Treasures from the Vault: Polaroid Pictures

Sachi Yanari-Rizzo, Curator of Prints & Drawings

Today, we are more accustomed to posting digital images on social media than printing photographs and putting them in albums.  Recently, companies like Polaroid and Fujifilm have manufactured a line of retro looking cameras, like the Fujifilm Instax Mini, that produce prints almost immediately without the need for a darkroom.  Perhaps it is a mixture of nostalgia and novelty that has caused a resurgence in popularity with these instant print cameras.

Back in 1947, Edwin H. Land of Polaroid Corporation first premiered instant photography technology.  Through the years the company improved developing time and introduced color.  In 1972 the SX-70 camera targeted the amateur photographer market; that decade saw the instant camera reach its height in popularity.

Polaroid’s biggest artistic contribution came with the 1977 debut of a large format camera that allowed for sharp detail and rich color.  The Polaroid Land Camera weighs 200 lbs., measures 5 x 3 ½ ft., and produces a one-of-a-kind 20 x 24 in. print in about 1 minute. The museum’s Horace and Shomari by Dawoud Bey is among numerous portraits the artist has shot using a Polaroid Land camera.

Dawoud Bey first began using a camera not long after experiencing its power in Harlem on My Mind, a controversial exhibition organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1969.  At age 22, Bey embarked on his own photographic response to Harlem. In an interview with The Chicago Reader Bey describes his process: “I ended up making a collective picture of what Harlem actually presented to me rather than validate something I thought I knew about the community. . . That’s when I realized the need to both have an idea to motivate the work and the openness to be responsive to what your subject is giving you.”  In 1979, the Studio Museum in Harlem spotlighted this body of work in Harlem, USA. Unlike the Met’s exhibition 10 years earlier, this was a portrait of a historically significant African American community by an African American photographer.

In Bey’s street photography and his subsequent studio portraits, personal interaction with his subjects is key to his working process. Through conversations, the photographer engages them as participants, particularly in determining how they are being represented. This collaborative approach offsets the traditional power relationship of the photographer over the sitter.

Since 1991, Bey has focused his attention on portraits of teenagers, often misunderstood members of society. In an interview with the National Portrait Gallery, Bey spoke about his teenage subjects: “I really want to do in my work is to first of all, challenge this one dimensional representation that I think does exist within the media and popular culture and to bring perhaps a more complex representation of young people through my work in terms of creating a kind of a psychological or emotional representation.”

In Horace and Shomari, Bey’s teenage subjects are uninhibited and confident as they direct their gaze at the viewer. The work is made up of two separate images alluding to a single photograph’s inability to capture the complex nature of a person. The titles reveal no further information besides their first names. The two young men sit in front of a plain background with no props or setting providing clues to each person’s identity. These choices eliminate a context for his subjects making it difficult for us to rely on preconceived assumptions.

Want to see it for yourself? Visit the Print & Drawing Study Center Tuesday-Friday from 11am-3pm or by appointment!

Want to learn more about the photographer, Dawoud Bey? Check out these links from interviews referenced in our post: Chicago Reader Artist Interview and National Portrait Gallery Interview

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