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Polaroid photographs as art: timeless visions, not instant images

Legacy of Light, edited by Constance Sullivan. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 205 illustrations. $50. The public's demand for a quick and easy photography has long been at odds with the artist's understanding of the medium. In his convivial reflections on photography, Oliver Wendell Holmes (the physician-journalist, not his famous jurist son) remarked that ``the very things which an artist would leave out, or render imperfectly, the photograph takes infinite care with, and so makes its illusions perfect.''

Holmes was referring to the notion, frequently articulated by painters who practiced photography, that without imaginative intervention, the photographic image was mechanical. Gustave LeGray, a mid-19th-century French photographer and theorist, spoke for many when he argued that ``only the artist or the man of taste'' could produce perfect camera work because he alone possessed the discriminating sensibility to extinguish detail, thereby creating an overall aesthetic harmony.

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But the public wanted detail - lots of it, with no lingering in the darkroom. Artists and critics assessed this public predilection as the equivalent of the taste for penny novels and stucco gewgaws. Quick and easy photography became an integer and indicator of the decline of high art.

The durability of these opposing definitions of photography is evident in contemporary use of the Polaroid camera. Developed by Edwin H. Land and introduced by him in 1947, the ``one-step photographic system'' successfully combined camera and darkroom. As Land promised, the technique allowed the photographer to ``observe his work and his subject simultaneously.'' But Land articulated another promise - a hope actually - that drew his invention into the long-standing conundrum of instantaneous photography. He suggested that ``by removing most of the manipulative barriers between the photographer and the photograph'' he could bring the satisfaction of the medium to the general public.

Land's was a quintessentially American aspiration, one framed early in photography's history by Samuel F.B. Morse and Ralph Waldo Emerson. But the hope that photography would be a widely practiced, democratic art has had to countenance the prejudice against quick and easy photography as coarse, inartistic, and anti-intellectual.

Land knew that the purchasers of Polaroid cameras would be mostly amateur snap-shooters. Still, he was given to scientific experimentation and social dreaming as well as a large measure of market savvy. Just as he allowed his engineers time to think, he would allow artists time to create. From the outset he enlisted established artists like Ansel Adams and Minor White to explore the potentials of his invention.

Yet those artists did not seize the momentary. Instead, Adams insisted that photographers slow down, observing the world's appearances and the ``aesthetic and meaningful relationships therein.'' Only with practice, he contended, could previsualization of the image become ``intuitive and immediate.'' White was similarly disposed to work against ease and instantaneity. ``Easy, simple, anyone can do it,'' he wrote, ``becomes equated with thoughtlessness.''

The Polaroid images reproduced in ``Legacy of Light,'' part of a major exhibition currently at the International Center of Photography in New York City, are as stimulating, intricate, and various as those produced by the other photographic processes. Yet especially in reproduction, so few of them seem to have taken advantage of the instant image. Exciting as they are, Danny Lyon's street scenes, Mary Ellen Mark's grab shots, and Lucas Samaras's photo-transformations cannot shake the gravity and very timelessness conveyed by the majority of works in this collection.

Eternality, not transience, is coaxed into being by many of these pictures. Barbara Kasten's gemlike microworlds abide in the deeply saturated hues of Polacolor film. Richard Pare's balletic nudes dance in classical space, not ours. However instantaneous the individual elements of David Hockney's collage may be, we know that the image was fabricated in thought and time.

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The book is framed by essays all but shorn of history. In a work celebrating the 50th anniversary of Polaroid, Edwin H. Land's name does not appear, save in the phrase, ``Polaroid Land camera.'' One cannot learn of his work nor much about the company's collaboration with artists. This is not the place to find out that Marie Cosindas's mellow portraits have benefited from the new interaction between photographer and subject made possible by the medium, nor that Andy Warhol's self-portraits were part of Land's search for a successful large-format instant photography.

Land was convinced that what Polaroid offered was ``the realization of an impulse: see it, touch it, have it.'' For Polaroid art, at least, the realization of that impulse has been sidetracked in the polemics of photography. As the book's introduction observes, the instant age may be only just beginning.

Mary Warner Marien teaches in the Fine Arts Department at Syracuse University.

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