The Polaroid Picture Was Instantaneous, But It Was Artists Who Made It Eternal


“I don’t know what the hell I’m going to do,” Chuck Close told an NPR interviewer when Polaroid stopped making instant film in 2008. He wasn’t the only artist attached to the medium.

Enlisted as a consultant by Polaroid founder Edwin Land in 1948, Ansel Adams believed the emulsion had “truly superior quality,” as he said in his autobiography. Andy Warhol never went out clubbing without his plastic Big Shot. Lucas Samaras never had to leave his studio once he had an all-in-one system to take selfies day and night. And David Hockney used his SX-70 to reinvent Cubism.

Splitting Image, 2005 by William Wegman

Splitting Image, 2005 by William Wegman

Practically from the day it went on the market, the Polaroid was an icon of instant gratification, perhaps the most perfect embodiment of snapshot populism since Kodak invented the Brownie.

An absorbing exhibition at Vassar’s Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center – featuring the work of thirty-nine artists who extensively used Polaroid – shows that convenience was just one of many merits. And a recent book by Christopher Bonanos, Instant: The Story of Polaroid, helps to fill in the picture.

Each of the artists who embraced Polaroid saw different qualities in the system, some completely unintended by the manufacturer. Using Polaroids as the basis for his photorealist paintings, Close valued the continuous tones produced by the wet chemistry.

5C (Self-Portrait), 1979 by Chuck Close

5C (Self-Portrait), 1979 by Chuck Close

Samaras was drawn to the chemistry in its own right, scraping and smearing the viscous emulsion to make photography painterly. Hockney appreciated the ability to watch his Cubist photomontages develop – both literally and figuratively – as he shot and shuffled multiframe landscapes. As for Warhol, the attraction of the Polaroid was conceptual: Any picture the camera shot was inherently Pop.

October 24, 1979, 1979 by André Kertész

October 24, 1979, 1979 by André Kertész

Though Land wasn’t creatively involved in any of these bodies of work, he did supply free film to the artists he considered most innovative, and solicited their advice on Polaroid products, recognizing that their imagination could be as valuable to his company as advances in mechanical or chemical engineering.

Foodgram #4, 1983 by Robert Heinecken

Foodgram #4, 1983 by Robert Heinecken

Artists’ intense attachment to the Polaroid camera is totally understandable. In a sense they co-invented it.

About the author: Jonathon Keats is an artist and critic who has had his conceptual artwork exhibited in museums and galleries around the world. He regularly writes for Forbes in his Critic-at-Large column. More recently, Keats authored the book “Forged: Why Fakes are the Great Art of Our Age“. This article originally appeared on

Image credit: Header image is Photo Transformation November 7, 1973 by Lucas Samaras. All photos courtesy of The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie.

  • wickerprints

    The mark of a truly innovative medium is how artists find unintended yet imaginative uses for it in their work.

  • bob cooley

    One of the great things about Polaroids was that they were such a restrictive medium (singular form factor, small physical size, very specific and low tonal range) that they make artists and photographers think much harder about how to make interesting art out of them – and the results are often wonderful.

  • Jason Philbrook

    They missed Paul Caponigro. He’s done a whole book or more of absolutely mind blowing B&W intimate landscapes, and I think dedicated it to his counterpart at Polaroid. 55 was a very nice B&W film in the hands of the right people. It wasn’t a restrictive or pop medium.

  • dave W

    I miss P/N 55…good for 4×5 proofs AND a negative for the darkroom…good times

  • Lance Waterman

    The only Polaroid artist is Stefanie Schneider.