Snap Judgments About the Late, Lamented Polaroid at the Hibbleton

Michelle Arree

Snap judgments about the artistic relevance of the now-obsolete Polaroid, courtesy of ‘Instant Gratification’ at the Hibbleton

Something funny happened on the way to obsolescence for the Polaroid picture: It has, in the words of Newsweek’s Andrew Romano last month, “become a rather ubiquitous signifier of cool. . . . You’d almost think Polaroid is the new black.”

Since Polaroid’s announcement in February 2008 that it would cease producing its instant film, hipsters, amateur cultural anthropologists and not-so-closeted auteurs have made a run on its remaining product in Sav-on and Walgreens stores across the country, evoking the tulip-speculation craze in 17th-century Europe.

There’s a rich irony here: Though Polaroids have been used by avant-garde artists for decades (count Andy Warhol as one of its most enthusiastic patrons), it’s hard for anyone who grew up in the 1970s whose family used a Polaroid as its first-string camera of choice to think of the machine and its instant print products as anything more than an enduring symbol of instant gratification anti-technology. My family’s scrapbooks are filled with brownish-tinted Polaroids. Not because we thought the images were visually exciting, but because no one in the family knew how to properly work a 35mm-film camera. The outpouring of warm feelings over the format’s demise seems more a testament to the power of kitschy nostalgia than artistic relevance.

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But many of the approximately 1,200 Polaroid 600 images on display in “Instant Gratification: A Polaroid Party” aren’t kitschy at all. Though a sizeable chunk of the images inside the Hibbleton Gallery smacks of the human’s seemingly limitless yen for portraits of the self and our feline familiars, there are plenty that make a convincing case that, in the right hands and framed by the right mental lens, the Polaroid is capable of producing provocative, arresting images.

Not that any are easy to find in the exhibit, which is assembled by the OC-based art-mag ISM. With images stacked 11 high on three of the small Fullerton gallery’s walls, it’s nearly impossible to process every piece in the exhibit. But if you’re lucky enough to wander in when there aren’t a lot of people and don’t mind stooping or working your calves, gems do present themselves.

It’s a rather haphazard presentation; if there is a method to the arrangement, it’s hard to ascertain. But even a quick perusal suggests the power of the Polaroid resides in the fact that though the images spurt out instantaneously, they immediately seem old and hazy.

That might be why so many of the prints, culled from a call to Polaroid enthusiasts by ISM that garnered more than 3,500 submissions from America and Western Europe, focus on visual relics. There are shots of old motel and neon signs, battered typewriters and fading diners, televisions, and clothes and images of urban America that, though still wholly functional, seem queerly outdated: Laundromats, power lines, downtown skylines, subway tunnels.

The obvious fun in this exhibit, if you have the time, is to scan the individual prints and make a note of the ones that strike you the most. Then look at the photographer’s name. Invariably, you’ll find yourself drawn to certain artists.

The three whom I found myself spending the most time with were New York’s Daniel Martin Mehrer, Los Angeles’ Chinako Miyamoto and San Pedro’s Sarah Roesslar. Each of Mehrer’s studies of the inexorable encroachment of urban motifs tells a full story in its relatively tiny boundaries, Miyamoto’s studied use of light shows that the Polaroid is quite capable of holding its own against film, and Roesslar’s funky compositions are just sheer fun.

Two of Roesslar’s images in particular seem to capture a couple of the exhibition’s main themes: nostalgia and decay. One is of a vintage red scooter flanked by a number of baby dolls; the other is a deceptively simple image of paint flaking from a piece of concrete. The first speaks of the vagaries of memory as told through juxtaposing archetypal images of adolescent toys; the second suggests a fragmenting globe of the Western Hemisphere.

Each contains a full narrative—something rather astonishing in that the images are conveyed on such a small canvas.

Individually, Roesslar’s images, as do the most stimulating parts of “Instant Gratification,” capture that sense of permanent impermanence that lingers long after you’ve left the exhibit. The Polaroid may be dead, but this show emphatically shows it’s a long way from buried.

“Instant Gratification: A Polaroid Party” at Hibbleton Gallery, 112 W. Wilshire, Ave., Fullerton, (714) 441-2857; Call for gallery hours. Through Aug. 30.

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