It's Not Instagram: The Polaroid Retrospective II
My grandfather worked for Sylvania. As a kid in the 1970s, I remember he had a den filled with strange contraptions, like the Sylvania Magicube. This was a disposable flash bulb. You plugged it in to the top of your film camera. Then, with each flash, the bulb would rotate around. You got to use the flash all of four times before you had to throw it out and get a new one. This portable system was a revolution for its time. It brought inexpensive flash photography to the masses.
And it was a great business for Sylvania, akin to Gilette selling razor blades.
My mom said that he also brought home one of the early Polaroids. The photos had to be coated with a special finisher or they faded. "They don't still use Polaroids?" she asked. Mom takes pictures of the grandkids with her iPhone. She shares them on Facebook.
Not only do they still use Polaroids, there's a show in DC devoted to the art of the instant camera. The Polaroid Retrospective II at the Lamont Bishop Gallery is an on-going exhibit dedicated to the world of Polaroid and instant film photography. All images used in the exhibits were taken with instant-film cameras of different styles.
The brick walls of this Mt. Vernon Square gallery are lined with images taken with instant cameras. They depict modern people caught by retro technology. Since they're Polaroid prints, they're tiny snapshots of life, just a couple inches across. And unlike your iPhone or Canon, they're analog. The photos lack the silky smoothness of digital photography. Developed in the camera, instant film prints can be blurry and rough, which makes them seem more authentic and personal than a perfectly exposed JPG.
With film, there's also the element of serendipity - there's no preview screen to guide you. Photographers have to snap the picture and hope for the best, a process that can lead to some interesting mistakes. Trial and error is a key component in being an artist. You often learn more from your mistakes than your successes.
Perhaps this is why I found “The Polaroid Retrospective II” to be so fascinating. Looking at the photos, you know that there was no Photoshop trickery involved. This about as "real" as photography gets - an artist clicking a shutter, not knowing what exactly will slide out of the camera. There's no digital copy. You can't fix blemishes. You can't crop out the background.
And you certainly can't make it look retro with Instagram. It's not the imitation of something. It's the real thing.
We all like to think that we're hip and modern. My grandfather would never have imagined that the high-tech of his era would one day disappear. But I'm sure he would be glad to see that his cameras were still being picked up, and adopted by artists to create works that are both strange and unique.
The Polaroid Retrospective II
April 9 - 30 2011
Lamont Bishop Gallery
1314 9th Street NW
Washington, DC 20001
Thursday – Friday: 5-9pm
Sunday: by appointment
Short URL: http://bit.ly/hjL3OO