Paint & Polaroid
Now that Russia appears to have finally finished hacking the weather system here in Londres, perhaps it’s about time to get down to brass tax. Let’s do photography. Specifically, Polaroid. I think that in order to do this, I may need to start in that place most commonly agreed upon to be the best of places to start: The beginning. And to do that, we need to talk about painting.
Two hundred years ago, to actually be a painter by profession was a pretty specialist thing. It was also expensive and accessible by commission predominantly only to the elite. A monarch would almost certainly have had their portrait painted and that luxury would have tailed off rapidly, down through the nobility and merchant classes. For a layperson to have been painted in a street scene, let alone a portrait would have been exceedingly rare. Landscape painting from back then tells a similar story, in its limited catalog of identifiable places. I mean that both in the sense that a very small percentage of places have ever been painted and also that we are often at a loss to identify the real world locations depicted in many old oil paintings, though that doesn’t stop people from trying!
Painting is also, naturally not an exact recording or representation of the world as it physically is at any given moment in time. If you were to paint me now (and believe me, it would absolutely have to be that way round as I am by no means a competent enough painter to make that exercise anything but a farce), the resulting image would be a composite - a compromise over time. The light would have changed, I would have fidgeted relentlessly, the scene would have shifted and we would be left with something that is at least in part, imaginary.
The advent of photography placed the means by which everybody and their grandmother could, with less than little attention paid to their own artistic ability - to paraphrase Isaac Asimov (yes, that Isaac Asimov) and his wonderful forward to ‘SX-70 Art’, edited by Ralph Gibson and published by Lustrum in 1979 - make the world stand still.
Let’s step back for a moment and I’ll tell you why - for me - Polaroid’s iconic creation is such a special child. Every SX-70, 600 and Spectra print comes complete with it’s own self-contained mini dark room. It is this slightly unpredictable, on-the-fly chemical process and the special brew nature of the chemicals themselves that make a Polaroid print so unique. There’s something slightly (or very) altered, remixed and magical about each image. Painterly, even. While it's still true as for all photography that you’d best be good and you better be quick, there’s also a waiting game and promise of the unknown. You have to be lucky too. It’s about as close to the act of painting as one might get while still taking a photograph and not, you know, actually painting.
Now we come to the turn. David Hockney once claimed that photography made him feel like a paralysed, one-eyed cyclops. For him, photography was exactly this far from being an accurate representation of how memory works. If you and I were to speak face to face, you might recall a visual memory of that conversation later on, after the event. Poor you. In the event that my hideous visage were to repeat upon your unconscious mind, it would occur as though through a snapshot carousel. The takeaway for your brain, would be that of a unified image: Man in silly hat, beard and horse face. Much in the same way that the lens within your eyes (both of them, not just the one that might peer through a camera viewfinder) receive light and images from the outside world upside down and then your brain flips it the right way up, a similar process has happened to your memory of our conversation and you are left with one easily accessible image, much like a thumbnail reference.
When Hockney first started messing around with the SX-70, he found that the quick, snapshot mechanism of the camera allowed him to take reels of photos of a particular person or scene. He could then easily arrange these snaps into a collage. This led to the eventual publication of his seminal ’Cameraworks’ in 1984. On first glance, if one of these collages is flashed before you, you might just see a man lighting a cigar. However, upon closer, prolonged inspection, one sees too many hands, a fragmented figure and more than one cigar. It is a composite, a series of recollections of a particular moment and it is perhaps about as close as anyone has yet come to representing how memory itself works.
JD - TACOCAT