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Polaroid Photography in Art.  A subjective reflection. 


Instant photography appeals to a spontaneous interaction between model, photographer and picture. To enjoy it, humor is not a hindrance.


Some prejudices are simply true. The quality of Polaroid or Instax photos from consumer cameras is bad. This has been true for Polaroid cameras in the past and today and also applies to the current Instax family by Fujifilm: The colors are not quite real, the detail sharpness is low and the pictures are tiny. All prejudices confirmed, right? Yes, that's the way it is. But it still does not stop many people from taking Instax pictures, which means ill-fidelity in today's digital age and relatively expensive footage at about $1 per image. Some people are even attracted to some aspect of the technical inadequacy of the instant picture, but more about that later.


The fact is that the Instax cameras from Fuji are among the most successful cameras on the market. Google finds 83 million entries for "Polaroid" and 23 million for the relatively new term "Instax". I see two fundamental motives for the high importance of the instant picture:

Firstly, the main driver is immediate physical image availability. Compared with smartphone images, which are also easy to share, the haptic aspect is important, i.e. the physical transmission. The palpable presence of the image apparently trumps the virtual experience of sharing a (qualitatively much better) image file from a smartphone sometimes. For this purpose, it does not depend on the unique character of the photo, but both on immediate transfer and feel. For these purposes, digital forms of storage for instant uses are also suitable, which can be used on-site for prints.

Secondly, the instant photo is a medium that some artists or artistically interested photographers can use. In the following I will focus on this aspect. This is of course a small but growing minority, but I find this approach appealing. And the artistic aspect is not very insignificant, if you look at the following numbers: On Instagram there are over 5 million "Polaroid" hashtags and 1 million "Instax" hashtags. Google finds 114,000 entries under the quoted search term "Polaroid art". About 500 entries are found both under „Instax art“ or under "Sotheby's Polaroid". Sotheby's has already auctioned Polaroids several times, e.g. by Robert Mapplethorpe, Paolo Roversi and William Wegman. In 2010 the instant picture collection of the company Polaroid (which contained also Ansel Adams pictures) was auctioned by Sotheby's for approx. $12.5 million, which corresponded to an average of $26,000 per Polaroid picture. Art bookstores still have illustrated books based on Polaroid pictures and the number is growing.

© Thomas Berlin
© Thomas Berlin

Other artists who used Polaroids include Warhol, Hockney, Schneider and Wenders. Andy Warhol is known for his series of Polaroid self portraits and portraits of celebrities. Pop artist David Hockney is known for his "Composite Polaroid" series (1982), in which he photographed segments of a scene and placed the resulting polaroids together to create a disjointed composition. Stefanie Schneider's preferred area is the American West which served as location of faded dreamy film stills. Her photographs are influenced by the appearance of old polaroid instant film with chemical mutations. Wim Wenders uses annotated polaroid pictures in his new release „Instant Stories“ as travel notes. The Polaroid is for him the only trace of the process just shown.

What makes the technically often inadequate Polaroid (again?) charming for artists today?

he instant picture (the terms instant picture, Polaroid or Instax  are used synonymously by me) is physically unique. Unlike a digital image,

it's analogue exposed and developed, making it one of a kind. Of course you can scan it, but it does not take the role of the physical piece. This unique role does not apply to certain instant cameras, which (like the Instax Square or the new Polaroid cameras with zinc printer) store the images digitally, optimize them and finally allow multiple printouts. It is practical, but does not have the "artwork" character of a unique photograph. Fuji photos have a typical frame like Polaroids in the last century, which can be used for captions and signatures. Modern Polaroid cameras produce only borderless images. My subsequent comments refer only to the purely analog instant cameras with exposure of photo paper. I think that is the only way to fully match the mood associated with Polaroids. Direct analog exposure followed by a photographers or models signature on the frameis the highest form of physical uniqueness of the work. How unique the motif or the composition is, I leave out of consideration.

© Thomas Berlin
© Thomas Berlin

The impossibility of subsequent manipulation of the original makes this type of photo to a "fateful" result. The developed image sometimes coincidences of development by (possibly expired) films, influences of light and cold during the development minutes etc. So maybe this is the perfect footage for opera friends or other people with a tendency to fateful scenes?

The term "technical inadequacy" is perhaps a bit too harsh for romantic people to describe picture quality. Let's try: soft, magical, mysterious, nebulous, interpretive, random, enchanting, unexpected, fateful, unique. In this approach, emphasis is not placed on the meticulous copy of the motif, but on mood and coincidence. The element of surprise is at least deliberately accepted, usually even desired.

For me, the handling after the shot is an important part of instant photography. You can arrange digital images as collages or series, but with instant photos, it's just a lot of fun to group, and create a new piece of work on the table or floor. The combination of selected images and the form of the presentation can create new visual impressions that have their own appeal. The concept of synergy is appropriate to mention here.

The impact of Instax images in the artistically or ambitious space is also dependent on the motif and the context. If the image is enhanced by blurring or omitting details, an instant image may be the way to go. Where details are needed, instant images are a hindrance.

I personally use Instax to integrate the model immediately after the shoot in a playful way. By signing  the picture or writing a statement on the frame, the model emphasizes the unique character of the photo. In doing so, the photographer takes the backseat, as the model shapes the final image not only by posing but also by the following two aspects: The model, not the artist, signs the work and additionally adds personaility.

Final word: Without emotion and mood the Instax adventure is probably doomed to failure. A purely factual view is a hindrance in this case.

© Thomas Berlin

© Thomas Berlin