MIT’s ‘The Polaroid Project’ traces the pre-digital influence of instant photo technology

Guy Bourdin, "Charles Jourdan," 1978
© The Guy Bourdin Estate 2017 / Courtesy of Louise Alexander Gallery
Guy Bourdin’s “Charles Jourdan,” from 1978

CAMBRIDGE — A photograph is its own reality: a flat object, usually rectangular, that renders as two dimensions the four that make up the space-time continuum. That rendering is such a neat trick, who stops to think that that’s what it is, a trick? The trick gets even trickier, since in nearly all analog photographic processes a unique negative can reproduce countless positive versions of itself: visual cloning.

A Polaroid is its own own reality. Yes, Polaroid prints are photographs, too, but the instant-photography process is unlike any other. That’s why the company made so much money for so long — until it very spectacularly didn’t. The camera itself doubles as darkroom; and while the print wasn’t quite instantaneous, it could seem that way to consumers long accustomed to dropping off their snapshots to be developed. And there’s no cloning involved, since there’s no negative and each Polaroid print is unique.

This special Polaroid own-ness — as artistry, as innovation, as cultural state of mind — is the subject of “The Polaroid Project: At the Intersection of Art and Technology.” The exhibition runs through June 21 at the MIT Museum.


That’s a fitting location. Not only does MIT own some 10,000 items from the Polaroid archives. Instant photography was invented by Edwin Land about a block from the museum’s location. The company was very much a corporate local hero: long headquartered in Cambridge and later in Waltham. The saddest of the 200 photographs in “The Polaroid Project” is S.B. Walker’s five-part “Blacked Out Polaroid Sign, Corporate Headquarters, Waltham MA,” 2011. It could as easily bear the title “Darkness Visible.”

A Polaroid SX-70 Land Camera
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The company was the Apple of its day, as technologically cool as it was innovative. No less of an authority than Steve Jobs said that Land “saw the intersection of art and science and business and built an organization to reflect that.” All other photographs implicitly present themselves as a window on the past. Polaroids always felt like a window on the future. The Polaroid was as close as pre-digital photography could come to Here and Now, as opposed to There and Then. The cutting edge was just a click away — but a shutter click, not a mouse click. In an analog world, Polaroid was a unicorn in a dray horse herd. In a digital world, it was . . . beside the point.

Beside those 200 photographs (from 120 photographers), “The Polaroid Project” includes another hundred items: cameras, models of cameras, internal mechanisms, diagrams, 3-D glasses, lenses, film packs, Land sketch pads. The show even includes a gold-plated SX-70 camera and a Polaroid 600 camera in the shape of a container of McDonald’s french fries.

“The Polaroid Project” is techie heaven. Or it’s techie heaven in a very late-in-the-day steampunk sense. That is, tech is no longer primarily a matter of things; and “The Polaroid Project” is very much a show about thing-ness. That’s no small part of both its excitement and why it feels so distant in technological time.

James Nitsch, "Razor Blade," 1976
© James Nitsch
James Nitsch’s “Razor Blade,” from 1976

That thing-ness extended to the image itself, as physical object. It was tactile in a way that other analog photographic images aren’t. (Digital images are as tactile as dreams.) James Nitsch nicely gets at this physicality in “Razor Blade,” 1976, which shows the title item slicing through that ever-so-slight thickness of a Polaroid. The photograph is doubly Polaroid-ish, in fact, since the original slicing is seen in a framing photograph that includes the rest of the blade. Wheels within wheels has nothing on Polaroids within Polaroids.


Among the reasons that Jobs revered Land was his recognizing a fellow master at promotion. The media loved Land, as several vintage magazines on display attest. The canniest thing he did in cultivating the cultural status of Polaroid was figuring out how to add artistic prestige to the technological cachet and consumer appeal it already had. Early on, he hired Ansel Adams as an adviser. Soon enough he hit upon giving cameras and free film to art photographers. When Walker Evans got his SX-70, it was still such a novelty that the film packs he was sent had to be assembled by hand. Technology was the engine that drove Polaroid. Land knew that. He also knew that art made the engine purr.

Chen Wei, "Everlasting Radio Wave-Test #5" 2008
© Chen Wei
Chen Wei’s “Everlasting Radio Wave-Test #5,” from 2008

Photographers in the show include Evans, Adams, Harold Edgerton, Robert Mapplethorpe, Andy Warhol, Lucas Samaras, Richard Hamilton, Robert Rauschenberg. The final four are not primarily known as photographers. Much of the appeal of the Polaroid image was how it lent itself to experimentation. The documentary impulse was what drew realtors and police officers and swingers (that’s a euphemism) to the everyday use of Polaroids. With artists, documentation was the least of it.

Technology plus utility plus novelty could equal creativity in a way that regular photography didn't. Evans called his SX-70 “the toy.” Art that isn’t a form of play, at least at some level, isn’t really art. Polaroids singularly enabled the fantastic and playful. Consider the fake-flock-of-birds wildness of Chen Wei’s “Everlasting Radio Wave-Test #5,” from 2008; the play of planes (and “play” is the word) in Guy Bourdin’s “Charles Jourdan,” from 1978 — and that’s not even factoring in the chromatic explosion, courtesy of the model’s painted nails; or, speaking of planes, the silhouette taking a bite out of a photo-within-a-photo of its own profile in Timothy White’s untitled Polaroid from 1998.

Mark Klett, "Contemplating the View at Muley Point, Utah," 1994
© Mark Klett
Mark Klett’s quite-wondrous “Contemplating the View at Muley Point, Utah,” from 1994

There’s nothing Polaroid-ish about Mark Klett’s quite-wondrous “Contemplating the View at Muley Point, Utah,” from 1994, other than the general inducement to visual derring-do that the process lent itself to. With the freedom from the darkroom that digital photography has brought, it’s all but impossible to imagine how liberating instant photography was. But you can feel that liberation in how anything-goes so many of these images are. The Polaroid did not lack for limitations. Its own own-ness was in many key respects even more confining than the own-ness of non-Polaroid photography. Yet within that confinement not only could some pretty amazing things happen, but the confinement encouraged the cultivation of amazement.

One of the limitations was that the characteristic qualities of the format tended to overwhelm the characteristic qualities of any given photographer. When he wasn’t chewing scenery onscreen, Dennis Hopper was a very good photographer. But his “Los Angeles, Back Alley” doesn’t look all that different from any other Polaroid taken in 1987. Conversely the two André Kertész Polaroids in the show really do look like Kertészes: lyrical, ever so slightly mysterious, conveying both mirth and melancholy. If you wanted to argue that Kertész was the finest photographer of the last century, his ability to make Polaroids so consistent with the rest of his work definitely supports that argument.


Note that “The Polaroid Project” will close from Feb. 24-March 8, when most of the images will be replaced. In other words, it’s a show so nice it really will be worth seeing twice.

THE POLAROID PROJECT: At the Intersection of Art and Technology

At MIT Museum, 265 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, through June 21. 617-253-5927,

Mark Feeney can be reached at