Polaroid Cultures

Lead Research Organisation: University of Salford
Department Name: Unlisted


Following the lead of Benjamin, Kittler and Virilio, this project asks, What is the cultural significance of developments in technologies of the visual? It takes as its case study an image-making technique which is at the point of decay and obsolescence, and therefore, unlike digital imaging, has lost its capacity to dazzle through its apparent novelty: Polaroid, or 'one-step', photography, as it was dubbed by its inventor, Edwin Land. In the supposed immediacy of its image production and in its elimination of the duration-time of a developing process, Polaroid photography appears to anticipate, and therefore constitute a pre-history of, the contemporary proliferation of instant imaging technologies, from missile sighting systems to camera phones. What are, or have been, the implications for human vision and subjectivity of such an acceleration of imaging and objectification? What can a cultural history of Polaroid photography reveal about the related fields of vision, technology, consumption and cultural value?

The standard critical discourse on Polaroid photography assumes that it was the apotheosis of cheap and disposable mass image-making, and that the simplicity of its operation had either a democratizing or degrading effect on photography as a whole (depending on your outlook). There is considerable evidence to support this view, particularly from the mid-1970s onwards, but my project will argue that a fuller cultural history of instant photography tells a rather more layered and ambiguous story. In fact, Polaroid photography provides a striking case study of the vicissitudes of cultural value in relation to technologically-driven goods of mass consumption. While the various off-shoots of the first 'absolute one-step' camera, the SX-70 (1972/3), such as the One-Step (1977), became the widest-selling camera in the world, and for a long period Polaroid was second only to Kodak in the mass camera market, the SX-70 itself, and most of its antecedents, starting with the Model 95 (1947/48), were marketed as luxury goods and sold in small volume in exclusive department stores. This basic tension in the social and cultural distinction attached to Polaroid photography is played out in the use made of instant photography by 'art photographers', who were carefully cultivated by the Polaroid Corporation throughout its history and who took advantage of the limited edition 20x24' camera (1978) to make 'unique' prints. In addition, the recycling of Polaroid images by artists as singular found objects is so widespread as to have become a cliché. The Polaroid archive in Cambridge, Mass. will provide an essential resource in investigating these questions.

Another way in which the project will gauge the social impact and meanings of Polaroid photography will be through the analysis of representations of instant photography in a range of other media, from print fiction through film and popular magazines on photography. In The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), for instance, the immediacy of instant photography is clearly associated with the primitive or atavistic, while in Alice in the Cities (1974) it epitomises the mechanization of vision suffered by a German traveling across America. In both cases, the making of the Polaroid image suggests the elimination of an intervening human consciousness. In contrast, high end photography manuals by Adams (1963) and Dickson (1964) dedicated to instant photography emphasize the 'expertise' required for operating 'one-step' systems and therefore make the human agent central to the process of 'instantaneous objectification'. Popular photography magazines will be an important resource in identifying the discourse on Polaroid picture-making and will accordingly be surveyed in depth as part of the research.
Title The Polaroid Years 
Description Exhibition at Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College, New York, USA 
Type Of Art Artistic/Creative Exhibition 
Year Produced 2013 
Impact I advised the curator of this exhibition on content and wrote a catalogue essay. The exhibition subsequently toured to Florida, and Chicago. 
Description Used for exhibition The Polaroid Years, Vassar College, 2013. Exhibition toured to Chicago, Florida, etc A large exhibition on the history of Polaroid co-organised by MIT Museum that draws on my research will start in Houston late 2016 and tour as well.
First Year Of Impact 2013
Sector Creative Economy,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural

Description Research fellowship scheme
Amount £9,700 (GBP)
Organisation The Leverhulme Trust 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2010 
End 05/2011