A photograph can preserve a moment well past a lifetime, inscribing it with the indelible ink of light. Because it has the power to make time stand still, photography is our ultimate defense against mortality. Part of the magic of photography is in the physics of this art form. Wave packets of light bounce off of a countenance and race through a piece of curved glass to smack into a layer of chemicals and leave a trace of someone who will one day be long gone. Their likeness, a part of their essence, however will remain.
In switching from its analog origins to its digital incarnation, photography has become more affordable, more accessible and therefore distributed and consumed at an unprecedented rate. My ongoing experimentation with the photographic process – a continuous alternation between the old and the new – yields its daily lessons, drop by drop, to this overwhelming ocean of images.
Roughly a year ago, I acquired an updated version of the Polaroid camera – the Fujifilm Instax Mini 8, a sojourn with a popularized, analog slice of the past. Raspberry-red, my bright plastic camera is often mistaken for a (pink) toy, which in a sense it might be (not the pink part!). Toy or not, this rosy contraption is capable of capturing real images, with the added satisfaction of an instantaneous print following the snap and flash. The typical steps between image-capture and a print in hand can be several long hours or even days. My Instax Mini cuts this down to about two and a half minutes!
Memorable Polaroid Moment #1
Ducking around the sober line of his red-kufi’ed security detail to get, not just a perfect digital image, but a Polaroid of the striking figure of Jamaat al Muslimeen leader, Imam Yasin Abu Bakr.
What could be more fun in the heyday of instant gratification? Well, a high quality image for one.
Working with the Instax, as with any camera, has meant creating content on the spot under a variety of lighting conditions and other environmental variables. The two minute delay for an image to appear seems short compared to editing and printing, but can feel like an eternity when waiting around to make adjustments that could enable the recreation of a better version of that shot. A complex set of controls that allow the photographer to account for every variable and capture the image exactly as desired, as with a pro-DSLR, is exchanged for a fixed ISO (light sensitivity) of 800, a focal length set to infinity and a non-negotiable flash. Cute icons for indoors, cloudy, sunny and very sunny denote the photographer’s measure of control over exposure. Oh, and to be fair, the trendy Hi-key setting bumps up the power of the flash. But that’s about it.
Memorable Polaroid Moment #2
Julius Garvey, son of Marcus Garvey, at the home of Twelve Tribes – the son of their prophet visiting the home of the community that revered his father.
In spite of its technical limitations, there is something charming, light-hearted and addictive about this little machine. I can often present a subject with walk-away, wallet-sized memorabilia in the moment of a shoot. The nostalgia of the glossy image with dubious exposure and a fat, white border for hand-written inscriptions transports me to old family albums and simpler times. The happy surprise of a strong capture with this somewhat unpredictable instrument has allowed me to rediscover the magic of great photography. Preparedness, skill, determination, practice and access are all invaluable but nothing beats a healthy dose of luck!
Images that were stronger than expected:
Images that failed completely:
The stack of diminutive pictures made with my Instax Mini occupies a finite but ever increasing physical space. I chose to store these “Polaroids” in yet another technological relic – the Rolodex. Soon, an interesting relationship between life and the moments of life stored within the rotating sleeves of the Rolodex began to emerge. A maximum of only two images is visible at any given time. If I have not made a new “Polaroid” in a while, the content in the displayed images becomes a part of my daily surroundings. Their prolonged presence would seem to imbue that content with importance. One or more new images, however, means that the old ones are exchanged, exactly like life, exactly like a memory, for a new moment, something that gains precedence solely by existing in the now.
Memorable Polaroid Moment #3
“a picture of you holding a picture of me, in the pocket of my blue jeans” the lovesick Ray Lamontagne crooned, the meta nature of photography fracturing my heart just a little. Repeatedly, I have gotten a kick out of making a Polaroid portrait of someone holding a Polaroid Portrait of his/herself.
Almost every factor that could influence the display of the instant images in their rotating home is random. The duration of visibility, content, the amount of effort that goes into creating each image, are all equally arbitrary. Sometimes one occasion or location may warrant five images, while another, of larger consequence, may result in only one. More sentimental moments with loved ones may easily slip out of sight after a day through one small rotation of the Rolodex. A complete stranger, or an experimental landscape, or a found object could replace a long-time friend. The only logic that I maintain amongst the images within the Rolodex is chronological order.
This unbiased, cyclical display becomes a leveling field for the scenes of my life as they unfold before me. It is a reminder of the indifferent progression of time rather than the egotistical desire for its solidification around a given occurrence. The cyclical nature of the gadget also reminds me of the daily renewal of life. Each new slot is yet another opportunity for creation. Sometimes, as with history, two or three “Polaroid” versions of a moment occupy a single slot, one neatly concealing the others. Ultimately, history is often rewritten or edited. But as with any history, each layer that ever was, still exists, and it takes only a keen and explorative eye to uncover what lays tucked away from immediate sight.