30 Years of Polaroids
From 16/05 - 08/07/2012
Introduction by Manfred Zollner
Beloved “Model” Pictures
In retrospect, Polaroids seem like memories in reverse. They started out pale and ghostly and gradually grew sharper, more colorful, with greater contrast. At the end, you had a fixed image of a moment in time, even as the memory of that moment began to fade. The Polaroid endured as a visual reminder, a butler of perspective forever at the service of the professional sets; reliable, with its own character and sense of aesthetics.
“Polaroids are the product of many concomitant influences that have all left their mark,” says Bruno Bisang. “They meandered through the hands of customers, models, and stylists, and we can see the fingerprints, scratches and defects left behind. Polaroids show us life’s traces, like wrinkles on a person’s face.” They don’t need to be retouched, because they are the antithesis of the flawless porcelain skin churned out by the digital lab. They exude the delightful charm of true beauty. Today, the natural, unspoiled quality of these images thrills people with its authenticity. There are huge variations in color and contrast and plenty of shadows and refractions, because everything depended on the temperature on the set when the pictures were taken. Pictures taken on the beach looked different from those taken in a studio because heat turns the colors paler. “It was a magic moment when the two minutes were up and the developed picture hit your desk,” the photographer gushes. And as today’s world chokes on faked photos and false beauty, on artificially enhanced bodies and smoothed-out Photoshop faces, the more we long for the world where Polaroids gave us simple, fast, and unique images every time.
Until just a few years ago, pros used Polaroids to test light and shadow, to check a model’s expression, clothing, and pose. They were the light designer’s sketchpad—excerpts of a moment squeezed from a machine. Polaroid cameras
were the strike teams of photography’s analog age—the professional vanguard of the photographers’ regiment. They wore many hats: they were communicative icebreakers with customers and models, rough-draft versions of creative ideas, a miniature gallery on the studio table, and masters of warming up the crowd until the prints came back from the lab to steal the show.
Polaroids have such a natural and spontaneous feel because the subjects often had far more relaxed attitudes and expectations as they posed. Even so, Bruno Bisang’s photos always give the impression of a private, intimate moment, much like a good movie where the viewer forgets he is watching a piece of fiction. This Swiss photographer has a knack for finding believable moments that ring true—and the Polaroid medium only underscores this. A Polaroid allows a woman’s true beauty and charisma to shine through in an environment that eschews artificial perfection. This architect of emotion looks for the subtle structure of looks and gestures and uncovers the texture of eros in the process.
In the creative world, a Polaroid used to be the equivalent of a security blanket. “It’ll be okay, never fear,” it wordlessly whispered to its owner before Ilford, Kodak, and their other, slower cousins took over. “Nowadays, the inherent aesthetic appeal of these pictures is more important,” asserts Bisang. “The Polaroid has become a cult item in its own right.” When production of Polaroid film ceased, the Polaroid picture became a reminder of a memory, a beloved “model” picture and meta-photo from the past. More than the photo it becomes, it stands for the process of shooting as it once was, for the authentic moment and the initial rush of happiness on the set. “Polaroids will always be immortal!” says Bisang. “These images of a moment in time are magical.” He is right.
Manfred Zollner is a photo critic and Assistant Managing Editor of the periodical fotoMAGAZIN