From Polaroid to Instagram: Moments in a flash

From Polaroid to Instagram: Moments in a flash

August 13, 1979. A window sill, softly lit by light rays passing through a glass heart. Above the glass heart, a curiously framed image of a single, brilliant blue eye.

The moment, frozen in time, is one of many small Polaroids shot by photographer André Kertész from the window sill of his New York apartment, after losing his wife to lung cancer in 1977.

Fast forward to today and this wouldn’t look out of place on Instagram, where life’s most noteworthy and mundane moments are archived in Polaroid-inspired squares. In fact, the rainbow stripe in Instagram’s original logo is a nod to the Polaroid SX-70 instant camera, popular in the 1970s.

Fittingly, Kertész’s Polaroid, along with other works by his contemporaries, is on show at the National Museum of Singapore’s exhibition, In an Instant: Polaroid at the Intersection of Art and Technology.

The show traces the story of Polaroid, from its creator Edwin Land, to the works it inspired in the hands of artists and photographers such as Andy Warhol and Ansel Adams. It also reflects on the enduring cult of instant photography; today, we whip out our smartphones at every opportunity to preserve fleeting moments.

Yet Polaroid continues to stand apart. Unlike smartphones or film cameras, the Polaroid has no delete function or negative, so every print is truly unique, says the exhibition’s curator Priscilla Chua. “Polaroids also fade so quickly,” she adds, “but I suppose that’s the beauty of it.”

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The potential of what the humble instant camera can produce, beyond the small point-and-shoot format commonly associated with it, is inspiring. Photographer Ellen Carey’s Pulls (CMY) (1997) is a 5-feet tall (1.5 m) piece weighing more than 100 kg. Its large-scale abstract image was formed through serendipity, after exposing the film to light. Artist James Nitsch’s Razor Blade (1976), on the other hand, is an assemblage with a rusty, 40-year-old razor blade sticking out of the Polaroid original.

The spirit of experimentation with Polaroid persists in instant photography today. We see this in the myriad filters, frames and editing apps we spend hours toying with, to get that nostalgic, washed-out, grainy effect à la Polaroid with our smartphone snaps.

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Given the relative ease of enhancing camera snaps, raw, spontaneous photographs are perhaps the exception, especially on image-sharing platforms such as Instagram. Among those redefining “instant” photography are well-known Singapore Instagrammers Yais and Yafiq Yusman.

For the Yusman twins, instantaneity is embodied by the fleeting moment and spontaneous idea that give a photo a certain je ne sais quoi, such as the moment a bird flies, unplanned, into a shot, or when a boat rows into frame on a serene lake. “It’s about the moment, and how you feel in it,” they muse in unison.

In some sense, then, we still use Polaroid the way Kertész did in the 1970s – to capture passing moments of inspiration, and to record and remember how we felt in that flash of a second, even if we take an extra hour after the snap to select the right Instagram filter.

Details on In an Instant: Polaroid at the Intersection of Art and Technology here.

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