featured gallery for November 2013

Instant Intimacies

An October 27th, 1972 issue of ­Life devotes its cover story to Edwin Land and his “magic” Polaroid camera. Blond and red headed children reach their oily fingers toward Land’s shiny contraption, eager for what it ejects. According to Life’s story, Land designed his camera after an exchange with his daughter who wanted to see photographs in an instant. The cover image plays on this mythology. Daddy presses buttons and delivers something magic to the expectant children. The scene is fleshy and obscene.

What was the genius of Land’s 1972 invention? Layers of chemicals. Opacity. Protection from light after ejection. The amateur artist could become the professional as the time between flash and product disappeared. Land believed that the instant image meant instant criticism. The photographer could make immediate, informed adjustments according to visible outcomes. As the amateur closed in on the professional through the erasure of time, access to the technology remained governed by cost. Utopic potential at a price. Reading about Robert Mapplethorpe’s development as a photographer through the lens of Patti Smith’s memory, I learn about the Polaroid’s exclusive properties. Mapplethorpe found a daddy and got his own camera.

As someone who researches 1980s queer New York history, I do indeed find Polaroids to be magic. They are fetish objects that deliver a fantasy of being there. The residue of the instant produces, for me, a sense of immediacy. Warhol’s archived Polaroids allow me to look upon Keith Haring and Juan Dubose in a bare-chested embrace. “Keith Haring came by with his black boyfriend and I took pictures. They were so lovey-dovey in the photos, it was nutty to see,” writes Warhol in his diaries. The Factory machine manipulated this moment of contact and manufactured a series of colorful silkscreens. Haring, whose celebrity development Warhol’s flash aided, was a commodity in process. His black boyfriend acted as a different kind of fetish in the art world’s economy of desire.

Polaroid technology allows intimate life worlds to be captured and processed without the inclusion of the photo lab. It also renders darkroom experience and knowledge of chemical processes somewhat secondary to the photographer’s product. Instant film infects the Polaroid fetish with the aura of instant access. Mark Morrisroe, after Warhol and Mapplethorpe, creates yet another seductive archive of intimate desire in the face of loss.

In David Weissman’s documentary We Were Here, Polaroids on the window of a Castro pharmacy are described as the first visible evidence of the physical devastation precipitated by HIV. Afflicted body parts are made visible. The Polaroid here facilitates a public intimacy where images of the individual promote a collective response.

As production of Polaroid film has ceased and the technology suffers obsolescence in the face of digital image production, the Polaroid easily becomes a nostalgic fetish. I turn to Polaroids to feel something about the past. Their beauty for me often lies in the capture of something foreclosed to me today. The subcultural intimacies of the past have the ability to seduce me out of the present. My psychic investments can be dangerous in that they handicap my ability to engage the contemporary. Benjamin Fredrickson’s work challenges my nostalgia. While Fredrickson’s aesthetic resonates with a past documentation of queer history, his Polaroids conjure a contemporary world of queer sex. All is far from lost.