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photo-eye Book Reviews: From Polaroid to Impossible

From Polaroid to Impossible. Edited by Achim Heine.
Published by Hatje Cantz, 2011.
From Polaroid to Impossible
Reviewed by John Mathews
Achim Heine From Polaroid to Impossible
Edited by Achim Heine, Rebekka Reuter, Ulrike Willingmann, texts by Achim Heine, Barbara P. Hitchcock & Florian Kaps.
Hatje Cantz, 2011. Hardbound. 192 pp., 230 color illustrations, 9-3/4x12-1/2".

In a quest to profile Polaroid as a serious and cutting edge art form, its inventor Edwin H. Land and the photographer Ansel Adams established the Polaroid Collection in the late 1950s. The collection was supplemented by the introduction of the Polaroid Artist Support Program in the 1960s, which provided free film and cameras to a range of established and emerging photographers in exchange for selected prints. Photographers donated work on the premise that the collection would remain together for public viewing and study. The mantra of this unique program was innovation, invention and creativity. By 2008 Polaroid had amassed 16,000 prints by a range of high profile artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe, Helmut Newton, Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg. However in 2008 Polaroid was declared bankrupt and its assets, including the prestigious collection, were seized and later auctioned. The prospect of the sale produced an outcry from the photography fraternity and a group of artists spearheaded by Chuck Close campaigned against the dispersal of the collection. The European part of the collection has been preserved in its entirety thanks to a successful last minute bid by the Westlicht photography museum in Vienna. The resulting book, From Polariod to Impossible, celebrates the unique characteristics of Polaroid and explores the special relationship that existed between the company and an exciting array of photographers who were given carte blanche to experiment and push the format to its full creative potential.

From Polaroid to Impossible, by Achim Heine. Published by Hatje Cantz, 2011.
This book focuses mainly upon Polaroid works from the 1970s and 1980s and is classified by film formats. The first chapter looks at the ultra large 20X24” format that was used exclusively for special Polaroid commissions. Only seven of these cameras were ever manufactured and each required a team of Polaroid technicians to transport and operate. One such commission from 1989 is ‘Ritual Observance’ by Dennis Farber, which depicts an outdoor gym. The photograph has been embellished with layers of paint and gold leaf, which accentuates the energy and nascent qualities of the Polaroid image. A majority of the 20X24” images from this chapter tend to be very polished and meticulous studio based works, which is probably due to the cumbersome scale and expense of the format.

From Polaroid to Impossible, by Achim Heine. Published by Hatje Cantz, 2011.
The chapter featuring the 4X5” and 8X10” Polaroid formats contains an eclectic mix of portraits, abstractions and colour studies. These images range from everyday geometric investigations such as Terry Walker’s ‘Traffic Barrels’ 1975, to more staged works such as Paul Huf’s haunting ‘Untitled’ image from 1977, which features a dreamlike and sensual tableaux of draped mannequins. The book concludes with a chapter on the most iconic and widely used Polaroid integral film format. Images such as Auke Bergsma series of figurative colour studies from 1981 have a very spontaneous, playful and fluid feel to them. This vibrant sequence creates a type of fantasy narrative by channelling a spirit of inquisitiveness and furtive excitement.

From Polaroid to Impossible, by Achim Heine. Published by Hatje Cantz, 2011.
Within our current digital age there is nothing to quite rival the tactile and alchemical qualities of Polaroid. The Polaroid archive spans more than sixty years and contains over 16,000 images. This book provides a brief glimpse into that unique collection and is a fitting tribute to the innovation, invention and creativity that the Polaroid format inspired.—JOHN MATHEWS

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JOHN MATHEWS is an artist and curator from Belfast, Northern Ireland.