The Polaroid corporation may have mass-marketed photography for countless shutterbugs from the 1970s onward, but let’s face it—the vast majority of the ubiquitous white-framed images are not artistic masterworks. They’re usually vacation pictures of old houses or Ferris wheels, or shots of mom and dad and aunt Bertha exposing too much flesh at your local beach, left to decay in the attics of suburbia.
But if it accomplishes anything, the Norton Museum of Art’s engrossing exhibition “The Polaroid Years” unlocks the professional potential beneath this most amateur of devices. From 1972 on—that was the year Polaroid developed its first consumer camera, the SX-70, with its leather case the color of a secondhand Buick—artists both world-renowned and under-recognized have gravitated to Polaroid technology, both to record reality and manipulate it.
“The Polaroid Years” captures all of these inclinations in its four fruitful, carefully organized galleries.
For many artists in this exhibition, Polaroids were simply another means of reiterating familiar thematic preconceptions, only this time under the restrictions of the image’s boxy, instantly developed essence. William Wegman, unsurprisingly, uses the technology to manipulate images of his beloved dog Man Ray, by overlaying images within other images so that the Weimaraner appears to have eight googly eyes. For Andy Warhol, his familiar motif of multicolored repetition of images turns up in a series inherently provocative shots of male genitalia.
Walker Evans, whose SX-70 camera is displayed under glass in this exhibition, used the Polaroid to reinforce his fascination with street signs. Under the square restrictions of the frame, his images of signs—reading such negative scrawls as “OFF,” “Dead End” and “Do Not Enter,” circa 1973—reflect Vietnam-era malaise and feel especially hopeless when divorced from their contexts.
But the most exciting works in this exhibition are the discoveries of the relatively unknown artists who pioneered new ways of playing with Polaroids that went well beyond capturing reality.
Artists like Lucas Samaras (whose work is shown above) and Bruce Charlesworth discovered that, through the slowly developing photo-emulsion process of Polaroid’s instant photography, they had time to alter the still-malleable image. This resulted in Charlesworth’s brilliant patchwork collages, which repurposed images from other media decades before Photoshop; John Reuter’s haunting, multilayered images of melting faces and spectral bodies; and the masterly smeared representations of Samaras, which resemble bad psychedelic trips.
Samaras’ most impressive piece in the exhibition is 1984’s “Panorama,” a series of 19 horizontal strips that, when stacked vertically, creates a single image of the artist, in the buff and in motion, reaching or jumping in his studio.
Likewise, a piece by Joyce Neimanas also relies on numerous images mashed together, complete with their white borders, to create the cubist representation of a man sitting at a card table with a cigarette (pictured below).
Other artists also forged unique identities through Polaroid. By taking instant snapshots of television news coverage, Catherine Opie’s series of president George W. Bush’s body language during the 2004 presidential debates—and her thematic linkage between images of Pope John Paul and Terry Schiavo—manage to comment on politics and culture through her reflections of reflections.
Chuck Close lives up to his surname by shooting intensely close-up self-portraits on the largest Polaroid camera available, the company’s 80-foot by 40-foot “Museum Camera.” The renegade artist Dash Snow’s works are defined by his physical defilement of the images themselves; in one, an extended middle finger emerges through a backdrop of real blood, while others include burn marks, tears and the intrusion of dirty industrial tape.
If this disparate collection of approaches to Polaroid technology has one overriding theme, it may be the proliferance of nudes. For an exhibition that is at its core educational and illuminating, there’s more T&A in “The Polaroid Years,” from males and females alike, than any show I’ve seen in recent memory. A hilarious series by Robert Heinecken is even inspired by Hustler’s degrading “Blind Beaver Hunt” collection of reader-submitted nude poses.
Does this oversharing of the physical anatomy have to do with the fact that most of these pictures were shot in the early ‘70s, when countercultural liberation was still sweeping the land? Or is there something in the camera itself that brought out artists’ friskiness?
The answer is simple, really: Every time a new technology to develops, it is instantly exploited for pornographic purposes, from the film camera to the VHS tape to the Internet and the text message. Bodies are always the first territory to chart. Why would the Polaroid camera be any different?
At least in this case, the naked bodies have a clear and distinct artistic purpose, despite the anybody-can-shoot-this aesthetic of the camera. Images like this may not be what Polaroid’s founders had in mind when they rolled out their product, but one’s thing is for sure: These shots, and all the others on display, aren’t languishing in anybody’s attic. Long live Polaroid!
“The Polaroid Years: Instant Photography and Experimentation” runs through March 23 at Norton Museum of Art, 1451 S. Olive Ave., West Palm Beach. Admission costs $5-$12. Call 561/832-5196 or visit norton.org.