Is photography over? 

Wim Wenders, Self-portrait, 1975
The renown German film director, Wim Wenders said that it was over for photography and to give credence to his thoughts, he recently made a gift of his Polaroid camera to singer/writer and photographer Patti Smith. Wenders adored Polaroid photography; he used it enthusiastically as a tool for getting ideas for his films. Between 1973 and 1983 he produced over 12,000 images. The Photographers Gallery in London currently has 3,500 of these Polaroids in an exhibition called Instant Stories.
Wenders feels that photography is a thing of the past. “It’s not just the meaning of the image that has changed – the act of looking does not have the same meaning. Now, it’s about showing, sending and maybe remembering. It is no longer essentially about the image. The image for me was always linked to the idea of uniqueness, to a frame and to composition. You produced something that was, in itself, a singular moment. As such, it had a certain sacredness. That whole
notion is gone.”

Like the premature and frequent announcements of painting’s demise, Wenders might have underestimated people’s lack of interest in the “unique image”. Artists have long been fascinated with Polaroid cameras for a number of reasons. A big factor is the excitement of having an instantaneous image form before your eyes. The Polaroid company was always excited to work in partnership with artists.  A Brief History of Polaroids in Art gives an overview of how artists used Polaroids in their work. The Polaroid: The Magic Material by Florian Kaps, the person responsible for the resurrection of the Polaroid, gives an overview of our love affair with this camera. He says “they really introduced a new way of photography …with instant film, every picture is a chemical adventure: the quality is really unpredictable, and they have a very special look and feel.” In the trailer to the book Instant: The Story of Polaroid, the founder of Polaroid, Edwin Land, makes an uncanny prediction in 1970s regarding the future of the camera, “the camera of tomorrow will be something people carry around with them in their wallets and people will be take photographs all the time”. The book is reviewed in Art News. All these recent publications certainly attest to the interest in the Polaroid and to the photographic image as tangible object.

The return of the Polaroid is an interesting story. After hearing that Polaroid was ceasing production of its cameras in 2007, a Dutch-based company called The Impossible Project (started by Florian Kaps) bought all of Polaroid’s old equipment. And then Polaroid found a new owner with Lady Gaga as the creative director. They released a Polaroid in 2010 but theImpossible Project was not happy with the new version, so this month, October 2017, a model based on the original Polaroid will be available in stores. The Impossible Project is now Polaroid Originals.
It is true that our relationship to photography has changed immensely, especially with the easy access to cameras on our phones. Photographs for many have become intangible, immaterial images that last for only a few seconds with a short life span on social media platforms. Many people however are wanting more, and hence the pressure for Polaroid to bring back their cameras. Perhaps its part nostalgia, as fashion photographer Emily Soto describes in her HuffPost article:Why I Still Love to Shoot with Instant Film. But maybe people do crave the materiality of printed photographs, perhaps the same way we still want to read actual books that we can feel and touch. Maybe we still want to see photographs as a way to capture a singular moment. But like painting which has been on death’s door since the 1960s, our desire for the photographic image as object will continue to thrive and do well. Of course we see and understand painting and photography in a much different way than we did fifty years ago, but that doesn’t mean it is over for either of those means of artistic expression.
For those of you who might like to take more time hearing what others have to say on this topic, you can watch the videos from a conference at SFMOMA called Is Photography Over?
Wim Wenders, New York Parade, 1972

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