My first foray into photography was in late adolescence with a Fujifilm Instax Wide camera, a fantastic modern iteration of instant photography. I immediately found myself addicted to capturing bits of time with my friends and loved ones, moments being immortalized in one of the most beautifully tangible ways I’d ever experienced. For the first time, I found myself keen to stop and take a moment in my life for posterity, something I had never had much desire for with digital and phone cameras. Instant photography to this day has a sense of magic to its usage and process. And there is no brand more synonymous with purveying that magic than Polaroid, with The McCord Museum in Montréal currently putting the instant photography juggernaut into the spotlight with their exhibit “The Polaroid Project”.
The exhibit features many different works from artists who notably specialized in Polaroid’s products for their photography, as well as many tantalizing and unexpected uses of the iconic camera, including pictures of specimens under microscopes. Amongst the walls lined with the familiar square prints in their original form, blown up shots, and other manipulations of the prints, are glass cabinets filled up with well preserved memorabilia, equipment, and documentation all relating to the history of Polaroid. One is easily able to trace the populaces quick uptake of the miraculous feat of photography.
One thing that “The Polaroid Project” aims to do is drop the curtain on some of the magic that makes instant photography what it is. Diagrams and dissections of Polaroid cameras and their film are plastered across the walls, giving a breakdown of the technical precision involved in that moment from flash to print. Along with these informational murals, an old behind the scenes video from Polaroid plays on loop. In it, we are treated to how one uses their own Polaroid camera, as well as what likely was the first explanation for public reception about the science behind it all. Unlike many in-house brand videos from the mid 20th century, Polaroid’s does not drip with slick wording of a sales pitch. It’s a genuine desire to inform people on just what makes those unprecedented cameras work (mind numbing soundtrack free of charge). All of the vintage cameras and gear and branding tie well into the nostalgic feel many have for Polaroid, but it does also bring to mind the fact that that nostalgia is now leverage on any would-be instant photographers wallet: Polaroid’s brand and intellectual property was bought by The Impossible Project in 2017, who sells packs of film with just 8 exposures for around $30.
While there are many interesting visual experiments to be seen with the inherently limited capabilities of an instant camera, there is something that stands out as a through line in the feeling a lot of these images evoke. Something that gives the featured works of great photographers, artists, and scientists a commonality with my own instant shots at home: it’s candid; it’s everyday; it’s life. The subjects of the majority of images presented feel much more like documentation than they do posed scenes. Many evoke a point-of-view type feeling, truly embodying that essence of instant photography that whispers “I want to remember this.” It’s a strange and wonderfully resonant quality that makes a package of photos and footsteps on the surface of our Moon, the view of a Montréal sex workers apartment, and the microscopic details of a rat’s tongue all equally familiar and rudimentary.
“The Polaroid Project” does a good job of combining art, history, science, nostalgia, and innovation into the same 3.5 by 4.25 frame. There is a sense of historical significance given to what may mostly occupy a fun, gimmicky part of the public’s eye now. The wide gamut of the artist’s on display make for a varied and balanced viewing. But what stands out most is the rack of rainbow strings from which Montréal denizens have hung their own Polaroids. And looking at these little moments of time quickly immortalized, I think of my own wall of taped up instant shots, and remember just why there’s still so much magic with every shot.