We think of Polaroid instant film as something for ordinary snapshots, but it often became a medium for serious artists. From the beginning, no less an artist than Ansel Adams recognized its potential. Aided by his proselytizing, Polaroid soon caught the eye of prominent photographers. Some used it just for lighting tests before shooting conventional film, but others embraced it on its own merits. In this excerpt, adapted from New York senior editor Christopher Bonanos’s Instant: The Story of Polaroid (out this week from Princeton Architectural Press), you’ll see six artists who took it in unique and beautiful directions.
Soon after Polaroid’s founder, Edwin Land, revealed his invention to the world in 1947, he and Ansel Adams met at an optics conference. As Adams recalled nearly three decades later, “Then we … came over to this little laboratory, and he took my picture with a great big 8-by-10 camera … There it was, brown and of rather awful quality. But, by gosh, it was a one-minute picture! And that excited me to no end.” Adams immediately signed on as a consultant to Polaroid, and threw himself into the assignment, rigorously testing new films and cameras, visiting the labs regularly, and occasionally getting drunk with the chemists. Starting in 1961, he began to use one of Polaroid’s most remarkable products: a special professional film called Type 55 that made both a positive print and a reusable large-format negative. An image he called one of his favorites, El Capitan, Sunrise, Winter, Yosemite National Park, California, 1968, was shot on Polaroid film.
A painter who was stifled by the loneliness of the studio, Marie Cosindas switched to photography in the late fifties, studying under Ansel Adams. In 1962, a Polaroid executive offered her some of the first preproduction samples of its new color film. “The emulsion had, if I remember it, eight layers,” she recalls today. “You could almost look down into it.” She shot principally portraits and still lifes, most of them composed like oil paintings, with lush, intense, almost visibly juicy color.
Andy Warhol preferred to work with one of the junkiest cameras Polaroid ever made, a snout-shaped thing called the Big Shot. It didn’t have a focus adjustment; it could shoot only portraits from the waist up, and the distinctive Warhol look we all know—a high-contrast silk-screened face, daubed with transparent color—comes out of these ordinary (yet extraordinary) Polaroid frames. But he also went to the other extreme, posing before a specially built Polaroid camera that made giant, ultra-high-quality 20-by-24-inch prints. In this portrait by Bill Ray, shot for New York in 1980, Warhol poses with a portrait of himself that’s just minutes old.
When Polaroid introduced its SX-70 system in 1972—that’s the familiar format with the wide white tab at the bottom of the frame—it provided an unexpected new form of artistic expression. The emulsion was based on gelatin, and it remained soft and gooey under its Mylar cover for several hours. If you pressed on the surface with something hard, like a dull pencil, you’d distort the image. Lucas Samaras had been doing odd things with Polaroid film for years, shooting weird self-portraits and tweaking a camera so that he could “paint” his subject with colored lights in the dark. Now he began to turn his SX-70 prints into wild things, doing new and unsettling (and completely one-of-a-kind) things to his visage.
Starting in the mid-eighties, David Levinthal began making atmospheric photographs of posed figurines and artifacts on that giant 20-by-24 camera, giving them the appearance of having strange inner lives. Some were ostensibly fun pop-culture items, like Barbie dolls and plastic soldiers, that took on mystery and a sinister edge when photographed this way. Others, like Jim Crow–era “Mammy” figurines, started out fraught and grew even more so before Levinthal’s lens, which was often tilted slightly, to alter the depth of field and further tweak the scale. Your sense of perspective is thrown as these simple subjects become something entirely new.
Using the 20-by-24 Polaroid camera, William Wegman posed his pet Weimaraners in low-key ways that were at once antic and solemn: in sweaters, sitting with toys on their heads, covered in a heavy dusting of flour, curled up in come-hither poses. The dogs’ limited patience and the immobility of the huge camera make this a very difficult and expensive way of shooting. David Levinthal says that he and Wegman used to joke about who could shoot more of those giant frames in a single day. “I won, with about 75 or 80,” says Levinthal. “But Bill says that has to be with an asterisk, like Roger Maris, because my subjects don’t move.”