What is the appeal of the Polaroid photograph? The more you think about it, the more it becomes obvious that its appeal derives from what you could call its aura: We treasure these photographs not for what they are, but for what we make of them. Polaroid photographs are one-of-a-kind (let’s ignore those processes where there is a negative), and they typically are not very good photographs in a strictly technical sense: The colours tend to be off, they’re often slightly hazy, and many of them suffer from the various artifacts that can happen when the image doesn’t develop properly. But all of these properties, which most of us would happily reject for other types of photography (excluding, perhaps, those few artists who work with artifacts), for a Polaroid are taken as genuine strengths. (more)
Don’t believe me? Well, then first of all I’d like to point out that Fuji’s Instax cameras have failed to generate the same kind of excitement. If you’ve seen those images you will immediately see why: They’re too perfect. Those cameras are still around, but people will rather pay quadruple the price (or more) to buy film from the people who are trying to bring Polaroid film back (“The Impossible Project”) than simply use Instax cameras and film.
Now that digital photography is upon us, the immediacy of the Polaroid image also is (partly) gone: You get an image on the back of your digital camera before a Polaroid, fresh out of its camera, would even start to change from its initial uniform greyness. But digital is too perfect, too, albeit in a different way. Each digital image has exactly the same problem, whereas Polaroid photographs all have slightly different problems, even when they’re from the same package of film, used in the same camera.
In fact, the appeal of the Polaroid is so strong that people developed “apps” for iPhones that mimic that look: A bit too blue, somewhat fuzzy, with a border around it. It is no surprise, I think, that many photojournalists have embraced that app, because ultimately, the appeal is: This looks real. Polaroids are one-of-a-kind, and they’re real. Digital photographs are not real. I’m not saying that I actually believe in any of this stuff. But that’s how these images are viewed.
So now the (considerable!) irony is that photojournalists heavily process photographs taken with a crappy camera phone to produce images that people would rather believe in (or maybe be interested in) than in the high-end photographs produced with digital SLRs. And most news media who will happily hound down a photographer who dares to use just a teeny little bit too much Photoshop will reprint “Hipstamatic” war photos without even blinking an eye. If I was a journalism teacher I would have long thrown up my arms in horror.
Given that Polaroid stopped manufacturing the film that made them famous, nostalgia has set in. It’s no surprise that there are more and more books featuring Polaroids kept by well-known photographers. Most of them are not very good. Let’s face it, looking at these books often is a bit like going to an amusement park: Part of the entertainment actually comes from the fact that you expect to be entertained. It’s Polaroids, so it’s got to be good.
Sibylle Bergemann’s Polaroids is a welcome exception: Here is a book of Polaroids that is worth every second you are going to spend with it. Bergemann, an East German photographer with a diverse portfolio of work, used Polaroid cameras for all kinds of purposes, to produce quick images of some of her fashion work as well as to capture little moments in time. The book assembles these often very different images, to produce a coherent, lyrical whole.
It’s easy to simply look at the nostalgia or the superficial in Polaroid photographs, but Bergemann easily makes you look beyond that: You’re looking at good photographs that happen to have come out of a Polaroid camera. It is, after all, not the camera that makes good pictures - it is their maker, the photographer.
Polaroids, photographs by Sibylle Bergemann, essay by Jutta Voigt, 200 pages, Hatje Cantz, 2011
(if you’re curious to see the book, have a look at this photobook presentation I produced the other day)