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Polaroid: The pioneering instant art

After its introduction to the world in 1947, Polaroid provided a cheap, easy, immediate means to capture a moment.

Most of the resulting images had their peak of acknowledgement decorating bulletin boards or family albums, but some were considered fine art – or at least are now in retrospect.

The Polaroid Years” is a collection of experimental works from a range of artists. Mary-Kay Lombino’s inspiration for the book came at several points.

She heard an outcry from artists and aficionados after the announcement that Polaroid would stop producing the instant film and cameras in 2008.

Also, Vassar College, where she works as a curator, received a donation of photographs Andy Warhol had taken and about 150 of them were Polaroids.

“These Polaroids went from ephemera to museum objects and were elevated to works of art,” she said she thought at the time.

She wondered if other artists had Polaroids lying around that would now be considered fine art.

Some prints, such as the self-portrait montages by Chuck Close, were made as works of art and already in museums, and other works had been largely forgotten.

For example, Joyce Neimanas made composite works in 1980, a year before David Hockney, who is best known for the technique, made his first collage.

Lombino saw in her research that there was a huge amount of experimentation with the media, and it was encouraged by the company from the start.

Scientist and inventor Dr. Edwin H. Land hired photographer Ansel Adams as the first artistic consultant in 1948. Other known artists worked on contract for Polaroid, gathering technical data and reporting it back to the corporation’s technicians in the 1950s and ‘60s.

The company would also give artists supplies on the condition that they donate works to the company’s collection.

“The company was really responding to artists’ needs and consulting with them,” Lombino said. “That’s a unique relationship that doesn’t really exist anywhere else.”

As the first and most popular brand, Polaroid has become synonymous with instant photography.

Though the 3-by-3-inch SX-70 print is by far the most known Polaroid print, the company also manufactured other print sizes. Its 40-by-80-inch camera pushed out the largest direct prints that ever existed.

Most often in terms of experimentation, Lombino saw montages and chemical manipulation.

The SX-70 print has 17 chemicals that can be manipulated to create a painterly look. Artists could change the color filter by warming or cooling the photo, or push around the chemicals as it developed.

Lucas Samaras, who pioneered experimentation in the medium, completed his AutoPolaroids series in 1971. Almost all of the 400 images were self-portraits with chemical manipulation and ink applied by hand.

Lombino saw many nude photos while going through the collections, particularly self-portraits. She guessed it was in part because the photographers didn’t have to send the naked photos to a developer or be seen working with them in a dark room.

“It’s a testament to artists feeling a lot of freedom with taking the photos,” she said. “It was the perfect medium for soft-core porn.”

Though the company is no longer making print products, the cult following can get film for certain models through the Impossible Project, which was founded by former Polaroid employees after the film was discontinued.

- Lauren Russell, CNN

Prints from “The Polaroid Years” will be on exhibit at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College until June 30. Lombino and two featured artists, David Levinthal and William Wegman, will be holding a discussion at the New York Public Library on May 15.