A Few Things about Instant Film Photography
It was a year before the end of the Second World War when the daughter of American optic scientist and entrepreneur Dr. Edwin H. Land (1909-1991) had her wishful dream of an instant portraiture in 1944. This prompted a succession of laboratory research and development in Land’s Polaroid Corporation. By 1947, black and white instant photography combining film developing and fixation in one large format package was born, and this technology further reinvigorated x-ray medical imaging in the early 1950s. The first large instant camera, Land Model 95, was launched in 1948; colour instant film was introduced in 1963; and finally, the classic compact SX-70 camera in association with the postcard size Polaroid film with twelve layered complex of developer and dyes was introduced to the mass market in 1972. The SX-70 was a groundbreaking consumer imaging product. Following its launch, instantly developed photographs became a hip trend in domestic photography, as they often helped to break the ice between the photographer and the photographed subjects. These joyful moments of shoot and share became selling points of instant film products, and this creative technology often lays claim as a precursor to the digital imaging of today.
Apart from family consumption, the SX-70 also put the US’s art and photography world in the limelight. Coined by scholars as the ‘New Sensibility’, the artists, musicians and writers from North America in the 1960s and 1970s were anti-traditional, excessive and unconventional under the political canopy of the Vietnam War and the Cuban missile crisis. As the defining Pop artist of the era, Andy Warhol was one of the key figures of this cultural wave; he and painters of his generation like Chuck Close and David Hockney from the UK were pioneers of instant film art photography. The immediate gesture of Warhol’s translation of the Campbell soup cans and celebrity portraits into large photographic silkscreen prints is a manifestation of popular culture and recognition of the glitter and vulgarity of American society. The medium of instant photography at the same time bears resemblance to Warhol’s improvised creative motives, which are encapsulated in his over 28,500 works of instant photography that are visual celebrations of commodity culture, star portraits as well as vanity fairs.
The Polaroid Corporation welcomed this shift and launched the ‘Artistic Support Program’ to encourage and support artists or photographers using their large format or compact Polaroid cameras as a creative medium; Chuck Close, Lucas Samaras, William Wegman and Joyce Neimanas were on the list. The heyday of instant film art photography began in the mid-1970s, as major museums, galleries and private connoisseurs started to collect this kind of immediate but lasting photographic mono-prints. The Polaroid’s advertising slogan in The New Yorker magazine (May 2, 1977) featuring Lucas Samaras’s portfolio boldly stated ‘This Polaroid SX-70 photograph is part of the collection of the Museum of Modern Art’. Instant film photography as a fashionable imaging tool became highly accepted in both public and artistic domains. The celebrity effect continued as instant camera was widely used by major Hollywood and world film directors like Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Akira Kurosawa and Andrei Tarkovsky. The Polaroid technology was conceptually designed to be merged with the sonic controlled computer and projected as a futuristic imaging tool in Ridley Scott’s classic science fiction film, Blade Runner (1982). It foretold the coming of the multi-media age in the 1990s that would see the combining of hypertext, hyper-image and hyper-sound in one tiny equipment: the personal computer.
Although digital cameras and mobile phones have replaced the importance of instant cameras nowadays, the legacy of instant film art photography is immense. In The Polaroid Years: Instant Photography and Experimentation (2013), the American curator Mary-Kay Lombino observed the following unique aesthetics of instant photography : 1) the developing film allows artistic manipulations on the film’s emulsion surface and adds a painterly effect, and this mix of photography and painterly gesture was a gem before the advent of Photoshop; 2) the instant film print can be treated as an object for further manipulation such as collage, montage, scaling, cut and paste, etc.; 3) the privacy of instant imaging fostered the creation of a large volume of body portraits and candid revelations of private life; 4) conceptual and abstract experiments were fully explored, e.g. David Hockney’s composite Polaroid ‘joiners’ (his wording) have creatively applied the Cubist idea of space and time in his sequential photography scenarios. In short, apart from medical and consumer usage, instant film art photography has transformed the commonplace into poetic, artistic or even arresting images. It has finally become a collectible object of desire, and its significance in the course of photography history should be honoured.
About Blues Wong:
Blues Wong has contributed extensively as a photography critic and independent curator. He is at present a museum expert advisor (Hong Kong photography) for the Leisure and Cultural Services Department.