We had the chance to speak with Hélène Samson, the Photography Curator of the McCord Museum, about The Polaroid Project: At the Intersection of Art and Technology, on view in Montreal through September 15. The exhibition presents work from about 100 of the most prominent international artists of the 20th century; a section focusing on Polaroid’s founder, history, cameras and accessories; and work by three Montreal artists known for using Polaroids—Louise Abbott, Benoît Aquin and Charles Gagnon.
Photo Life: After having almost disappeared from the photographic landscape, Polaroid has made an unbelievable comeback over the last several years. How do you explain this phenomenon?
Hélène Samson: Polaroid Corporation was founded in 1934 by Edwin Land, notably, to commercialize polarising filters, which reduce the reflection of light on surfaces like water. In 1948, the company created instant photography, which later became known as “Polaroids.” In fact, it was a series of improved cameras and especially improved film that made it possible to take a photograph and print it instantly. This company, driven by the visionary genius of inventor Edwin Land, stopped its development activities in 1989. The arrival of digital photography was bringing changes for all manufacturers of photographic products based on analog or film processes. However, the company had accumulated a large collection of Polaroid photos made by artists, largely through the Artist Support Program led by Edwin Land and Ansel Adams (1960, Artist Support Program). In 2008, the company went bankrupt. After a lot of experimentation, instant-film manufacturer Florian Kaps founded The Impossible Project and acquired the Polaroid collection. It was then auctioned off to different institutions and private collectors. The majority will be conserved at WestLicht Museum in Vienna and at the MIT Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts (see Barbara Hitchcock’s “The Polaroid Story: Inside the Company That Gave the World Instant Photography,” FT Magazine, June 16, 2017).
Today, there are new Polaroid-type cameras on the market made by Fuji. They’re not the same products, but the principle is the same. The design is new, and the advertising targets young people who are really interested in “vintage” things in general. So in the era of digital photography, which is a sort of realization of the dream of Edwin Land, the interest in Polaroid has been rekindled. Photography specialists and art historians are rediscovering a rich source of creativity nourished by Polaroid. Their analysis and reflections lead to publications and exhibitions, like this exhibition by the Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography, in collaboration with WestLicht and MIT, presented at the McCord Museum.
PL: The exhibition presents the work of the artists as well as the cameras with which they created their images. Why was it important for you to present the tool? Is there a danger that people will be more interested in the cameras than the art?
HS: The exhibition is intended to highlight and honour the work of Edwin Land, the inventor of Polaroid, for his technological genius and the artistic reach of his invention. The exhibition’s title, The Polaroid Project, directly refers to Edwin Land’s dream and the development of these cameras and especially the film. The project included artists who explored the possibilities of Polaroid and helped improve it: the Artist Support Program. The art and the technology are showcased in this exhibition: they complement and nourish each other.
PL: Where do you think this renewed interest in instant photography will lead in one, five or ten years? Is it here to stay or is it a temporary trend?
HS: Instant photography is well established in our society, thanks to the digital process, like how we use our cell phones. We can make an instant photo, and the photographer and sometimes the subject can react immediately to that captured image, like Polaroid did in its time. One difference when it comes to Polaroid is that it creates a print, a physical object to hold in your hands, and it can’t be retouched. Digital photography is here for good and will continue to improve. Are the new cameras that imitate the 1970s-era Polaroids here to last? I think that’s a trend driven by economic interests, but the process will remain and continue to be an important part of the history of photography. There will always be Polaroid enthusiasts.