The Art of the Polaroid
Before selfies, Instagram and digital cameras — there was Polaroid.
Andy Warhol with a Polaroid self portrait (Designboom)
Founded in 1937 by Edwin Land, Polaroid was a revolution of its time: the first, and for a long time the only, way to instantly see an image you had just taken. In fact, it is because of Polaroid’s innovation that Land holds the second largest amounts of patents in US history (after only Thomas Edison).
Christopher Bonanos, editor at New York magazine and author of Instant: The Story of Polaroid, explains that Land wanted to create:
“a camera which you would use not on the occasion of parties only, or of trips only, or when your grandchildren came to see you, but a camera that you would use as often as your pencil or your eyeglasses.”
The incredible speed and ease of use of Polaroid cameras gave artists new freedom to experiment and expand their art.
No longer did photographers have to wait to finish and then develop an entire roll of film before being able to see their efforts. They had easily accessible, instant feedback and the chance to experiment with results.
They also had a small, simple camera with which they could capture quick moments of their daily life without having to adjust a number of settings.
The Polaroid soon became not just an easy to use camera for the masses, but a tool for some of the most renown contemporary artists.
Polaroid’s Great Users
Perhaps the fine artist most known for Polaroid use, Andy Warhol used Polaroid to capture quick, casual glimpses into the lives of him and his friends (some of the most famous celebrities of their time). The speed and ease of Polaroid allowed Warhol to capture candid, intimate portraits of these seemingly inapproachable stars; a vulnerable honesty that would undoubtedly be lost in a formal photoshoot setting.
Andy Warhol, Polaroid portraits of (clockwise from top right): Liza MInnelli, Diana Ross, Jerry Hall and Bianca Jagger, 1960s (Pret-a-Reporter)
Though Warhol’s Polaroids were meant as artistic experimentation for his larger silkscreen portraits, rather than artwork for exhibition, they have been shown all over the country, from Los Angeles and Las Vegas to Poughkeepsie, New York, gaining attention after the artist’s death in 1987. They are often exhibited on a more intimate scale than his more notable silkscreens, offering audiences that may not have access to Warhol’s larger oeuvre the chance to peek into the life of the great Pop artist.
Along with Warhol, Chuck Close was an early proponent of Polaroid, incorporating the film as a staple of his artistic practice. While most people may think of Polaroid on a very small scale, Close preferred much lager images, producing 20 x 24 in. Polaroid portraits.
Chuck Close shoots Oprah Winfrey for Vanity Fair magazine.(Vanity Fair)
And Close still uses the Polaroid format today — explaining to Vanity Fairthat he enjoys the “brutal honesty” of the film, which captures an intimate, exposed truthfulness that would otherwise be concealed in digital post-production processes. He also finds that the instant processing of a Polaroid print allows for a more collaborative photoshoot; both he and the model can see and discuss the results, a luxury when shooting film.
As a consultant for Polaroid in 1949 (for $100 per month), Ansel Adams worked with and tested Polaroids various film and camera. His experiments with polaroids revealed a different side of the Western landscapes that he was so famous for capturing.
Ansel Adams, Yosemite Falls, 1979 (Smithsonian)
Adams’ polaroids take the format beyond portraiture, combining landscapes’ grandeur with the soft, other-worldly color palette that characterizes Polaroid images. The result is a landscape both familiar and reinvented, seen through a new lens. Adams even said of his Polaroid: “Many of my most successful photographs from the 1950’s onward have been made on Polaroid film. One look at the tonal quality of the print I have achieved should convince the uninitiated of the truly superior quality of Polaroid film.”
Like all film based industries, Polaroid’s business has suffered in the age of digitalization, filing for bankruptcy in 2001 and again in 2008. However, the film still stands as the only instantly processing film — the only way to both shoot in film and quickly see the results.
Chuck Close explains how this instantaneousness is a key part of his artistic practice:
“After every shot, the picture goes up on the wall. I can look at it, and the sitter can look at it. They say, ‘Oh, okay, this is what we’re doing.’”
A Chuck Close portrait of Brad Pitt for Vanity Fair magazine (2013)
However, most camera users have found a replacement for the instant gratification and specified color palette of Polaroid film — Instagram, which includes even more options for altering the color of an image and the chance for instant viewing not only by oneself but by an entire online community.
Moreover, the photo sharing platform combines artistic photography with personal narrative to glimpse into users and artists lives as never before.
Whereas Andy Warhol’s casual snapshots served as rare glimpses into his social life and circle of friends, such personal exposure is the norm of Instagram. Andy Warhol once said that he took so many Polaroids to
“…know where I was every minute. That’s why I take pictures. It’s a visual diary.”
Now artists, museums and galleries are following suit — using Instagram to not only publicize and gain feedback on work but also to open up their artistic practices and lives to the public, all instantly — a more public Polaroid.
Artist Takasi Murakami uses his Instagram account to capture his studio process (left), artwork (center) and social life (right).
This post was written with the help of Alice Mahoney.