The Spectacular Story of the Polaroid, As Told by Famous Artists

April 8, 2018

Polaroids were our original attempt to make instant photography a thing of reality and it was so revolutionary at the time of its making that it transformed the photographic medium in ways that can still be felt to this day.

Wishing to demonstrate this technique's gravity and pervasiveness, the upcoming exhibition at tge Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe in Hamburg, appropriately titled The Polaroid Project, will place the Polaroid phenomenon at the crossroads between art and technology.

The show will do so through images taken by outstanding artists ranging from Ansel Adams to Andy Warhol, all of which used the medium of the instant photo to blaze new trails with their art. As a result, these photographers left a lasting mark on the aesthetics of their respective eras.

Ellen Carey - Pulls (CMY), 1997 - Dennis Hopper - Los Angeles, Back Alley, 1987
Left: Ellen Carey - Pulls (CMY), 1997. Polaroid 20x24, Polacolor - Montage, Polacolor assemblage © Ellen Carey, Jayne H. Baum Gallery, NYC, NY and M+B Gallery, LA / Right: Dennis Hopper - Los Angeles, Back Alley, 1987. Polaroid SX-70, © Dennis Hopper, Courtesy of The Hopper Art Trust

The Origins of the Polaroid Photography

When Edwin H. Land presented instant camera film to the public for the first time in 1947 in New York City, it became clear that this new technology was about to revolutionize the way people took pictures. Polaroids shortened the time needed to make, develop and view a photograph, substituting the traditional process with just a few minutes of waiting. Needless to say, it was a true milestone in the history of photography .

This was the beginning of a revolutionary mode of picture-making, one that still lives on today both in digital photography and in the spirit of sharing snapshots or selfies in online photo portals.

We should also note that the Polaroid inventor himself worked closely with photographers and artists from the very start - one of the earliest advisors to Edwin H. Land was none other than Ansel Adams, the godfather of American landscape photography.

Model 95 camera, 1948 - Shelby Lee Adams - Esther and Bee Jay, 1991
Left: Model 95 camera, 1948 © MIT Museum, Cambridge, MA / Right: Shelby Lee Adams - Esther and Bee Jay, 1991. Polaroid Polapan 4x5 Type 52 © Shelby Lee Adams

The Polaroid Project

Featuring a total of about 240 photos by 120 artists, The Polaroid Project shall shed new light on the aesthetic spectrum of instant photography.

The images on view range from the ones made during the early days of 1955 all the way through to those taken in 2015. Naturally, a special accent will be placed on the art made throughout the 1980s and 1990s, a period during which many believe the medium reached its aesthetic and conceptual peak.

The Polaroid Project will also be demonstrating 87 camera models and prototypes that made this visual revolution of instant images possible in the first place.

This look at the very technology behind instant photography shows that the creativity of Edwin H. Land and his team of scientists and engineers was a worthy match for what artists would subsequently do with the new medium.

James Nitsch - Razor Blade, 1976 - Bruce Charlesworth - Untitled, 1979
Left: James Nitsch - Razor Blade, 1976. Polaroid SX-70 assemblage with razor blade © James Nitsch / Right: Bruce Charlesworth - Untitled, 1979. Hand-painted Polaroid SX-70 © Bruce Charlesworth

A Rich Diversity of Polaroids

Due to its rich variety of selected pieces, the forthcoming show will naturally reflect many different artistic approaches to Polaroids, but also the temperaments of the artists who were holding the camera. Since all of them were fond of experimenting, The Polaroid Project will be demonstrating the diverse characteristics of the materials and techniques Polaroid photography can be combined with.

The show's spectrum ranges from the popular SX-70 snapshots made in their distinctive white paper frames, to Polacolor, black-and-white films in medium format and all the way to the large 20” x 24” (50 x 61 cm) Polaroids with their fascinating richness of detail.

The lively exchange between the art world and the new technology was the basis for the spectacular Polaroid Collection, a gradually amassed assortment of photos kept in Cambridge, Massachusetts since the 1960s.

The Polaroid Project shall also be the first exhibition to combine this incredible American collection with its European counterpart, the International Polaroid Collection, which was originally based in Amsterdam. With additional photographs loaned by artists or their executors, along with objects from the MIT Museum in Cambridge, the upcoming show will present the Polaroid phenomenon in all its variety.

Sandi Fellman - Grey Lion, Tokyo, Japan, 1983 - Şahin Kaygun - Nude, 1983
Left: Sandi Fellman - Grey Lion, Tokyo, Japan, 1983. Polaroid Polacolor © Sandi Fellman / Right: Şahin Kaygun - Nude, 1983. Polaroid 600 High Speed, hand colored © Burçak Kaygun, Courtesy OstLicht Collection, Vienna

Artists of the Polaroid Project

From the moment they were granted access to such a technology, the instant availability of the results exerted a powerful fascination on artists.

Some of them were recording moments in everyday life, others were depicting objects in abstract-looking images, some were capturing fleeting impressions and others were creating expressive self-portraits.

Ultimately, Polaroids proved ideal for collages, overpainting and experiments with chemicals. It orchestered a new wave of completely nonrepresentational pictorial inventions.

The Polaroid Project will be featuring works by such artists as Ansel Adams, Nobuyoshi Araki, Sibylle Bergemann, Anna and Bernhard Blume, Guy Bourdin, Ellen Carey, Chuck Close, Barbara Crane, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Harold Edgerton, Walker Evans, Gisèle Freund, Toto Frima, Luigi Ghirri, Hans Hansen, David Hockney, Dennis Hopper, Barbara Kasten, André Kertesz, Ulrich Mack, Robert Mapplethorpe, Robert Rauschenberg, Toshio Shibata, Andy Warhol, William Wegman, and many others.

Auke Bergsma - Woman Walking, 1981 - Andy Warhol - Andy Sneezing, 1978
Left: Auke Bergsma - Woman Walking, 1981, Polaroid SX-70 Time Zero © Auke Bergsma, Courtesy OstLicht Collection Vienna / Right: Andy Warhol - Andy Sneezing, 1978, Polaroid SX-70 © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Courtesy OstLicht Collection Vienna

The Show's Structure

The Polaroid Project will be divided into eight chapters, all of which shall be illustrating various approaches to using Polaroids. These sections will be titled as Interrogations, Observations, Impressions, Configurations, Expressions, Theaters, Arrangements and Instantaneity.

Of course, the exhibition catalogue is being published as well - it will be titled as "The Polaroid Project: At the Intersection of Art and Technology" and FEP (Federation of European Photographers) will be the one doing the publishing.

André Kertész - August 13, 1979 - Luigi Ghirri - World No. 1, 1980
Left: André Kertész - August 13, 1979. Polaroid SX-70 © the Estate of André Kertész, courtesy Stephen Bulger Gallery / Right: Luigi Ghirri - World No. 1, 1980. Polaroid 20 x 24 Polacolor © Eredi di Luigi Ghirri, Courtesy OstLicht Collection, Vienna

Polaroid Art Exhibition at Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg

The Polaroid Project will be a delightful playground of creative discoveries as each artist whose work was selected to participate was using the immediate photography technique in his or her own way. With its instant availability, the Polaroid lent itself to new forms of expression, securing a fixed place in the artistic firmament as a result.

The Polaroid Project is on view until the 17th of June 2018 at Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg in Hamburg, Germany.

  Editors’ Tip: The Polaroid Project: At the Intersection of Art and Technology

With an associated, internationally touring exhibition opening in June 2017, The Polaroid Project is the only book to bring together both the outstanding photography created by the artists and photographers Polaroid worked with, alongside the technical objects and artifacts from the MIT Museum archive. Curated by William A. Ewing and Barbara Hitchcock, and with texts from other leading critics, curators and writers that discuss the Polaroid phenomenon in terms of artistic output and lasting legacy on design, technology, society and business, this book is the definitive publication for the many who have a deep love of Polaroid.

Featured images: Guy Bourdin - Charles Jourdan 1978. C-Print © The Guy Bourdin Estate 2017, Courtesy of Louise Alexander Gallery; Oliviero Toscani - Andy Warhol with Camera, 1974. Polaroid Type 105 © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2018; Charles and Ray Eames - SX-70, 1972. Three Film Stills © Eames Office LLC; Three Exhibition Views, Photos by Michaela Hille; Barbara Crane - Private Views, 1981. Polaroid Polacolor 4 x 5 Type 58, © Barbara Crane; Big Shot, 1971-73 © MIT Museum, Cambridge, MA. All images courtesy of Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg.

Follow These Artists

Andy Warhol

Follow These Galleries

Eternity Gallery

Paris, France

Art Gallery at Rockefeller State Park Preserve

Pleasantville, United States of America


New York City, United States of America