The Centrality of Polaroid 55 Film to My Practice
I was one of a group of Boston-Cambridge photographers (including Paul Caponigro, Nicholas Dean, and Walter Chappell) who, around 1960, were among the first to be invited to test the artistic potential of new Polaroid films — after Ansel Adams, who was a consultant to Edwin Land, recommended us. The films they gave us included the large-format positive/negative films being invented and produced at the time: 3-1/4×4-1/4″ and 4×5″.
This began a 50-year intimacy with the Polaroid Corporation, its products, its research team, and its administrative group, one of whom, Eelco Wolf, was responsible for Polaroid’s support of my first monograph in 1988. [Chiarenza: Landscapes of the Mind. Photographs by Carl Chiarenza. Texts by Chiarenza, Estelle Jussim, and Charles Millard. David R. Godine, 1988. ISBN-10: 0879237244.] The instant feedback of the Polaroid process has served me well as a kind of sketching medium ever since. It makes possible moment-to-moment transformations in and on both the collage and the negative as I work out a new image.
In the summer of 1979, I made my last outdoor pictures. That fall, I was one of several photographers invited by the Polaroid Corporation to work with their new 20×24-inch camera, a room-sized monster that occupied a studio from which, in those days, it never escaped (except for a trip with Ansel Adams). I had the help of the camera’s “masters” — JoAnn Verburg and John Reuter. Suddenly I had to find a way to bring the outdoors to the camera. I literally had to reverse my working procedure. I also had to think in color because, at that time, unique-print color positive film was the only material available for the new camera. (I had, of course, experimented with SX-70 color earlier in the 1970s.)
For several days, I brought a strange assortment of objects to Polaroid’s studio. The pictures I made were terrible. But I was challenged. So I began to experiment on my own with a 4×5″ camera and Polaroid instant color film.
After a few intense weeks of experimenting with objects, I turned to papers, fabrics, and foils, out of which I began to construct collages to put before the camera. Eventually I began to get some encouraging results. But I found that in all of the pictures I made, the color was essentially monochromatic. I was apparently trying to make black-and-white pictures with color film. It was clear that I was not a color photographer.
So I continued working in my own studio, now using B&W positive/negative Polaroid materials, and I produced pictures that, while made from constructions of paper, were somehow related to the pictures I had made out in the world. Often they were about the landscape idea. I was learning once again that whatever was represented in a photograph was forced to conform to the medium’s syntax — its optical and tonal properties. I learned from this adventure that I was free to construct pictures composed solely out of discarded materials, light, and photography’s inimitable syntactical characteristics. I felt that I was making the purest kind of photograph of my career. Since 1979 I have not made a photograph outside of my studio.
Some of the ideas coming from this camera experience found their way into an essay I was writing. In it, I argued that pictures, whatever the differences of medium, have as much in common with each other as they might have with whatever they seemed, individually, to represent. I argued that photography, from its first moment, was made to conform to a Renaissance convention for pictorial representation. Furthermore, I argued, photographic pictures were more made than taken. A photograph is literally a piece of paper with an array of shapes and tones that may more or less be controlled and manipulated by the person making it, both at the negative and the positive stages of the process.
I asked, “What new things will we see, how will we respond differently, and what can we learn about the past or the present or the future by remembering that pictures are only pictures made by people and are largely based on learned and inherited conventions?” “Remember,” I said, “pictures are defined and delimited by other people, by their use, and by their contexts.” When I wrote that, of course, I was in the studio making both the thing to be pictured and the photograph that pictured it. [Published as "Notes Toward an Integrated History of Picturemaking" in Afterimage 7:1&2 (Summer, 1979) pp. 35-41); reprinted in Reading into Photography: Selected Essays, 1959-1980. Edited by Thomas Barrow, Shelley Armitage, and William E. Tydeman. University of New Mexico Press, 1982. ISBN-10: 0826305970.]
In 1986, Polaroid produced an experimental black-and-white film for the 20×24″ camera. I was excited, and once again made some pictures in the Polaroid studio. Unlike the color film, the black-and-white material needed to be coated with a sticky fixing material. Curious about what would happen if we didn’t use the sticky fixer immediately as prescribed, I made some images that I left unfixed, some for more than a few years, allowing chance and accident under a variety of conditions to surprise me. And, when I liked what I saw, I selectively fixed areas of the print, the final portion of which was finally fixed nine years after the original exposure.
Most of these experiments, of course, ended up in the trash bin, but a few pleased me very much. In 1990, motivated by responses to the scale of the Polaroid 20×24′s and to the scale achieved by making multiple-image triptychs, I produced a couple of 5×4-foot prints — and I have, on occasion since then, continued to produce large-scale prints. I am still in relatively constant communication with Polaroid folks, especially Barbara Hitchcock who is the Director of the fabulous Polaroid Collection.
When I make pictures, a kind of ritual takes over. I go into the studio, make coffee, choose music, arrange chemistry — and eventually begin playing on the baseboard of a Polaroid MP-4 camera with a random selection of materials from my growing store of the world’s discarded stuff. I set up a light, proceed to add, crumple, tear, or delete pieces of paper, move things around or over or under, change or add lights. There is no plan, no pre-visualized image or event. There is no rational explanation or analysis. I just begin to put things into contact with one another, finding ways for them to complement or conflict with each other.
Intuition, improvisation, and past experience are all there is. This process may go on for hours as I make Polaroids, consider them for possibilities and variations, go back and play some more, make more Polaroids, which function as sketches along the way. Often, these “sketches” seem to take over and direct the evolution of the picture.
Before entering the darkroom, I make maquettes out of the 4×5″ Polaroid contact prints. These serve as models to help me visualize the necessary darkroom manipulation for the finished image. The manipulation in the darkroom is a natural extension of what I do with light in the making of the negatives. Here, not unlike other photographers, I use a wide variety of dodging and burning tools and masks to control the light coming through the negative to the paper. I use my hands; my shoulders, sometimes even bare light. To get the right emotional resonance in a print, I will push the recalcitrant materials any way I can. (For a Quicktime slideshow tour of Chiarenza’s darkroom, click here.)
The loss of Polaroid 55 PN film is devastating for me. Its importance for my work should be apparent from the above comments. There is no substitute material which I could use to work the way I have for almost 50 years. I may have to stop making new work using the materials and techniques I’ve refined over several decades unless (and I pray that) someone or some manufacturer — Fuji? Ilford? Freestyle’s sources? — sees the mutual value in creating a substitute film.
I have been urged to go digital, either as a direct-substitute method or as an aid for continuous visualization of the collage and lighting changes as I work to a final image — and then, once satisfied by what I see on a screen, to exchange the digital camera for an analog camera with conventional negative film (as long as that remains in existence!). But that will never be an adequate working method for me.
If I were half my age I might consider it. (A digital ambassador told me it is too late for me — that it would shorten my life and/or drive me crazy. Another encourages me by extolling the virtues of new B&W papers and increasing resolution, etc., etc.) Certainly it is advisable for younger workers.
Once my film refrigerator is empty I will be forced to make a decision. Whatever I do, certainly I will continue to make some kind of art, however different the method that my muse opens up for me. Perhaps I will montage old shards, or reconstruct past images, or print negatives never before worked on. But I suspect nothing will reward me the way Polaroid 55 has.
As with my life’s past, a door will open before me and show the way!
Text copyright © 2009 by Carl Chiarenza. All rights reserved. Published by permission of the author. “The Robert Fichter is a 2009 computer-modified version of a Bill Edwards image of me at my exhibition ‘Carl Chiarenza, Recent Trends,’ Spectrum Gallery, Rochester, NY, Sept. 10-Oct. 29, 1999. Fichter exchanged these sections of a famous San Francisco postcard for my framed prints.” Photographs courtesy of Carl Chiarenza, copyright © by the photographers. To contact Carl Chiarenza, email him at carl [DOT] chiarenza [AT] gmail [DOT] com.
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