Instant Gratification

   Instant gratification is the way of modern life. Send a tweet and you’re immediately engaged in a global conversation. Post a Facebook update, and your “friends” know the latest about your life. Snap a photo and moments later it’s on Instagram awaiting likes from a legion of followers.

   But what did immediacy mean before the twenty-first century? And how does art evolve when presented with a new and instantaneous medium?

   “The Polaroid Years: Instant Photography and Experimentation,” a new exhibition on display at the Norton Museum of Art, addresses these questions. Expertly curated by Tim Wride, the exhibition explores the evolution of Polaroid film and how it was used by artists to challenge traditional views of photography. The show contains roughly 180 pictures, by artists such as Ansel Adams, Andy Warhol, Chuck Close and Robert Mapplethorpe, as well as a stunning site-specific piece by Matthew Brandt.

Photo Transformation by Lucas Samaras illustrates how artists manipulated the final Polaroid images.

   The exhibit is structured chronologically, beginning with the original SX-70 Polaroid camera introduced in 1972 and the images shot by Adams and Warhol, and finishing with pieces that illustrate how contemporary artists are using the medium today. This format offers visitors a thorough view of the different ways artists interact with instant photography.

   In 1972, Dr. Edwin Land, the inventor of Polaroid Instant Photography, sent cameras and film to a number of noted photographers, including Ansel Adams. Those familiar with Adams’ majestic and expansive nature photography will be hard-pressed to identify his pieces in the collection. They’re small: only the size of a traditional Polaroid picture and, unlike his work as a whole, are quite abstract. Tim Wride, the Norton’s William and Sarah Ross Soter curator of photography, describes the four snapshots—with titles like Rusted Metal and Rusted Blue Metal—as anti-Ansel.

   There’s a reason behind this aesthetic shift. The immediacy of the Polaroid gave Ansel the freedom to focus on the product and process of photography on its own terms. Instead of waiting days or weeks to see a final photo, artists like Ansel could hold their completed works in a mere 60-90 seconds. This development marked a shift in the conceptualization of photography as an art. Before 1969, photography was valued only for the final image it presented. Now, artists and viewers could place significance in the process itself.

   Artists who came in contact with Polaroid reveled in this freedom. Andy Warhol, for instance, lived his life in Polaroids, and this exhibition includes a handful of the photos he used as reference for larger works. Though Warhol’s use of the form might be viewed as note taking, the Polaroids in and of themselves are now treasured pieces of art.

   Others, like Lucas Samaras, wanted to take the Polaroid a step further. Samaras manipulated the art form by either adjusting the dyes in the images before they set or painting or drawing on top of the final image. This process, as Wride notes, allowed the artist to recontextualize what was right in front of him.

   “The Polaroid Years” also includes large-scale Polaroids, with pieces measuring 20 inches by 24 inches upwards to 80 inches by 40 inches. The 20 by 24 inch pieces were created with special Polaroid cameras that printed that size film. The larger works, however, were photographed using the Museum Camera, a behemoth machine that allowed artists like Chuck Close to photograph life-size portraiture.

5C (Self-Portrait) by Chuck Close is a collage of five large-format Polaroid prints.

   Another impressive feat featured in the exhibition is the manipulation of the top layer of a Polaroid image, a technique known as emulsion transfer. Artists would remove the Saran Wrap-like top layer of a Polaroid and place it on another canvas, lending the image a fabric-like look and texture. This approach is shown in the works of Andreas Mahl, including Double Self-Portrait and Delphine Seyrig.

   Though all the pieces in this collection make this show a must see, the crowning jewel is a site-specific piece by contemporary artist Matthew Brandt. Brandt, who is based in Los Angeles, created a composition of 900 individual Polaroids. When you look at the piece in person, it appears as no more than a collection of colors, vaguely resembling a pixelated photograph. When you take a picture of the piece with your smart phone, however, it morphs into an image of Polaroid founder Edwin Land holding a Polaroid camera. This trick of the eye encapsulates how Polaroid is perceived in today’s world. “It is at once analog and digital,” Wride says. “It fabricates something out of nothing.” This piece, which was created over a span of three weeks, truly captures the evolution of the art form from an innovative and instantaneous gift to a valued and expressive medium for contemporary artists.

(Polaroid) Edwin Land with Camera by Matthew Brandt is only fully realized when shot with a smart phone camera.

   “The Polaroid Years: Instant Photography and Experimentation” is on display through March 23 and needs to be on your to-do list for the season, whether you have an album full of Polaroids or can’t remember a time without your digital camera.

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