The Polaroid Project: At the Intersection of Art and Technology ed. William Ewing and Barbara Hitchcock

4 July 2017 § Leave a comment

This post is also featured at www.cellophaneland.com

Remember that time, not so very long ago, when we all rushed down to the local Boots to drop in our films for printing? From this frustration of impatiently waiting anything from an hour (for those willing to stump up extra) to a week, to see the results of all the careful holiday snapping, lays the foundation of the Polaroid.

The Polaroid Project

Back in 1943 Edwin Land, having been asked by his young daughter why she couldn’t see her photo right away, immediately set to work. Within an hour he had conceived the technology and the story of instant photography had begun.

The Polaroid Project, Timothy White, Untitled 1998 The Polaroid Project

The Polaroid Project Timothy White, Untitled 1998

When the long and painstaking development process (no pun intended), documented in the book by prototypes, models and test images, had been completed, the result was not only scientifically groundbreaking but also heralded a new chapter of artistic expression. The New York Times proclaimed “There is nothing like this in the history of photography…”

The Polaroid Project

Nowadays Instagram is the leading representative of the world of instant imagery. It should therefore not be surprising to know that prominent in the lobby of their California HQ sits a collection of Polaroid cameras, the most noteworthy being the 1977 OneStep featuring the rainbow logo appropriated by Instagram in its own design.

The Polaroid Project

Land had in the seventies already predicted escalating use of cameras saying that they would soon be used ‘All day long…. like a telephone’, whilst probably not anticipating they would often be one and the same apparatus.

Polaroid Project S. B. Walker, Blocked out Polaroid sign, 2011

Polaroid Project S. B. Walker, Blocked out Polaroid sign, 2011

In this lay the recognition that the world, and people, had irrevocably changed; the barrier of subject and photographer had started to disappear in line with Barthes ‘Death of the Author’ and there was a continuous recording of lifes events and expansion of the ‘sharing’ experience. The almost instant sharing of Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat seem to be a natural development of what began with the Polaroid.

Polaroid Project Dennis Hopper, Back Alley 1987

Polaroid Project Dennis Hopper, Back Alley 1987

For the more artistic the new product was impressive but came with many built in limitations. Images were usually of limited size (save by using larger studio-bound cameras), fixed formats, limited camera adjustments. Laboratory colour and exposure manipulation were impossible.

Polaroid Project Barbara Crane, Private View, 1981

Polaroid Project Barbara Crane, Private View, 1981

Despite, or perhaps because of, these very particular restrictions it invited users to become ever more inventive. Artists like Lucas Samaras and Bruce Charlesworth manipulated or separated the emulsion or used repeated exposures. David Hockey used multiple images overlaid or arranged in grids to increase dimensions. Other painted, drew or scratched on and around the developed image.

Polaroid Project Paolo Gioli, 2010

Polaroid Project Paolo Gioli, 2010

Andy Warhol took all his portraits with a Polaroid and incessantly snapped his way around New York, Others like Robert Mapplethorpe, Patti Smith, Robert Rauschenberg and Chuck Close often used it, whilst film makers, commercial, advertising and fashion photographers found the instant images essential for planning their shots.

Polaroid Project Toshio Shibata, Untitled (#228), 2003

Polaroid Project Toshio Shibata, Untitled (#228), 2003

It’s colour initially put off many art photographers, black and white being up to then the choice for ‘serious’ practitioners. This however was the era of ever more portable 35mm cameras and also of  photographers like William Eggleston and Stephen Shore and Polaroid were in a perfect position to tap in to the wider acceptance of their casual colour snap-shot aesthetics.

Polaroid Project Mark Klett, Contemplating the view at Muley Point, Utah, 1994, 1994

Polaroid Project Mark Klett, Contemplating the view at Muley Point, Utah, 1994

The Polaroid Project leads us through this story via a series of essays that look for example at Polaroid’s foundation and history, the development of the technology, artistic developments and its relation to social networks and the selfie. They are interspersed with an impressive array of widely varied imagery with plenty of ‘how on earth did they do that?’ moments.

Polaroid Project Victor Landweber, Garbage Candy, 1979

Polaroid Project Victor Landweber, Garbage Candy, 1979

The book is subtitled ‘At the intersection of Art and Technology’ and it is published to accompany a major touring exhibition, so it is not surprising to see that text and  illustrations are geared towards the artistic. Perhaps a future show and accompanying volume can show what the public, as well as industry and business, created with the technology – but that’s yet another story.

Polaroid Project Ellen Carey, Pulls (CMY), 1997

Polaroid Project Ellen Carey, Pulls (CMY), 1997

There is a frequent lament here to the death of Polaroid, tied to the winding up of the company and closure of the factories, but, as with vinyl, this seems hugely premature. Instant film lives on in Fuji and Impossible, as does the use of Land’s cameras. The Polaroid Project itself shows us that interest in this technology and its uniquely ‘authentic’ aesthetic is increasing, whilst here at CELLOPHANELAND* we even have a couple of cameras of our own and Polaroids pinned on the wall. The king is dead – long live the king!

The Polaroid Project: At the Intersection of Art and Technology ed. William Ewing and Barbara Hitchcock, published by Thames & Hudson. To purchase (currently at a 20% discount) visit www.thamesandhudson.com

A touring exhibition organised by the Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography opens at the Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas June 3 to 3 September 2017 then travels to Europe. fep-photo.org/exhibition/polaroid/

William Eggleston Portraits at The National Portrait Gallery London

5 September 2016 § Leave a comment

Think of a William Eggleston photograph and it most likely will not feature any people. He is celebrated for his experimental use of colour and the way that he sees complexity and beauty in the mundane and perhaps most likely you will recall simple slices of rural American life: a tangle of wires on a red ceiling, a child’s bike, a coke machine, old gas stations or simply a patch of wall.

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Each of image has a deceptive simplicity and his groundbreaking style soon led to the solo show at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1976, considered a pivotal moment in the recognition of colour photography as a contemporary art form. Democratically photographing whatever is in front of him he claims not to seek depth or narrative. What you see is what you get. “I wanted to make a picture that could stand on its own, regardless of what it was a picture of.”

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Perhaps this is largely true but in a stunning new exhibition that has targeted the portraits, that up to now have perhaps seemed a less important part of his work, and it turns out that quite often there is rather more to the story.

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Gathering together a hundred works from throughout his carer this exhibition soon makes you realise that portraits often features friends, musicians, actors and his own family and relations. They provide a window in to his home life and also reveal for the first time the identities of many of the previously anonymous sitters.

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In his earliest black and white images – we see a selection from between 1960 and 1965 – people were his primary subject. Seemly largely taken unawares they are people going about their daily life. It seems however that for example one was of his housekeeper, another his mother on her bed.

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Once we realise the identities of many of these people and that that Eggleston is not the disinterested, impartial observer that we know from his street scenes we start to understand more about these his life, these people and their times.

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An interest in the bars and nightclubs of Memphis brought about a stock of grainy documentary footage – shown here for the first time – and another surprising set of images. Entitled Nightclub Portraits these were taken with a bulky view camera, rather than his nimble Leica, and with the help of an assistant. Remarkably clear and colourful, formally posed shots that, other than the subjects, they look like they were taken yesterday.

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There are plenty more gems here. A never before exhibited portrait of Dennis Hopper in his car is hung beside one of Eudora Welty (apparently executed in a matter of seconds).

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Another perviously unseen image is that of Joe Strummer, beer in hand, watched by a fan in a Clockwork Orange T shirt. This is a juxtaposition that could look like a casual accident.  Not here though. The punk maverick and Kubrick’s dystopian nightmare are deliberately and deftly placed side by side by Eggleston’s pin-sharp vision.

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A red haired girl spread on the grass, is executed perfectly with focus only on the face and the camera in her hand. A supermarket worker is captured tidying trolleys, in golden light, shadow on wall and watched by a local shopper. A middle aged lady in a flowery dress swings on a garden seat adorned in equally gaudy fabric.

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Eggleston is an artists so well known that perhaps we thought that we knew pretty much everything about him and his aesthetic. How wrong we were. This exhibition, with deep research and clever curation brings a significant understanding to one of the great photographers.

William Eggleston Portraits is at the National Portrait Gallery until 23 October 2016

This post also appears on www.cellophaneland.com

Saul Leiter: Retrospective – The Photographers Gallery, London

12 March 2016 § Leave a comment

This post is also published on the online Lifestyle Magazine CELLOPHANELAND* (link here)

“I like it when one is not certain what one sees. When we do not know why the photographer has taken a picture and when we do not know why we are looking at it, all of a sudden we discover something that we start seeing. I like this confusion.”  Saul Leiter

Taxi, ca. 1957. Saul Leiter: Retrospective - The Photographers Gallery, London

Everyone will be familiar with ’New Colour Photography’, as exemplified by William Eggleston and Stephen Shore: the commonplace photographed as intriguing with colours used for composition and often in an abstract fashion. It is also these photographer’s who are usually credited with being the forerunners of the style, however Saul Leiter was actually already using colour and Kodachrome slide film together with a freer artistic style by the 1940s and actually preceded Eggleston and Shore.

Saul-Leiter-Straf-Hat Saul Leiter: Retrospective - The Photographers Gallery, London

In his photographs, the genres of street life, portraiture, still life, fashion and architectural photography fuse together. Leiter came across his subjects, such as shop windows, passers-by, cars, signs and (a recurrent motif) umbrellas, in the direct vicinity of his apartment in New York, where he lived for almost 60 years.

Postmen-1952 Saul-Leiter-Straf-Hat Saul Leiter: Retrospective - The Photographers Gallery, London

The lack of clear detail, the blurring of movement and the reduction in depth of field, as well as the use of windows and shadows as natural filters, combine to create a photographic language of colour and abstraction set against the urban space. It is easy to forget though how groundbreaking the use of colour was in art photography. Colour was usually associated with advertising, but in the 1950s Leiter was showing that it could be an art form, and that the marriage of photography and colour could be a powerful medium.

Postmen-1952 Saul-Leiter-Straf-Hat Saul Leiter: Retrospective - The Photographers Gallery, London

Despite beginning in black and white – his early images were published in LIFE and exhibited in New York and Tokyo – Leiter quickly moved into fashion photography, shooting for Harper’s BazaarElleVogueEsquire and more. It is surprising that, despite his prolific career, Leiter did not receive due recognition for his pioneering role in the emergence of colour photography until late in his life. He was often criticised for going against the documentary and art traditions of the day whilst in addition fashion photography always had a bad reputation for being somewhat artificial and superficial, museums and galleries not being inclined to take his work seriously.

Postmen-1952 Saul-Leiter-Straf-Hat Saul Leiter: Retrospective - The Photographers Gallery, London

A forgotten figure for most of the 20th century Leiter didn’t have a gallerist until 2008, his irreverence, modesty and lack of ego perhaps lent him a low profile with his first exhibition in Europe actually not arriving until 2008. The Photographers Gallery is attempting to put right this neglect with this exhibition. It features more than 100 works, including early black-and-white and colour photographs, sketchbooks and ephemera and is Leiter’s first major show in a public gallery in the UK.

Postmen-1952 Saul-Leiter-Straf-Hat Saul Leiter: Retrospective - The Photographers Gallery, London

Leiter always saw himself as both a painter and photographer, drawn to shapes, shadows, surfaces and textures in his paintings and pictures, and the exhibition includes a broad selection of his non-photographic artworks. These show the influences of his painting upon his photography but are not surprisingly perhaps the weakest part of the exhibition. Dull, derivative and amateurish, his paintings pale against the innovative and inventive style of his photography.

Postmen-1952 Saul-Leiter-Straf-Hat Saul Leiter: Retrospective - The Photographers Gallery, London

Much imitated Leiter’s is a style seen to be everywhere from adverts to Instagram. The sheer ubiquity of such images detracts a little from the initial impact of the exhibition – it is easy to feel that we’ve ‘seen it all before’ – but it is well worth visiting to celebrate the work of a true pioneer of the genre.

Postmen-1952 Saul-Leiter-Straf-Hat Saul Leiter: Retrospective - The Photographers Gallery, London

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Saul Leiter: Retrospective is at The Photographers Gallery London until 3 April 2016

For more information visit www.thephotgraphersgallery.org.uk

Paris Photo 2012

17 November 2012 § Leave a comment

I made my first trip to Paris Photo this week and unlike most French events (apologies for the generalisation but I’ve been to a few!) this was well organised with efficient and helpful administration for my (late) Press accreditation. 

Now In its 13th year and its second at the Palais, this is an event that has hauled itself up the photo-fair ladder to being must-go European event running only second after APAID in NY in importance worldwide. It has a magnificent location in the historic main hall of the Grand Palais – inaugurated in 1900 for the Universal Exhibition it is an Art Nouveau jewel topped with a vast glazed dome.

After an orderly, if slightly illogical, queuing system for the inevitable first morning rush you enter the grand and airy main hall. Here there are over 150 exhibitors which include most of the big name galleries. There are the photo specialists like Hamiltons, Zander and Camera Work where you will quickly spot most of the big names of the photo world: William Eggleston, Robert Frank, Martin Parr alongside fashion photographers that have somewhat transcended the genre to become accepted in the art world – people like David Bailey and Tim Walker.

I also found it pleasing to spot some galleries more associated with the contemporary art world than photography – Gagosian, David Zwirner and Paradise Row and artists similarly aligned  like Christian Marclay, Thomas Ruff and Gerhard Richter. Magnum and others bring in photojournalism whilst last but not least the burgeoning Art-Book world has its own section and a display of books competing for an annual prize.

The eclectic mix reflects the fact that photography is now almost totally integrated in to the world of contemporary art rather than being the parallel universe that it once was. This fair also has a ‘Vu par’ selection from film-maker David Lynch whose selection is published separately and who appears ‘In conversation’ on Sunday.

I tried to seek out works that represented the less traditional modes of photography and found some excellent work. Hans-Christian Schink at Robert Morat travelled the world to take hour long exposures of the sky. The sun burning a black trace, like a floating wand across the final image, its direction dependent upon the hemisphere and latitude.

At Von Lintel John Chiara works were made by exposing photographic paper directly within varying home made ‘cameras’, some as large as a truck. The resulting images showing flares, anomalies and colour inversions. The results are unusual and disquieting.

At the same stand Marco Breuers works are also unique editions – using heat elements to burn, melt scratch and scar photographic paper. Images, ironically, do not do justice to the textures of the ‘real’ thing.

David Bailey is an ususual name to add to this ground-breaking list. His latest works are photographs taken from TV war documentaries. The blurred, semi-abstract images are striking and follow from his recent – and not very sucessful – anti-war paintings.

Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin cleverly examine politics and ethnography having works at more than one stand. Political 1 (illustrated above) being one of David Lynch‘s selections.

A final personal favourite was in the photo book section Julian Baron’s CENSURA turns the tables on lying and manipulating politicians and bleaches them with over-exposure and flash, denying them the publicity they seek. Currently only available as a photo book.

The only downside of this excellent fair was pathetic catering with a minimal choice of dry baguettes, no espresso coffee, and totally inadequate seating – most people resorting to staircases to take a break. But then again if everything was perfect you wouldn’t know you were in Paris, would you?

Paris Photo runs until 18 November 2012 at Grand Palais. The inaugural Paris Photo LA takes place 25-28 April 2013 in Los Angeles.

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