Ultimate Expression: Polaroid, Google, and A New American Picture 

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Edwin Land, revealing his invention in 1947. Image courtesy Princeton Architectural Press.

Say the word “Polaroid” today and it evokes genuine nostalgia that reaches back to 1948, when the Land Camera, the first camera capable of providing pictures more or less instantly, hit the market—and it simultaneously conjures a contemporary retro-chic aesthetic that seems like it will be in vogue for the foreseeable future. In the recently released Instant: The Story of Polaroid, Christopher Bonanos fulfills the promise of his book’s title, compellingly describing how Edwin Land and the team he created at Polaroid established an indelible legacy on international visual culture, and identified technologically-spurred expectations and desires that foreshadowed the role of the image in the age of the Internet and social media.

Through a mix of cultural analysis of the Polaroid story as seen through the digital sheen of the early 21st century, and more objective reporting of technical details and first-hand accounts, Bonanos rightfully casts Land as a bona fide visionary. Intensely private and dedicated to his work, Land received his first patent in 1929 for his work with polarizers and how they could be applied practically to headlights, car windshields, windows, and 3-D glasses. But, so the lore goes, he hadn’t framed his work in photography until a 1943 family vacation in New Mexico, when he took a photograph of his daughter, who asked why she had to wait to see the image.

As Bonanos details, it took years of R&D for Land to achieve the Polaroid we are familiar with today, but the road to a click-shoot-print form of photography that became Land’s goal was rooted in a distinctive American postwar mentality. Bonanos writes, “Technology’s ability to solve problems was assumed, and the idea of going back to nature had no currency at all.” This techno-utopian perspective also carried over to how these cameras were marketed and sold, and how the company accepted the earliest models’ flaws and criticisms.

CourtesyPrinceton Architectural Press

The Model 95 Land Camera sold 900,000 units between 1948 and 1953. Clearly, this new technology was hugely popular. But professional photographers were highly critical because, in Bonanos’s words, “it wasn’t real photography, [it] was an amateur’s gadget and nothing more.” How did Land handle such criticism? He put Ansel Adams on a consulting retainer, starting in 1949 at $100 per month, which continued until the famed photographer retired. Adams delighted in the Polaroid experiment and was a keen advocate and technical advisor, helping to bring many other professional photographers on board with the medium’s latest phase, which, as Bonanos points out, resulted in many artists experimenting with Polaroid photographs.

There’s a reason why Steve Jobs looked up to Land—both men understood the importance of marketing and design when promoting a product, which at its core sprung from a corporate culture that all employees identified with and their enthusiasm and devotion propelled everything else. In 1957, Mero Marston Morse, who had worked with Land since 1944, wrote a memo to a new hire that encapsulates the primary directive behind the work that was taking place at Polaroid: “make our kind of photography an indigenous American art.”

Doug Rickard, #82.948842, Detroit, MI (2009), 2010

While the means of image capturing employed by Polaroid products and by Doug Rickard in his A New American Picture are completely different, they both embrace the instantaneousness of the image as “an indigenous American art.” If Land and his team initiated the process of providing America with the ability of “ultimate expression” in the form of, in his words from 1970, a camera “which you would use not on the occasion of parties only, or of trips only, or when your grandchildren came to see you, but a camera that you would use as often as your pencil or eyeglasses,” Rickard’s work results from the digital ease and immediacy of the 21st century. Using a 35mm digital camera to photograph screenshots he composes using Google Street View, Rickard has created a new perspective on perspective.

Courtesy D.A.P.

Training his gaze on impoverished communities across the United States, Rickard produces photographs of washed-out, low-resolution images that render the forms and figures that inhabit the frame as symbols that certainly speak to locations like Baltimore, Maryland, and Port Arthur, Texas—but that also resonate on a far broader level, calling into question our current relationship to the photographic image. In an interview included in A New American Picture, Erin O’Toole asks Rickard about the inevitability of humans entering these Google-generated archives. Rickard replies, “The social subtext was really boosted by the fact that Google blurred their faces to make them unrecognizable. The subjects then are really symbols or icons, and not individuals.” The man mowing his lawn in Balmorhea, Texas; the people sitting under two wind-whipped palm tress in an empty lot in Pahokee, Florida; the woman walking on the sidewalk in front of a rundown house in Houston—the scenes possess a flat, cave-art quality; they do not humanize these places, but they do make clear how many Americans, and people across the globe, understand the world as mediated through anonymous and indifferent digital interfaces that can be passed over as quickly as they are called up. Rickard’s images freeze that moment between discovery and disregard, which is a process we all too freely engage in, thanks to technology’s incessant flood of information.

Doug Rickard, #95.371514, Houston, TX (2008), 2011

Two Susan Sontag passages from On Photography come to mind when considering Rickard’s book: “Photography expresses the American impatience with reality” and “its main effect is to convert the world into a department store or museum-without-walls in which every subject is depreciated into an article of consumption, promoted into an item for aesthetic appreciation.” Google’s mission to photographically document every inch of the country—and the world—supports Sontag’s assertions. The willingness of people to see such images, or any photographs ricocheting around the Internet, as “reality” is what requires examination. The existence of so many digital photographic images is, in many ways, secondary. It’s a complex dynamic t
o be sure, one that ensnares all photographers, and though Rickard’s work hangs in museums and galleries and has become a commodity, it approaches the complexities of our relationship with the image better than any work I have seen. It very much hews to another Sontag edict: “photographs do not explain; they acknowledge.”

The process of photographic image-making has evolved profoundly since the advent of the medium. But for all that might happen in the future, there will be no back-to-nature movement, and technology, as it did for Land, holds the answers to all progress. In extolling the “visibly juicy” colors of Polaroid photographs, Bonanos rightfully identifies why people remain attracted to this dated process: “When most every bit of information you see and hear every day is digital, the great mass of it appears consistent and uniform. . . . That eerie near-perfection leaves many people feeling a little bit numb, craving something unpredictable.” This is true, but Rickard’s A New American Picture proves that digital image-making is far from perfect and if people really took the time to examine it, what such images reveal is unnerving and vital to any understanding of the future, whether in terms of photography or on the larger and more important scale of human interaction.

An exhibition of photos from A New American Picture is on view at New York City’s Yossi Milo Gallery through November 24 .