Polaroid’s first camera for delivering photos that self-developed instantly, the SX-70, was born in the age of instant everything — coffee, oatmeal, Ramen noodles. In 1972, artists such as Andy Warhol, Ansel Adams and Walker Evans were contracted by Polaroid to test the cameras, which spit out snapshot-size color prints seconds after the user pressed a button. Warhol’s self-portraits depict him dressed in drag, while another shows him wearing his famous fright wig. Adams aimed for more-abstract pursuits: a close-up of rusted blue metal, the narrow striations in a cluster of red rock.
Artists who experimented with Edwin Land’s fleet of instant cameras would become even more experimental over the next four decades, a detail explored in “The Polaroid Years: Instant Photography and Experimentation,” which opened Thursday at West Palm Beach’s Norton Museum of Art. A collection of roughly 160 works by 40 artists as organized by curator Mary-Kay Lombino of New York’s Vassar College, the show examines how instant Polaroids became an enduring fascination among early-1970s adopters and now iPhone-carrying millennials, says Tim B. Wride, the Norton’s curator of photography. After Polaroid filed for bankruptcy protection in 2008, the company stopped manufacturing instant film.
“Instant cameras were the perfect bridge between analog and digital,” Wride says. “I remember as a kid how Polaroid was ahead of its time. Instant photos? That was pretty whacked. Adams used to say that the negative was the score and the print is the performance. If we keep on his whole concert metaphor, the instant camera was more like an impromptu performance.”
Near the gallery entrance to “The Polaroid Years” is a pedestal of instant cameras used in the 1970s and ’80s, including Polaroid’s OneStep Flash, a Model 360 Land Camera and an original SX-70 on loan from Walker Evans’ estate. The show, divided into a four-room chronological walk-through of Polaroid experimentation, begins with early adopters such as Bruce Charlesworth, who added acrylic paint to the Polaroid prints of six portraits.
Ellen Carey’s “My Sparkling Self” series consists of six self-portraits coated in nail polish and multicolored glitter, while her large-format print “Black Pull With Two Filigrees” depicts a Rorschach-like blob created by manipulating the Polaroid’s emulsion. Chuck Close’s early-1980s self-portraits, captured with a room-size instant camera designed for large-format prints, reveal a dizzying level of detail, down to the individual whiskers from his facial hair and nostrils. Joyce Neimanas’ “R at Table” transforms dozens of abstract snapshots into jigsaw puzzle pieces, which, when joined together at odd angles, form a composite of a man holding a cigarette.
Young instant-camera users, no doubt inspired by Warhol and other early pioneers, present works that are self-reflexive and fixated on mass media. Catherine Opie’s Polaroids serve as documents of weighty current events: grainy snapshots of George W. Bush and John Kerry in the 2004 presidential debates, and Terry Schiavo on life support. Mungo Thompson’s “California City (Set 1)” comprises 10 images of Polaroid prints held by the artist. The most time-consuming project is Laura Cooper and Nick Taggart’s “Exterior of Unconsciousness, One Photograph Every Morning Before Waking,” a 20-year span of 120 images showing Cooper in bed with her eyes closed.
“In the early days, you had mostly photographers playing around with instant cameras. But in this century, the artist can work in any medium they want, and the camera is another tool in their arsenal,” Wride says. “You’re getting new experimentation with an old process.”
The Polaroid Years: Instant Photography and Experimentation
When: Through March 23
Where: Norton Museum of Art, 1451 S. Olive Ave., West Palm Beach
Contact: 561-832-5196 or Norton.org