your focus to The Polaroid Years.  —Robert Burke Warren

The Polaroid Years: Instant Photography and Experimentation
Opening Friday, April 12
Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College
5:30pm Lecture by Christopher Bonanos Taylor Hall, Room 102
6:30pm Reception at Art Center Atrium
Exhibition on view through June 30, 2013
Inquiries: (845) 437-5237/

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Posted by Scott Baldinger on 04/09/13 at 09:34 PM • Permalink