There's a small show of Andy Warhol Polaroids of 1970s and '80s sports stars at Danziger Projects, partly viewable online. You can also read Kathy Ryan's admiring comments at the World's Greatest Photography Magazine. (Note that this appears in a fashion section, not an arts one.)
I'm not sure I agree with her about the intrinsic merit of the photographs; seems more like celebrity culture cutting both ways, with the photos themselves left over as talismans, artifacts. Is it really so deathlessly fresh to picture Jack Nicklaus nuzzling a golf club, Ali with his shirt off, Dorothy Hamill with her skates slung around her neck? Not convinced. Of course I haven't seen the actual...artifacts. The show is up until December 12th at Danziger Gallery, 534 West 24th Street, New York City.
The vagaries of taste
I was never grabbed very hard by Polaroids per se. Taste is a strange and mysterious thing—I love snapshots, have a protean appetite for looking at them, adore books of snapshot collections (in fact I have a veritable pile of snapshot books here that I've been meaning for some time to write up in a massive group review). Show me a large enough pile of snapshots and I will find you an inadvertent masterpiece, with all the charm and magic that only serendipity can create.
Above are two samples from a new group that Rodger Kingston recently uploaded to his SmugMug page of his Kingston collection. Of course we're not looking at "mere" snapshots there, but expertly chosen ones. Rodger is a rare connoisseur; his selections are, in effect, edited. Curated. I'm not saying "found" ephemera and snapshots are all I'd want to look at. Still, I have great natural affection for that stuff.
You'd think I'd love Polaroids. And I'm not saying I don't appreciate the high points—I think of Jamie Livingston's great archive, preserved by Hugh Crawford. You can't help but be moved by that. And yet, I've been meaning to write—trying to write—trying to find the right things to say—about The Impossible Project for some time now, and the words have a hard time coming. The only thing that come easily to mind are flip jokes about the appropriateness of the name. The project seems quixotic even to me, and I'm a very impractical guy.
And the other day, when I bought PHOTO:BOX at Stan Banos's recommendation, Amazon's "Frequently Bought Together" come-on roped me in, and I bought The Polaroid Book along with it. It should be the kind of book I'd just love. Another copious, well-made, almost ridiculously high-value book (I mean, for less than eleven bucks, they're giving this away—it is a very generous and well-made book for that price—or twice or three times that price). It's part of Benedikt Taschen's 25th Anniversary Special Editions series (his is a story in itself). It has an incisive Introduction by the last Director of The Polaroid Collections, Barbara Hitchcock, and the selection of pictures is an embarrassment of riches. To circle around to where this started, there is even a Polaroid of Andy Warhol wielding his Big Shot. And yet, I've paged through The Polaroid Book three times now, and can't sort out how to feel about it. I like it. I just don't love it.
There's something so self-conscious about Polaroids....
It doesn't seem enough to say that anyone who loves Polaroids should own it. I know there are people who really love Polaroids, who are genuinely excited about, and fervently hopeful for, The Impossible Project. Here's where I need a guest reviewer, someone with deep, real enthusiasm for that particular medium. Maybe I should ask Hugh....
Featured Comment by charlie: "I have owned The Polaroid Book in its last release for I think four years. Since then, it has become my go-to book when I need a good dose of pure photography. Were I forced to choose just three photo books to have for eternity , this one would be in that list. I also prefer the cover as it mimics the old Polaroid logo and packaging."
Mike replies: Now you're making me feel bad...what's wrong with me, anyway?Featured Comment by Sean Murphy: "I'm trying to decide, was it instant photography or Polaroids that I loved. I love slides and instant photographs, because they are the actual picture. Made right in your camera that you can view directly without intervening tools and tech. But the slide still had to be developed somewhere else in space and time. With instant, the alchemy of the darkroom tray happened in broad daylight as you watched, right in your hand! Its getting hard to appreciate in our digital-camera-wifi-upload-to-the-web times, the satisfaction of making a picture on the spot that you could give to a friend or family member on the spot.
"Shooting with folding Polaroids using 'wink lights' and 3000 speed B&W that you had to rub that acrid fixer on, the sleek metal and leather of the SX-70 and pack film that always came with fresh batteries, sometimes morphing the image with a stylus for goofy effects, waving the print by the white tab at the bottom, as if that would make it develop faster, all the variations that came after down to the cameras for kids that shot little Polaroid stickers.... I guess I do love Polaroids, they were just plain fun!"
Featured Comment by Hugh Crawford: "Well Mike since you handed me that can of worms and that fine looking can-opener...
"As a fan and for many years a user of Polaroid, a big fan of Andy Warhol and his work, and sort of an obsessive about on-axis and penumbral lighting, I thought I'd like the Warhol show at the Danziger Gallery more, but it didn't do that much for me. The best thing about it was that it was that it is right across the street from the Bruce Davidson show at the Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery, 505 West 24th Street. that show is quite wonderful. It's an interesting show to view with the Robert Frank show up at the Met.
"Odd coincidence number one: today's photo on my wife's blog otbkb.com was taken walking out of that gallery last Friday.
"Maybe it's the white seamless backgrounds or something, but those Big Shot photos look a little to much like they were made with a photocopier or a stat camera. Writing that down makes me think 'of course Andy wanted to become a photocopier, well duh...', but the qualities of the Big Shot pictures shot against white seamless that are so good when they are made into silkscreen paintings just don't do a whole lot for me in their original form.
"It's funny, I took a lot of photos of Warhol, and I took a lot of Polaroids of artists , but no Polaroids of Warhol.
"Odd coincidence number 2: a video of Andy Warhol and Truman Capote taken while I was photographing them showed up on youtube recently; I think it was maybe my first job after college.
Hugh photographing Warhol not with a Polaroid. Note Alfred Stieglitz moustache.
"As for Polaroids in general, for me a lot of what makes them interesting it that they straddle the boundary of being an image and an object. Unlike most modern photographic prints, a Polaroid is fixed in its final form in the context of its making. A Polaroid portrait has most often been held by its subject at the time of its creation. These are qualities that Polaroids share with Daguerreotypes and wetplate collodion processes like tintypes and ambrotypes, but I think that the quality of the Polaroid being an artifact possibly held by its subject is much stronger with the Polaroids.
"The other interesting thing about Polaroids is not so much that they are imperfect and idiosyncratic visual interpretations of the world (because all photographic processes are imperfect and idiosyncratic visual interpretations of the world) but that the success of the Polaroid practitioner depends on anticipating and committing to that translation before the moment of exposure.
"Conventional late 20th century photo processes all allow or even demand a considerable amount of post exposure manipulation and visualization, and digital photography demands even more, whereas Polaroid demands that all decisions about the image be made prior to exposure.
"I just happen to be in the midst of cataloging another Polaroid based project (it's Mnemonic, it's Mimetic, and it's Memetic!) that encompasses all of this.
"Odd coincidence number 3: Andrew Lampert, Czar of the Cosmic Baseball Association, figures mnemonically in the the Robert Frank show, the Jamie Livingston Project, and this other thing I'm working on."
Featured Comment by Bill Poole: "I love The Polaroid Book, and I have always loved Polaroids for many of the reasons already mentioned. They hold a fascination as one-of-a-kind objects, like Daguerreotypes and tintypes. And they do have a view-camera-like quality, since the image is recorded full-sized. And then there is that soft color, which Cosindas exploited so expertly—Portra-like before Portra came along. Ya gotta love it—I did, and my Polaroids from the '70s are among my favorite images (and not just because my friends all look so young in them)."