Surely Fades Away

03Apr12

Buse, Peter. ‘Surely Fades Away’, Photographies, 1:2, 221 – 238

[discussion of Robert Adams & Polaroid]

However, far from being some sort of special case or exception to the rule, Polaroid’s relationship with Adams simply crystallizes a problematic of value that runs right through the history of instant photography: its simultaneous association with both high and low levels of social and cultural distinction.

Whether or not Polaroid snaps actually fade is almost beside the point: their meaning in culture is as that which fades, and a collective hallucination of their fading follows on from this.

Here, then, summed up in a familiar paradox of love poetry [Bragg], is the basic double bind of cultural value as it relates to instant photography: an extraordinary scientific and technological achievement results in a consumer product so simple and efficient in its uses that it comes to be thought of as the “degree zero” of photographic skill.

As Carolyn Marvin has argued in relation to advances in electricity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, a group that has privileged knowledge of and access to rapidly developing technology tends to form “a self-conscious class of technical experts seeking public acknowledgement, legitimation, and reward in the pursuit of this task”

At a mundane level, these magazines serve to publicize and assess the latest developments in shutters, lenses, film types, light meters, darkroom chemicals, photographic paper, and so on. At the same time, the fetishization of camera and film technologies in specialist photo magazines is an absolutely essential exercise in the definition of the photo expert’s domain and the establishment of the figure of the non-expert, or amateur photographer.

This figure of gentle condescension, the nave snapshooter, is at best just an eye and a finger, unable to bring to bear on the image-making process the array of technological controls that the professional or “serious amateur” masterfully manipulates.

Although Land and Polaroid had no photographic pedigree, what they did possess already in abundance was scientific legitimacy. By definition worshippers of science and technology, the photo expert magazines were almost unanimously rapturous about the “spectacular discovery which marks a great advance in the photographic process” and often just reproduced verbatim Polaroid’s own press copy about potential uses of the new camera (“Polaroid President Invents”).

The most damning evaluation came from the British-based Photographic Journal, unhindered by the boosterism infecting American magazines: “The user gets just the one photograph he has taken, and there is no negative from which further prints can be made, nor can the pictures be enlarged. In fact to me the whole business seems nothing but a de luxe model of the old seaside ‘while-you-wait’ snapshot camera” (Harris).

As Carolyn Marvin has observed, the expert’s jealous guardianship of the secrets of technological know-how has usually been a gendered affair, and it only takes a very cursory browsing of a range of specialist photo magazines from 1945 to 1980 to confirm that their addressee is almost uniformly masculine. In this context, it hardly needs stating that when the expert photographer is impotently left with “so little … to do”, the technology has stopped serving as obedient guarantor of masculine competence and instead threatens to supplant that competence entirely.

This is not to say that Polaroid technology heralded a new age of egalitarian thinking in photography. In fact, in their early strategizing and advertising campaigns for the first cameras, the company tended simply to endorse existing gendered meanings of technology. According to Peter Wensberg, Land “nagged” his design team that the camera was meant for “the mothers of America” and therefore “must be kept simple, mother-proof”.

With this logic, Polaroid’s marketers were sticking to the tried and tested path already laid out by Kodak, which, as Don Slater points out, “heavily targeted women and children as prime consumers of snapshot photography, both as symbols of the extraordinary ease of talking pictures (even they could achieve photographic success) and as the most identified with the emotional continuity and commemoration of the domestic”.

But by the late 1970s and early 1980s, when various models of the SX-70 had come to dominate snapshot camera sales, Polaroid had abandoned the myth of masculine competence with technology, or, rather, radically reconfigured it. As a British television advert in 1986 for Polaroid starring the comedian Hugh Laurie made clear, it was now the male expert who was dispensable, an endangered being.

If it was precisely this aspect of Polaroid cameras which drew the scorn of the photo experts, it may have been because they implicitly recognized the threat the cameras posed to the very terms of their expertise.

In spite of the best efforts of Adams and others to lend them legitimacy, then, Polaroid cameras were treated for the most part with condescension by the photo writers of the world. Unlike the case of Kodak analyzed by Slater, however, Polaroid photography was endowed with other forms of cultural distinction.

Looked down upon by the experts, Polaroid cameras were nevertheless luxury goods. There is no contradiction here; in fact, for Pierre Bourdieu, the one is the corollary of the other in photographic practice:

“possession of equipment, even a considerable range of equipment, seems to be an effect of income rather than a sign of dedication; precisely because of their accessibility, the most expensive cameras and accessories are not necessarily associated with an enthusiastic practice.”

In other words, the symbolic value of an expensive representative of “the fine camera field” matters much more to its owner than any purely photographic functions it may be capable of performing.

When Land appeared on the cover of Life demonstrating the SX-70 in October 1972, he was pictured surrounded by children fascinated by the magic toy. The persistence of Polaroid’s association with child users and consumers, while another contributor to its low value in photographic terms, was paradoxically also a key index of its luxuriousness as a commodity for adults.

The same basic ambition – to open the possibilities of “creative expression” to a broader portion of the population – is echoed by Polaroid literature throughout its history. This might all be dismissed as so much standard boilerplate (after all, more photographers equals more sales, and Polaroid relied on film sales for the majority of its turnover) except that Polaroid always had a distinct praxis to back up its official corporate theory. From the late 1960s, the company’s generous Artist Support Program provided film and equipment to both established and young photographers, who were asked to donate one image per grant to what eventually became the Polaroid Collections. In addition, Polaroid ran numerous photographic workshops for its own employees, many of these led in the 1950s and 1960s by Ansel Adams.

The corporate encouragement of “creativity” in photographic practice was of course extraordinarily flexible in its application and open to many interpretations. Adams, the fine art purist and head ideologist at Polaroid, tended to insist on the special formal properties of the film, its high ASA speed, its high resolution, its unique tonal qualities. These features were enlisted in the wider project of “straight photography” in which Adams was a central participant, and the images he produced on Polaroid film were marked by their departure from vernacular norms of composition and subject matter and a tendency to privilege abstraction.

When mass-cultural forms (the baby or pet photograph) begin to have pretensions of aesthetic value, they risk being labeled as kitsch. Indeed, if, as Tomas Kulka suggests, kitsch happens when mass forms pretend to the aesthetic distinction of the elite forms they have displaced, then the whole Polaroid-Landian project, with its uneasy oscillation between low and high levels of distinction, begins to look like a monumentally kitschy enterprise.

The possibilities inherent in the kitschy contradiction between high and low cultural value in Polaroid photography have not gone unexploited. In what is best described as an operation in meta-kitsch, William Wegman in the late 1970s and early 1980s posed his Weimaraner, Man Ray, for a series of photographic portraits. As Wolbarst’s manual makes clear, “pets round the house” is a key sentimental category of popular photography.

Meanwhile, the supposed impermanence of the Polaroid image has taken on a rather literal meaning of late. With instant photography pushed to the verge of obsolescence by emergent new media and cheap digital cameras for the consumer market, Polaroid Corporation filed for bankruptcy protection in 2001, changed hands twice, and is now a subsidiary of Petters Group Worldwide.

Like any once popular commodity on the brink of extinction, Polaroid cameras are now the subject of widespread nostalgic sentiment, as attested by the much frequented Polanoid.net website and by their appearance in films as representative of quaint or archaic visual technologies (Boogie Nights, Wallace and Gromit and the Curse of the Were Rabbit). That is to say, they have become kitsch in its undiluted form.

[Discusses film Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amlie Poulain (2001), directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet]

Thus the trick of the film is to distract us from what is really being festishized – modern digital filmmaking technologies – by the sentimental remembrance of now obsolete forms. In this way we can regard with complacent condescension the derelict technological idols that block our view of our contemporary ones.

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