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Getting (Surprisingly) Serious With Polaroids

December 20, 1987|SUZANNE MUCHNIC

NEW YORK — Most people of a certain age have a sharp memory of the first time they ever saw a Polaroid camera. A rich kid brought one to a high school basketball game and attracted more attention than the local heroes. Or a gadget-happy uncle slipped one out of his pocket at a family Christmas party and impressed the clan by producing an instant record of the occasion.

Even now, 40 years after Edwin H. Land introduced the "instant" camera and 24 years after Polaroid color film came on the market, American tourists offend the Chinese by snapping pictures of their children and then delight them by giving them the likeness that zips out of the camera. Dozens of technological marvels have succeeded the film that automatically functions like a portable darkroom, but the Polaroid still seems a magical gimmick.

Thanks to that perception, the importance of Polaroids to the field of photography hasn't been fully comprehended. We know about David Hockney's update of Cubism while "drawing with a camera" in collages of color Polaroid images. We have seen an entire book of Lucas Samaras' self-portraits, concocted by drawing into and otherwise manipulating the emulsion of film immediately after exposure.

We also have noted the really big pictures that artists have made from a few out-sized Polaroids, including a room-sized camera at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. UCLA's recent show of Patrick Nagatani's and Andree Tracey's photographs, for example, consisted of 20x24-inch prints from one of only 20 cameras in the country capable of producing them.

Though artists may be reluctant to relinquish control of developing their film, they have been intrigued by the Polaroid's capability of producing pictures in 10 to 20 seconds without the usual graininess of fast film. Setting art aside, any journeyman photographer can tell you that the Polaroid is a handy tool for checking light before shooting a subject with a more conventional camera.

But despite widespread familiarity with Polaroid, the process is still perceived as an adjunct to the central core of serious art photography. Or at least it was until the International Center of Photography opened a show called "Legacy of Light" (to Jan. 10). Organized by Constance Sullivan, the exhibition of 205 photos by 58 American artists fills the center's stately galleries on upper Fifth Avenue. The $50 hard-cover catalogue contains essays by Peter Schjeldahl, Gretel Ehrlich, Richard Howard, Diane Johnson and Robert Stone.

This is clearly a classy production, but an unwitting observer might mistake it for a survey of photography in general. Only with the realization that all of the works were produced with Polaroids does "Legacy of Light" become special--and surprising. Even seasoned viewers can be forgiven for mumbling, "These don't look like Polaroids," while wondering if a few impostors share the limelight with such obviously genuine examples as Samaras' "Photo-transformations" and collaged portraits by Hockney and Joyce Neimanas.

The pictures are big and small, traditional and experimental, documentary and artistic. Produced in black-and-white and color by mainline photographers and people better known for their paintings, they represent about as many points of view as artists, though they are displayed in traditional categories of subject matter: landscapes, the nude, portraits and still lifes. One can imagine more telling organizational approaches, but this ordinary one serves the purpose of proving that Polaroids are not mere curiosities that play around the edges of photography; they swim in the mainstream.

Who better to prove it than Ansel Adams? His Polaroids of Yosemite, Arizona architecture and a "New England Barn" don't strike the Wagnerian chords of his larger, trademark images, but they are tendered with the same insistence on perfection. Adams took the Polaroid Land camera seriously. So did Walker Evans, Paul Caponigro, Minor White, Imogen Cunningham and William Clift, other major American photographers whose work historically grounds the exhibition in the '50s, '60s and '70s.

In the landscape section, we find intricately textured images of nature by Caponigro along with crisp, vividly colored reminders of small-town architecture and signs by Evans. Among more recent work, Danny Lyon continues Evans' fondness for the vernacular--IGA Stores, telephone wires and old brick libraries--in disjointed, black-and-white panoramas of Midwestern streets, spliced together from three or four separate pictures.

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