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Book Review: Polaroids


Book Review Polaroids By Carlo Mollino Reviewed by Christopher J Johnson There is something fetishistic contained in the Polaroid, something that is akin to possession. Polaroid photos are always a one-off, whether or not they are gathered into a book — there is always only one original; this quality makes them items that are relished as they contain one moment in time, one face and body out of a sea of faces and bodies, or, even, one moment of imperfection when they don’t turn out.

Polaroids. By Carlo Mollino.
Damiani, 2014.
 
Polaroids
Reviewed by Christopher J. Johnson

Polaroids
Photographs by Carlo Mollino
Damiani, 2014. 288 pp., 400 color illustrations, 8½x10½".

There is something fetishistic contained in the Polaroid, something that is akin to possession. Polaroid photos are always a one-off, whether or not they are gathered into a book — there is always only one original; this quality makes them items that are relished as they contain one moment in time, one face and body out of a sea of faces and bodies, or, even, one moment of imperfection when they don’t turn out.

Carlo Mollino’s experiments in the medium represent this aspect of Polaroid photography, their collectable and possessive quality, perfectly. Each photograph in Polaroids is represented in its original scale and the effect is both overwhelming and precious. In nearly 450 different Polaroids, all created between 1960 and the photographer’s death in 1973, Mollino seems to show us his attempts not only to create his feminine ideal, but also capture that perfection somehow inside a personal bell-jar.

Polaroids. By Carlo Mollino. Damiani, 2014.

Mollino’s bell-jar took the form of an antique piece of furniture where he kept these pictures catalogued in a manner unknown to us, save that each picture was placed into a plain paper envelope. What a wonder it must have been, after Mollino’s death, to encounter this collection, to pull out the drawers that contained them and, one by one, to remove the image with its cardboard back and UV protectant from its envelope and encounter it for the first time.

Mollino was famously known to retouch photographs with inks and paints in an attempt to create an even more idealized vision of a woman than what his camera seemed (to him, at least) to capture. What is created by this effect is, not only the odd pathos of his need to remake the women he photographed, but how it makes the scene inside the Polaroid more like a tableaux or fragment of a play from a series put on by the same playhouse, by the same producers, director, and lighting and set designers.

Polaroids. By Carlo Mollino. Damiani, 2014.

And Mollino’s photographic works have more in common with this idea of a playhouse; fans of Mollino’s earlier work will instantly recognize his homogony of scenes, furnishings, and, even, the posturing of his models. The rattan chair, the backdrops and dresses, become stamps, stamps that show up in his Polaroid and pre-Polaroid photographs alike as if all out of the repetitious inventory of the same prop-master.

The feeling that falls out of these images when considered as a whole collection is obsession; a mysterious and personal obsession that we have little access to. That inability to know Mollino’s intention does not depreciate the work a bit, but instead draws us into the mystery of this man who considered architecture, furniture design, racecar engineering and acrobatics all of equal importance to his life.

Polaroids. By Carlo Mollino. Damiani, 2014.

The fact is that an artist like Mollino inevitably leaves us with more questions than answers, but this is a rare and fine quality — one that, like the repetition of his photographic work, impresses a curiosity into the mind. To the right mind, this is a personal, deep and carnal (even) curiosity. What is it, after all, that chews away at a mind seeking the divine feminine (something larger than any one model, something more like an essence that could be captured, limned in the small and inflexible square of a Polaroid) and, further, attempts, as so many artists have in every medium from time immemorial, to refine the ideal?

Polaroids. By Carlo Mollino. Damiani, 2014.

If Polaroids leaves me any regrets it is simply this: there are so many photographs that they run the risk of seeming copious and, therefore, valueless. Are the images abundant because he never made the photograph that he was trying to capture? Perhaps the best way to encounter this collection would be just as Mollino himself laid it out, in long drawers with each image carefully placed in an envelope that the viewer must unwrap to become a part of, but with this option currently unavailable to us, Polaroids, nonetheless is a worthwhile publication for those interested in Mollino, his photography, or the female form in general and (thanks Damiani!) it’s an affordable one.—CHRISTOPHER J. JOHNSON

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CHRISTOPHER J. JOHNSON is an artist, radio host, and poet living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. His reviews, interviews, and essays on poetry can be read in the Philadelphia Review of Books. Johnson also hosts the radio program Collected Words on 101.5 KVSF, where he interviews authors, poets and artists.

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