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The Polaroid Project

My body of work emerged from my desire to paint over polaroid photos and the contrast between paintings and polaroid photographs. I am intrigued by the abstractness and painterly imagery in the polaroid when the film does not process correctly. I choose to use polaroid cameras because I have an interest in the process within the camera and film. My work centers on the haphazardness of the film development and the medium I choose to alter the polaroid even further. I use paint, fire, and bleach to change the look of the polaroid or recreate the mistakes in the development process. Through my work, I want to convey control and lack of control. I never know how the photo will turn out and I must be okay with that. In my artwork, I both take control and give up control, anything could happen with the film, paint, fire, or chemicals.

The being of my journey using instant cameras throughout my senior year came from the idea of combining paintings and photography. These two mediums are my favorite to work with and I get the most saturation from them. The idea of a painting versus a photograph has been in my work for some time now and I continue to think of new experimental ways to play with that. At first, I was interested in the notion of making impressionistic paintings from my photographs because impressionism started from the creation of cameras. And the idea of using instant photography came to me because the instantaneous photos were even further removed from impressionistic paintings. Impressionists used techniques with their paint that was not available to photographers. Specifically, elements such as color and texture. They would capture the feeling or mood of a scene rather than a literal representation. I wanted to convey these ideas but through the medium they were opposing. While I was experimenting with this idea I bought a SX-70 polaroid camera and some film. The first few shots I took with the camera ended up coming out ruined because I did not use the camera correctly. With this accident, my work shifted to a new and exciting direction.

My work became about experimenting and finding new ways to change the film. When the picture did not develop and turned into a painterly abstract photo instead I knew I wanted to continue making these “mistakes”. There was a sort of beauty in the mistakes and the idea that I could not control how the film would develop. At first, I pushed that idea to recreate the mistakes using paint. I added paint to emphasize the strangely developed film or painted the entire space. The mistakes also remove the possibility of the photo having a narrative. The abstract qualities, the chemistry within the film, and the camera’s process became the main aspects of a piece. The mistakes are the film’s development frozen in time and there was really no way for me to know why this would happen to the film. My entire process became controlled by chance. As an artist and a sort of perfectionist, I want to control exactly the way a painting turns out. But with this new process and artwork, I have to let go of that desire to control. Once I take the picture I let the camera and the film have the control. I am interested in how to come to grips with the uncontrollable to see the process take place. In my art, I use chance and control as a method of letting go. I am conscious of the fact that the polaroid photos will not all be successful. My attempts at controlling the development of the film will fail so why not let go. In a way, I am breaking photography rules and my own art rules by letting go of the control. I have found that it is okay to not have control and to fail. Once I could accept these new ideas I did more experimenting. I continued to use paint and then started to use fire to burn the film and soaked the film in bleach. I took pictures of a rainbow reflective piece of plastic, water in a plastic bag, and anything else I could think of to recreate the mistakes in the film. All the experiments helped me reach the point of understanding what my conceptual ideas are. The experiments are my process and help me mimic the mistakes in film development. In each experiment, I have control over what I chose to photograph, where I put the flame, and what chemicals I use but I will never have complete control of the result. I can only hope that the polaroid photos will not fail.

My process starts with the camera and choosing which I want to use depending on the type of photo. I’ll choose the SX-70 if I want to be able to change the exposure or focus and I’ll choose the polaroid 600 if I want a clearer shot. With the 600 film, I now know what will happen if I burn it or soak it in bleach and how the outcome will be different from the SX-70 film. Some of my film does not develop at all or exposes completely and with those polaroids I decide to use fire to recreate the errors in the development I have control over only a few parts of the cameras. For example, with my SX-70 camera I can control the focus and the exposure but I cannot control the film’s development. This lack of control is what started my whole series and is the inspiration for my show. I also use bleach to affect the film during the development. The bleach and sun caused the film to expose more in some places and created a white crystal-like material on the film. The bleach also melted away the black on the back of the film and that stained the film as well. I do not have a way to describe which photos I think are successful and which are not. I have a feeling that they either look good or do not, it is a certain feeling I get when I look at the polaroid. If I really put it into words, the final photos need to be like the ruined polaroids, have good composition and a complementary color scheme. I enjoy trying to capture something on film that is an in-between state like fire, water, light, and chemical reactions. Not only capturing them in the photo but using them to alter the film as well. I take photos of what can be described as liminal, transitional time, or the initial stage of a process. It is almost like catching something unexplainable and invisible to the naked eye with photos.

I am strongly influenced by Polaroid film and cameras as well as the company and the founder. The founder of polaroid is Edwin Land and his philosophy surrounding business is a huge part of why Polaroid became a successful brand and why it was brought back from the dead by the Impossible Project. He believed that the company should not be about selling or making tons of money but to give people a product that would instantly produce a picture. Even polaroid’s slogan represented this, “It’s more than a camera, it’s almost alive”. I am also influenced by my own experiences and my need for control. Without realizing it I have been using my artwork to give up control and teach myself how to deal with that.

I took inspiration from a myriad of artists. I was inspired by abstract artists, impressionist artists, photographers, and artists that were using similar methods as I am. The first artist I am inspired by is James Benjamin Franklin. I found his work online on the Bomb Magazine. He paints abstract paintings on huge homemade canvases. He uses old fabric and other materials to make his canvases. His work interested me because of the beauty in the colors and the odd-shaped canvases. William Miller is the first artist that I found that was doing similar art to what I am doing. He was also using an SX-70 polaroid camera but his was completely broken, so every photo he took came out ruined. He described his work as removing the narrative and depictive elements of the photos, so the concentration is on the details in the abstraction. His series Ruined Polaroids offers a picture of the polaroid process itself, frozen in time and taken from the camera mid-gesture. Gerhard Richter has also done work similar to mine but on a much larger scale. He uses old photographs and prints them out large and paints over them. His work is like mine in the idea of taking a photo and making it abstracted using paint. Richter addressed painting outside of its traditions and questioned why paint and what makes a painting. He had a fascination with the power of images and painting’s long uneasy relationship with photography. He said this about his work, “I began in 1976, with small abstract paintings that allowed me to do what I had never let myself do: put something down at random”. And “chance as a theme and as a method. A method of allowing something objective to come into being”. Another artist working with polaroid film is Mads Madison. His work is how I got the idea of using bleach to change the chemistry of my photos. He takes polaroids and soaks them in bleach while they are developing and puts them in the sun after. He commented that this process is like what the earth goes through because of the sun. Ajay Malghan is another artist who uses bleach and detergent to change his photos. He pours boiled water mixed with bleach over the film and powder detergent after. And the results are splotches of color and white over the photographs. His work is “pictures from my first albums – shots of flowers and the sky, which were some of the usual places and things I saw every day. I thought it would be nice to make these images look distorted and surreal or even turn reality into a dream (or nightmare).”, and “I've been experimenting with many substances, more or less corrosives, for film manipulation. The images come out so different, that sometimes you can't even recognize them. I like playing with the idea of 'the unknown.'” Mariah Robertson is now a huge inspiration for me. She came upon her current art by mistake. She was a film photographer and used metallic paper for her photos. One of the metallic papers was developed by accident so she decided to experiment with it. She uses developer and to mess with the chemistry of the film. She continued to innovate when the film makes changed the metallic paper to rolls instead of pre-cut paper. When the manufacturer stopped precutting the film she started to use entire rolls of the metallic paper to make beautiful abstract photos. To display the rolls, she hung them on trapeze bars and rolled out on the floor of galleries. When a curator commented that her work is about control she said, “All of your attempts are going to fail at controlling life, so you should let that go so you can actually see what’s happening”. My favorite quote from Mariah about her work is the camera’s “ability to record is also its vulnerability to damage.” This speaks to me because that is exactly what happens with my film. The “mistakes” are showing how the camera’s ability to record can be damaged. And that there is something amazing about letting that vulnerability show through the work.

My artwork has changed and evolved over the past few months. I have gone from not having clue what my senior art would be about or what my show would entail but now I am starting to understand better. Though the exploration of my art and myself I have found my work is about my control. I want to have control of my art but letting go produces a much better outcome. My art has flourished in ways I never thought possible because I let the film take control. And I hope I can continue to work this way. In the future, I want to continue to use instant photography and experiment with new chemicals and ways of changing or recreating the film. I will expand this series and make new versions of the work I am doing now. I am also interested in making art that utilizes the entire process. I want to think of a way to use the cartridges the film comes in and the pieces that cover the film. I want to try a no waste art project with every material that is needed to use a polaroid camera. I also have ideas about taking apart a camera to make a piece from.

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