Whether through watching images slowly appear on a piece of instant film or perusing old photographs, the Polaroid corporation has found its way into most people’s lives. The all-too-familiar outline of a Polaroid photo (a black square enclosed by white borders in a convenient 3.5 by 4.2 inch rectangle) captures and represents moments with a unique immediacy that digital photography has yet to rival.
In considering the charm of Polaroid photography and viewing a new exhibit at the Johnson Museum, two words come to mind: vanitas and voyeurism.
Vanitas, an artistic term used to describe “still life” paintings of withering flowers and decaying fruit, speaks on the impermanence of human life. In viewing Polaroid photography, there is a distinctly transient mood. Robert Frank’s weathered photograph of spring flowers blowing in the wind, entitled “Pour La Fille, Mabou” elicits a yearning for times past. Christian Boltanski’s “Les Monuments I-III” are comprised of photographs of collages made from found objects, such as photographs of school children, newspaper clippings and pictures from magazines. “Les Monuments” feature a portrait of an elementary school age child flanked on all sides by pictures of flowers. Viewing this piece reminds the audience that as the flowers in the pictures eventually wither, so too will human life and childhood naivety. “Les Monuments” seem to mourn the loss of innocence as a child treks into adulthood.
On the other end of the spectrum, the inescapable sense of voyeurism present in this exhibit demonstrates to the viewer the darker potential of Polaroid photography. Weston Andrews’ untitled portrait of a nude woman whose face is covered creates a feeling of discomfort for the viewer. The audience is not sure whether to feel the same shame that caused the woman to cover her face, or to accept her nude body that she flaunts. Lucas Samaras’ “Sitting,” which depicts a nude girl sitting on a stage, recreates the same mood present in Andrews’ work, with a slightly more updated scene. The gaudy backdrop implies that the scene takes place in a strip club, and it provides a different dimension to a somewhat impersonal and hedonistic act.
Exhibitionism, and nudity’s roles in distorting the viewer’s reality, come into play with other works as well. Jeffrey Silverthorne’s “Orpheus”, a blurry picture of a nude man in a cage, both intrigues and repulses the viewer.
Eileen Cowin’s untitled juxtaposition of two 20×20 inch photographs speaks on the duality of human life that occurs behind closed doors. The images are linked together by a man sitting at the edge of a bed. To the left of him, sharing the same bed are a man and woman embracing. His gaze leads the viewer to the right and reveals a woman who appears to be in the various stages of getting dressed. The uninvited spectator is left with a myriad of questions regarding the man’s connection to the other people in the picture.
In viewing these pieces, the audience is conflicted between their repulsion and their inability to look away from the enigmatic images before them.
Some artists featured in the exhibit manage to combine the two elements of vanitas and voyeurism. Jim Goldberg’s 1985 portrait of an elderly man, entitled “Thomas Henderson” includes the inscription, “Some old people are absolutely useless. But I am hanging on very well. I am going to be 99. It is all a struggle. When I go to sleep I am not sure if I will ever wake up. I am slipping between darkness and lightness. I looks pretty good except I am bald-headed.” The viewer is reminded of his own mortality and simultaneously feels as if he has stumbled upon this piece. The writing humanizes the portrait and makes the viewer feel as if the portrait was never meant to be seen.
“Innovation/Imagination: Fifty Years of Polaroid Photography”, a new exhibit at the Johnson Museum of Art opened September 1st and will run through October 22nd. The museum is open from Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and is free to students. The pieces listed are only a few of the many powerful and moving works of art featured in the exhibit.