Caught between the artisanry of traditional darkroom photography and the ubiquity of digital methods in commercial and popular practice today, the instant film photo seems an unlikely artform. But in fact, the link runs deep.
The association between instant photography and fine art dates back to the late ‘40s, when Polaroid founder Edwin Land encouraged famed landscape photographer Ansel Adams to try out his new invention. Photographers and other artists associated with the medium include the likes of Andy Warhol, David Hockney, Walker Evans, and the recently deceased photo-based portrait painter Chuck Close. Polaroid and its technological heirs have enjoyed a resurgence in the 21st century amongst independent minded artists and their — often online — fans.
On view through Sept. 17, “Project Polaroid” at Corners Gallery gathers 12, mostly local, photographers for a loving homage to instant. Gallery owner Ariel Bullion Ecklund, who is included in the show, brings her own photography training and passion for the specialist technique to its curation. The artists here make use of a variety of film and camera types. Approaches range from the formal to the casual and genres from portraiture and landscape to abstraction and (broadly understood) collage.
Most of the work here is recent but a few prints are vintage efforts, adding to the sense of nostalgia. Small prints and the familiar white Polaroid border — thicker at the bottom — are typical. Fuji has emerged as Polaroid’s main commercial heir in the new millennium; several artists use their cameras and film.
One prominent school in the history of Polaroids as art emphasizes the physicality of the image, manipulating the developing print to create painterly or abstract effects. At their best, such photographs go beyond mimicry of paintings to create strange hybrids that anticipate (or echo) the photo-manipulations of the digital age while remaining resolutely handmade.
Randi Millman-Brown’s “Polaroid 1-4” uses emulsion lift: essentially removing and collaging the photographic material onto watercolor paper. Using close-ups of leaves and flowers, she creates lovely little picture gardens. Similarly, InShik Lee’s quartet “Pre-Pandemic Ithaca” subjects tightly cropped vignettes of local culture — most memorably an upward glance at the famed Chanticleer rooster — to expressionistic streaks and blurs.
D.E. Todd deserves credit for his two very different but equally striking pieces here. Using a rare, large format Polaroid camera known for producing 20x24 inch prints, “The Backwards Man” (from 2003) uses the lush color and intense focus to parody traditional portraiture. We see a balding man in a black suit and red tie – only his clothes face us from his back while he looks away. It would be a gimmick if not for its formal beauty.
Making unusually apt use of the serial, multiple prints under one frame format seen in many of the works here, Todd’s Fujifilm “Photo by Number” creates a sort of flattened, collage-like space. Using saturated primary colors and typography from vintage-looking photo products, Todd creates a sequence from one to nine – again a novelty “concept” executed with finesse.
Using warm black-and-white, Kat Dalton, Leslie Ford and Rachel Philipson create evocative, close-cropped vignettes that explore distinctive Polaroid worlds. Dalton’s “Supplicant” and “Mother Love,” shot with the legendary SX-70, have a distinctly Catholic-medieval feel with their blurred and spotted portrayals of religious statues. Ford’s sepia-toned “Ivy” and “Coleus” are hazy and lyrical while Philipson’s “Barn, Pickett, Wisconsin” and Edward Weston-like “3 Chairs” are cleaner and make use of inventive cropping.
Other artists in the show take more familiar documentary or snapshot approaches. Jon Reis, a well-known commercial photographer in town, contributes four seemingly casual SX-70 snaps from his late ‘70s/early ‘80s years documenting the punk scene.
Likewise, Steve Carver, a neo-Surrealist and Neo-Pop painter previously associated with the gallery, contributes prints exploring portraiture and folksy Americana. Covering the latter, “Old Trapper’s Motel, L.A., Numbers 1,2 & 3” (1980) is notable for its novelty approach: three Polaroids of crude wooden statuary mounted on a bulletin board “assemblage” with other snapshots, postcards, and ephemera. It feels like raw material for a trompe l’oeil still-life painting.
“Project” is Ecklund’s most substantial formal exhibition since Corners Gallery’s rebranding late last year as Corners Gallery & the living room, the latter a design shop in collaboration with Philipson. This is a welcome development and we can expect more ambitious shows to come.