Before the iPhone and Steve Jobs, there was Polaroid and Edwin H. Land. The Polaroid Project: At the Intersection of Art and Technology, now on view at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, chronicles Land’s revolutionary development of instantaneous photography and explores artists’ use of Polaroid’s technology to create unexpected works.
Land was inspired to develop instant photography when his three-year-old daughter asked why she had to wait to see a photo. Land visualized the science behind his landmark invention as quickly as a Polaroid camera produces a photo.
On February 21, 1947, Land demonstrated his instant camera at the Optical Society of America and the cameras were first publicly sold the day after Thanksgiving Day in 1948.
More than 50 cameras were produced for the sale and that inventory was expected to last the entire holiday season. The cameras sold out within days.
Land, an energetic inventor who earned 535 patents, desired artists to use Polaroid cameras and collaborated with photographer and environmentalist Ansel Adams to perfect the technology. Adams insisted the camera create sharp black and white images as opposed to sepia toned photos.
“He said, ‘We have to produce a product that will make photographs that are important-looking and with color that will last or it won’t be taken seriously. It will just be another snapshot camera’,” Subie Green, a docent at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, said.
The Polaroid Corporation invested in artists, providing emerging photographers with cameras and film.
“It’s a wonderful model for companies today to think about investing in something. If companies would invest in the art as they are producing things, what other things could come out of that?” Green said.
Artists initially used Polaroid cameras for test shots, but soon recognized Polaroid’s artistic potential.
The artists’ experimentations with Polaroid products make up this exhibition, organized by the Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography, in collaboration with the MIT Museum, and the WestLicht Museum for Photography.
On display are 150 images by 100 artist-photographers including Ellen Carey, Chuck Close, Marie Cosindas, Barbara Crane, David Hockney, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol.
Several artists pressed and scratched prints with keys, butter knives and paperclips to manipulate the surface of the image. Artists used Polaroid products to experiment with photographic emulsion and color manipulation.
“We think of Polaroids as just little snapshots, but artists saw a way to manipulate negatives so that they could do all these different kinds of images and they could make statements with them that they didn’t feel they could make before that,” Green said.
Polaroid cameras produced images in variety of sizes including 3" x 3", 4" x 5" and 8" x 10", all represented in this exhibition. In 1976, Polaroid introduced a large format 20" x 24" camera which artists use to create striking portraits and large-scale scenes. Artists continue to use five 20" x 24" cameras in New York City, Massachusetts College of Art, Amsterdam, Prague and the studio of Elsa Dorfman. Dorfman has based her work on the 20" x 24" camera since 1980.
Artists wanting to use Polaroid products face a modern-day problem: Polaroid film is no longer being made.
“When they announced they were going out of business, artists went out to stores and bought every bit of film they could afford and stored it in their refrigerators because they knew how valuable it was to them,” Green said. Polaroid film can be purchased online, but it is an expensive rarity.
The Polaroid Project showcases artifacts from the company’s archives.
“When they had staff meetings and talked about their ideas, Edwin Land would say to people, ‘Show me, don’t tell me.’ So people were expected to come in with some kind of model, no matter how rough it had to be,” Green said. The models on display are made of paper or plastic and they are highly detailed.
Land’s inventive prowess was rivaled by his marketing ingenuity. Land understood the public wanted an inexpensive camera that produced high-quality instantaneous photos. In the 1960s, Polaroid introduced the “Swinger”.
“It was plastic so it was cheaper. It didn’t look very sexy, but they thought the title was sexy and it was cheap enough for everybody to buy very easily,” Green said.
The boxy camera was introduced to the public with a stylish ad campaign featuring Ali MacGraw with Barry Manilow singing about its low price of $19.95.
Land thought anyone with a camera capturing an important life event was a potential artist.
“He loved getting it into the hands of the consumer. He thought everybody has some innate sense of art inside them, if you could just get it out,” Green said.
The Polaroid Project: At the Intersection of Art and Technology is on display through September 3.
Kimberly Richard is a North Texan with a passion for the arts. She’s worked with Theatre Three, Inc. and interned for the English National Opera and Royal Shakespeare Company. She graduated from Austin College and currently lives in Garland with her very pampered cocker spaniel, Tessa.