By: John Dorfman
“Mama, don’t take my Kodachrome away,” sang Paul Simon back in 1973. Thirty-six years later, in the midst of a digital revolution, Kodachrome is still with us—barely—but lovers of Polaroid are crooning a similar tune. The iconic instant film went out of production in 2008, and remaining supplies are dwindling fast. As features editor Sheila Gibson Stoodley reports in this issue (“Polaroid’s Last Shot,” page 62), among the die-hards are some major artists including Chuck Close, who has long relied on giant Polaroids as reference materials to create his large-format portrait paintings. Others, such as David Hockney, Bill Burke and Rosamond Purcell, have used or still use the film in various ways to make artworks directly.
Artistic media have occasionally gone by the wayside, but mainly because they fell out of favor with artists themselves. Etching edged out copperplate engraving because the latter was so difficult and unforgiving. When commercially prepared paints in tin tubes became available in 1841 (two years after the invention of photography) artists gladly gave up grinding their own colors from minerals and mixing them with oil. But in the case of Polaroid, a medium is being snatched away over the objections of artists who cherish its unique qualities.
Close likes not only the color palette of Polaroid but also the mass of detail that a giant-size Polaroid camera can render on a 20- by 24-inch piece of film. On the other end of the spectrum, Walker Evans found in the elegant, folding Polaroid SX-70 camera (shown at top), which was pocketable and easy to use, a new impetus to creativity and spontaneity during the early 1970s, when his eyes and hands were weakened by age and illness.
As Gibson Stoodley relates, Polaroid film is partly the victim of corporate mismanagement, but it’s also a casualty of the encroaching digital age, which gives new meaning to the word “instant.” Of course, beautiful results are achievable with digital cameras, and many photographers have successfully used the new technology to make good art. Photography, a product of the machine age, has always been subject to change and market forces, as the negative-positive process supplanted daguerreotypes and glass plates gave way to film.
Change is part of the essence of a medium whose specialty is capturing the fleeting moment. But for many photographers and photography collectors, part of what makes a photograph a tangible work of art, a collectible object, is its physical permanence as an object. In the new world of digital, it’s not yet clear what constitutes the object. Is it a bunch of bytes that can disappear forever with the accidental click of a mouse, or a print, devoid of silver particles, made from a computer file? What will be the value of such creations? Time will tell.
And speaking of value, I want to conclude with a bit of welcome good news. As we go to press, Christie’s Paris is reporting astonishing results from its sale of the Yves Saint Laurent collection, which we previewed in our February issue. Despite the economic climate, the first night of the three-day sale alone brought in more than €206 million ($266 million), breaking the record for a single-owner collection ($206 million) set by the Victor and Sally Ganz sale in 1997. Record prices were achieved for Matisse, Brancusi, Mondrian, Duchamp and Ensor, among others. This puts me in mind of what dealer Richard Feigen told our reporter James Panero for his story on the proposed mass deaccession of the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University (page 40). “The whole art market hasn’t turned down … Prices are still very high for things that are fresh to the market.” For the very best, there are still plenty of takers.