Polaroid Visionaries
In the hands of artists, instant photography emerges as a captivating medium, where spontaneity and intention converge to create evocative visual narratives

“Andy Warhol Taking a Polaroid Picture while Sitting with Jack Ford and Bianca Jagger in the Truman Balcony” (1975). The U.S. National Archives.

Inspired by SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS! Stanley Greens Intimate Dairy in Letters and Polaroids, the current exhibition at the Galerie de Buci, in this article we examine how the polaroid, an innovative type of medium that brought immediacy to the time-consuming realm of photography, has been and continues to be used by artists across the world. In our exhibition, Stanley Greene, a master of war photography, turned to a Polaroid camera to depict a love story. Join us to explore the works of icons like Andy Warhol or David Hockney, of Ansel Adams, one of the first ones to experiment with instant photography, and of contemporary artists Lucas Samaras and Ryan McGinley, to discover the fascinating ways in which other artists have played with this small yet powerful medium.
Serie "Anna. Moscow”, 2001 © Stanley Greene / Private collection
In 1948, Edwin Land introduced the world to polaroid photography, altering forever the way we engage with images. The invention of polaroids arguably marked a transformative moment in photography, bringing immediacy to the process. By allowing photographers to develop and witness their images in minutes rather than days, polaroids not only democratized photography but also opened up new artistic possibilities, fostering experimentation and spontaneity in visual storytelling. But beyond their technical innovation, polaroids can also hold a unique nostalgic charm, capturing moments with a tangible immediacy that resonates emotionally. From the spontaneous snapshots of everyday life to the carefully composed works of renowned artists, Polaroids encapsulate a broad spectrum of cultural expressions. Keep reading to find out how five different artists, from the very invention of polaroid photography to our day and age, have used and experimented with the medium in their artistic pursuits.

Ansel Adams: pioneer and collaborator
Ansel Adams, the virtuoso of landscape photography, seamlessly blended his meticulous approach with the immediacy of polaroid, revealing a side of his craft often overshadowed by his iconic large-format works. Beyond his role as a masterful photographer, Adams met the founder of the Polaroid company Edwin Land in 1948, and he was a notable collaborator with them, contributing to the development and refinement of their instant film technology bringing in the perspective of an artist. Amidst his vast body of work, his polaroid endeavors stand out, offering a more spontaneous and approachable facet of his artistic exploration. One example is the "Test Photographs of Yosemite National Park," where Adams captured the ephemeral beauty of a waterfall, depicting it several times with slight variations, such as in the aperture setting, developing time or use of a filter, which he then sent back to the company. This collaboration not only enriched Adams' creative palette but also contributed to the broader evolution of instant photography, highlighting the symbiotic relationship between artistic visionaries and technological innovation in the realm of visual storytelling.

«The negative is comparable to the composer’s score and the print to its performance. Each performance differs in subtle ways».

“TEST PHOTOGRAPHS OF YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK USING SX-70 FILM, MAY 1973”.Polaroid Corporation records, Series IV: photographs and correspondence of Polaroid consultant photographer Ansel Adams, Baker Library, Harvard Business School

Andy Warhol's instant icons
In the effervescent landscape of 1970s New York, Andy Warhol, iconic figure of pop art, embraced the polaroid as a tool to distill the essence of his avant-garde vision. Inside The Factory, his famous creative enclave, Warhol's polaroid camera became an extension of his artistic exploration. Polaroid’s immediacy and casual authenticity perfectly matched Warhol's style, allowing him to capture everyday moments and iconic faces in real-time, aligning seamlessly with his avant-garde vision. One notable capture is a candid portrayal of Debbie Harry, the Blondie singer, bathed in the ambient glow of Warhol's studio lighting—a striking fusion of celebrity and artistic intimacy. Another compelling moment is found in a polaroid featuring Jean-Michel Basquiat, providing an unguarded glimpse into the enigmatic artist's world. These polaroids, far from staged or posed, serve as unfiltered windows into the zeitgeist of the era. Warhol's lens, unencumbered by formality, captured the raw energy and allure of cultural icons in their candid authenticity. As visual artifacts, these snapshots transcend the boundaries of traditional celebrity portraiture, offering viewers an immersive journey into the vibrant tapestry of 1970s New York, as seen through Warhol's unapologetically candid and perceptive eye.

«A picture means I know where I was every minute. That’s why I take pictures».
“Andy Warhol Taking a Polaroid Picture while Sitting with Jack Ford and Bianca Jagger in the Truman Balcony” (1975). The U.S. National Archives.

David Hockney's kaleidoscopic visions
David Hockney, the visionary artist celebrated for his innovation in contemporary representation, embraced the polaroid medium with an avant-garde approach that fits with his distinctive artistic voice. In the 1980s, Hockney's explorations with polaroid resulted in a truly original series, "Joiners," where he defied the traditional confines of a single frame. Instead, Hockney arranged a mosaic of these small images to construct a singular, larger picture, challenging the conventional boundaries of photography. He made up to 150 different collages of this type, with subject matters that ranged from his ubiquitous blue swimming pools, to portraits of close friends or depictions of landscapes. This experimental use of polaroid not only showcased Hockney's technical ingenuity but also marked a paradigm shift in the perception of photographic art, almost echoing cubist ideas about the deconstruction and reconstruction of visual elements. By combining them in such ways, Hockney escapes the restrictions of a polaroid’s instant-limited medium and is able to use time, and the changes it inevitably brings, as another artistic tool. Embracing the dimension of time, he portrays slight differences in his compositions that turn his pieces into much more interesting depictions, inviting viewers into a multi-perspective exploration of time and space.

«The ideas were based on Cubism in the way that it bases things down to an essence… It worked so well that I couldn’t believe what was happening when I looked at it. I saw all these different spaces and I thought: “My God! I’ve never seen anything like this in photography”».
Gregory, Los Angeles, March 31st 1982, 1982. Composite polaroid. Collection of the artist. © David Hockney. Photography by Richard Schmidt

Lucas Samaras’ bold experimentation
Lucas Samaras was an influential Greek-American contemporary artist celebrated for his innovative contributions to visual arts, among which is his unique and experimental photography, as well as his immersive installations and sculptural works. In 1969, he stumbled upon the transformative potential of the polaroid camera, which quickly evolved into a creative catalyst. Inside his modest one-bedroom apartment, Samaras utilized the polaroid medium to create hybrid photograph-paintings. Exploiting a production error that rendered some polaroid prints susceptible to temporary manipulation beneath their protective coat, Samaras seized the opportunity to craft surreal scenes which he named “Photo-Transformations.” Within these inventive compositions, often featuring nude self-portraits altered with dots and swirls, his body or its fragments emerge amidst eclectic whirlwinds of color and forms. The overall innovative process to create them is testimony to the importance of experimentation in art, and radically expanded the scope of a polaroid’s possibilities.

«Photographing myself and discovering unknown territories of my surface self causes an interesting psychological confrontation».
Lucas Samaras “Photo-Transformation, ”1976. The Museum of Modern Art/SCALA, via Art Resource, NY

Ryan McGinley and the spirit of a generation
Ryan McGinley, a contemporary force in photography, has wielded polaroid with a distinctive blend of spontaneity and raw energy, capturing the essence of a generation's unbridled spirit. Renowned for his immersive approach to documenting youth culture, McGinley uses photography to showcase the hedonistic spirit of the youth around him. From 1998 to 2003, he embarked on a project that led him to take polaroid pictures of anyone who visited his New York apartment, and which ended in a collection of thousands of polaroids . For instance, the portraits of artists Dan Colen and Dash Snow, or actress Chloë Sevigny offer a candid and unvarnished glimpse into the lives of these cultural icons, capturing the raw energy and spontaneity of the moment. The instant nature of this medium aligns seamlessly with McGinley's ethos, allowing him to encapsulate fleeting moments of uninhibited freedom and joy. McGinley's polaroids not only serve as snapshots but also as windows into the uninhibited lives of his subjects, offering a dynamic and unvarnished portrayal of contemporary youth culture that resonates with authenticity and uninhibited optimism.

«My photographs are a celebration of life, fun and the beautiful. They are a world that doesn't exist».
Ryan McGinley “Dash (1:33am) May 19, 2001” © Ryan McGinley

Overall, the cultural tapestry woven by instant photography transcends mere tiny snapshots, and it has had a profound impact on the realms of memory, creativity, and artistic expression. Polaroids not only democratized photography but also cultivated a cultural phenomenon, and right from their invention artists realized the potential of such a medium, experimenting with it to create truly beautiful, mind-blowing results. However, in all of them, the essential quality of the polaroid remains: immediacy. At our current exhibition “SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS!,”acclaimed war photographer Stanley Greene turned this immediacy into a depiction of intimacy. Come to the Galerie de Buci to be amazed at the artistic possibilities of this unlikely medium.

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