Last month, when I wrote about the sterile world of infinite choice, a reader named Terryn left a short comment about how she was countering that sterility in her own life: by spending the summer taking pictures on polaroids. She linked to a brief newsletter she’d written about it
This is a gorgeous photo essay that hits close to home. I love the way narrative can take some many forms!
My dad was a chemist for Polaroid for 35 years (!) and worked on making all the dyes that go into the film. My childhood was filled with 'do you like this magenta or that one better?' and a lot of trying things out. He knew it could never be as 'good' in instant, in terms of close to real life, but then I love the way a 'Polaroid' feel has meant these kinds of (fading) colors, more like an artistic lens and a memory. There was something special about instant + tangible. I think he really believed he was helping people bring these memories to life and change the way they experienced everyday things.
I loved this - had not thought about church directory photos (ours did them in the fellowship hall) in a long time. And love theory! What a perfect term for how beautiful I look in photos my friends take.
I unfortunately missed the infinite choice article when it was posted, but as a polaroid lover myself, I was excited to see this expanded upon. Tying this back to infinite choice a bit more, I think a lot about Walter Benjamin's piece on the Reproduction of Art in the Mechanical Age. Basically, he argues that originals have an 'aura' to them, as part of their uniqueness. A theater performance has an aura that a movie or film of that theater performance does not. Michaelangelo's David has an aura, that Michael Jackson's Neverland exact replica (same quarry and everything) does not. A concert has an aura that a CD does not. And polaroids -- film photography in general, probably -- has an aura that digital photography does not.
I'll belatedly comment on the infinite choice article too, but I think that the blah-ness of our digital realm comes back to a human search for authenticity. Our digital world simply lacks the authenticity that we are all subconsciously searching for. I worked on a ranch in Wyoming through the mid 2010s where we didnt have great cell service, and no wifi. We went to the public library to check out DVDs, or even bought VHS tapes at the thrift store to watch on the old tv above the barn. When I'm in town, I'll sometimes wonder what to do that night, and then think, "well it's Wednesday, so if I go to karaoke at this bar, I'll end up running into somebody." We barely used our phones, and to this day I think I'd be happier with a dumber phone. We were all so happy at the ranch, and I think that authenticity was a big part of it.
Naturally, the ranch is where I even started taking photos with a polaroid myself. I'd put a moratorium on looking at the new pics during a party, so the next day we'd all pass them around, seeing them for the first time 12 hours later. You know, it's actually hard to look bad in a polaroid? I swear theres some type of magic to them. There is a je ne sais quoi to them....an aura.
Benjamin's essay is 1920s academically dense text. So I don't necessarily recommend reading it. But I bet that if you think about the experiences that you value, they're ones that cannot be reproduced, that have an aura to them.
Beautiful essay. A gorgeous and tender read to start a Sunday.
What's the relationship between beauty and scarcity? The emphemerality and expense of film makes these photos really dear.
Such a beautiful interview with a lovely creative artist! Such memories it brought back. My Dad LOVED being the family photographer and loved anything new. We had all the cameras! I remember the Polaroid Land Camera. We had the Polaroid SX-70 and still have loads of photos he took with it. There are so many posed photos of every family member and groups--his own Love Theory shined through.
The Labor Day photo feels so tender to me, with the light being so low -- it’s hard to see details, so the emphasis shifts to gesture and posture, which is intimate and loving, an act of care. It feels very personal and also timeless, especially in black and white! Terryn you’re generous to share these with us!
My thrifty New England dad was a photography enthusiast who built a darkroom in our basement and owned multiple conventional cameras. But never a Polaroid. He felt Polaroid was a poor value because the film was expensive and the pictures faded so quickly. That makes me doubly intrigued by this project, both for its expression of art, and since Polaroid was out of reach for me.
I love this: “And I want to be captured honestly, and I think you get that honesty when there is love behind the lens.”
I picked up a 1950s film camera during the pandemic and it helped me slow down and be intentional about what I’m shooting. When I get the film back, there’s always something unexpected.
I loved this. I had a hand me down Polaroid from my grandfather when I was a kid (I suspect it was a pretty early model as he tended to be an early adopter) and the photo of Tarryn's dog instantly brought back all the times I tried to photograph my black furred family dog hoping there was enough light to not just get a black blob. I have a couple that came out and they are prized to this day.
I also remember how obsessively I kept count of how many photos I had remaining - that film was expensive (especially on my middle school - junior high allowance) and I think it was only about 15 photos per roll. But I also have a clear memory of every truly good picture I ever took with my Polaroid (my favorite being the time I captured a rainbow over our neighbors' house) which is very much not the case with my phone pics.
Wowowow this is fantastic and dammit, you make it so difficult to get up and go to work, all these links I'm dying to click!
A very wise mentor of mine once said "we don't take pictures, we make pictures." As an editorial photojournalist, this sorta became my mantra. Feels like it fits here, too.
"It makes me laugh because the vibe in this Polaroid gives 1980s rattan peacock chair vibes."
YES IT DO and I swear I have a similar photo of my dog from the 80s. Thank you for the reminder that physical media hits physically, in a way that digital just doesn't, because of the stakes of taking up space, of materiality.
This also serves as a reminder that we have a rich community right here.
Great interview! I love instant film for the fact that it is just done - you take the best picture you can and then, that's it, whatever you've got is whatever shows up. The directness and the immediacy are just great, and have a physical object really transforma pictures.
Oh my, THIS. Thank you. I grew up in the south taking polaroids, recently took it back up and this post has filled me with joy and inspiration. @TERRYNGRAMS I look forward to your next newsletter.
I 100% agree on the Love Theory. I think part of it is the POV of someone capturing on film who they love and how they view the subject of that love, and part of it is that as the subject, one’s expression and posture are softer, kinder, less guarded or formal, and perhaps there is a bit more patience or indulgence on both sides. In my mind, the best photos are the candids by a loved one, then come the posed ones taken by a loved one, and them it seems like you need a seriously good professional to get anything close to as good. (And good light and a good hair day don’t hurt, either.)
"love is not just a verb, it's you looking in the mirror" - Kendrick Lamar (Poetic Justic)