Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Taschen: The Polaroid Book

Is there anyone else out there who loves Taschen? Their books are big, beautiful, and cheap, and they appear dedicated to abolishing the distinction between high and low culture, embracing everything from portraiture to porno. And then there's the architecture, the old maps, classic anatomy texts, illuminated manuscripts...almost everything they put out is interesting.

Anyway, The Polaroid Book isn't new, but I just picked it up at the Bookery for fifteen bucks, and it's a tremendous inspiration--not just for photographers, but for anyone who likes representing the world in art. Polaroid photography was developed by Edwin Land in the 1920's and refined through the thirties, and exists in a variety of formats; the one people know best, however, is the square-frame pack film, used in instant cameras and recently discontinued, which created pictures like the one above (taken by Karin Elizabeth, on flickr, and pretty much selected at random).

What is it about Polaroids? For me, it's the the saturated pastels, the darkened edges, the sense of immediacy and accident. People used Polaroids to instantaneously commemorate experience: you took one, and could look back fondly on the moment, a couple of minutes ago, when you took it. The result was a heightened sense of the flow of time, the way life changes from moment to moment--something that the very best fiction does, as well. I also like that Polaroids are an artifacty format--the instant snaps like Karin Elizabeth's are usually shown inside their lopsided paper frame, which serves to remind you you're looking at a picture. The old Land Camera positives always had those rough, distorted edges, as well--evidence that art is a process, that it is something made by man. I like art that flaunts its artificiality. I like art that is about itself.

Anyway, the book is little more than page after page of cool pictures, and I recommend it. It expands one's idea of what is worth representing in art, and how it can be represented. And it shows that art can be egalitarian, and it can be refined, sometimes in the same instant.

EDIT: Reader Lou Barranti, a contributor to this book, sends the following correction: "Your post says that 'Polaroid photography was developed by Edwin Land in the 1920's and refined through the thirties...' Actually it was in the late 1940s that Land created the Polaroid photographic process. Perhaps it was a reference similar to the following statement in a Wikipedia article that you may have seen prior to writing your piece on the Polaroid book (in fact, you link to that Wikipedia article at the beginning of the above quoted sentence): 'The original material, patented in 1929 (U.S. Patent 1,918,848 ) and further developed in 1932 by Edwin H. Land, consists of many microscopic crystals of iodoquinine sulfate (herapathite) embedded in a transparent nitrocellulose polymer film.' It wasn't a photographic film. It was a light polarizing film (or filter) that Land created in the 20s to which this article refers. This was his first major invention. The Wikipedia entry for Dr. Land ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edwin_H._Land ) has more on his photographic invention. There are more authoritative sources out there, of course (Barbara Hitchcock's essay in The Polaroid Book, for example), but what I read there seems to line up with what I know about Land and his invention (instant photography, that is; I don't know much about the rest of his professional life, other than that he invented Polaroid polarizing film.)"

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