November 21, 2010

Art Review: Exhibit of Polaroid photographs shows creativity is never obsolete


Polaroids are officially going the way of the dinosaur, since Polaroid is no longer making its once ubiquitous instant film.

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“Web” by Mary Woodman.

Photos courtesy Vox Photographs

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“Man”  by David Puntel.

Additional Photos Below



WHERE: Susan Maasch Fine Art, 567 Congress St., Portland 699-2966;

WHEN: Through Saturday

HOURS: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday 


WHERE: Portland Public Library, 5 Monument Square 871-1700; or

WHEN: Through Dec. 31

HOURS: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday

Self-contained with the chemicals to develop and fix the photo, instant film was first introduced by Polaroid in 1972. While marketed to the public as a user-friendly alternative to the complicated manual 35mm roll-film cameras, the instant Polaroids were immediately appealing to artists because each was a unique photograph -- and therefore potentially a unique work of art.

Andy Warhol, for example, was addicted to his Polaroid camera: in 2007, the Andy Warhol Foundation gave more than 25,000 of his Polaroids to museums and colleges across the nation.

Polaroid transfer is a technique by which the unique Polaroid picture can be applied to paper or other materials. Now that Polaroids are no longer being made, I think this kind of unique work is more interesting than ever.

A great example of this is the Jan Pieter van Voorst van Beest show of about 20 Polaroid transfers at Susan Maasch Gallery in Portland. They are unapologetically painterly, and play freely with the photographic material on watercolor paper. Jan Pieter is an excellent photographer, and his touch in this mode gives his work a sense of affable freshness without compromising his artistic vision.

While we're used to long exposure, sharp-focus photography of the greats like Ansel Adams, Jan Pieter is at his best with a sense of the ephemeral. His nudes read like memories of encounters rather than technical renderings of permanent sculptures. His flowers exude fleeting life rather than essentialized permanence.

Even his landscapes look like memories from a road trip or a day spent with enjoyable company. In his hands, the Polaroid transfer is a perfect vehicle for the dynamic motion of life.

While Fuji and a couple of tiny companies are still making instant film, we are literally witnessing the end of an era. Although we don't normally think of Polaroids as fine art objects, they have had a huge effect on how artists think about photography rather akin to the ramifications of digital photography.

One of the earliest technological revolutions of photography had to do with the development of the ambrotype in the early 1850s. An ambrotype is a wet plate technique that -- like Polaroids -- results in a unique photographic object. Although they had to be developed and fixed, the back of an ambrotype's glass plate would be painted with black varnish, resulting in a single, positive image.

Ambrotypes are now extremely uncommon, but six excellent examples by contemporary photographer David Puntel are on view at the Portland Public Library as part of "Art Nouveau" -- a group show featuring 50 works by the artists of Vox Photographs, a local web-based gallery.

Puntel seems to revel in the ancient feel of the early photographic technique. His "Man" looks like a 19th-century laborer, what with his weathered face, buttoned-collar white shirt, stubbly beard and intense eyes. I am rarely drawn to portraits, but this one is powerful and appealing. Puntel's still lives are also strong and exude the similar, uncanny feel of genuine antiques.

In general, "Art Nouveau" is a rather mixed bag of quality and content. But it is definitely worth visiting, because it offers the opportunity to get a feel for the gallery, which is not typically accessible to the public because Vox owner Heather Frederick works more like a private art dealer than a commercial gallerist (no regular hours, etc.).

I particularly like Mary Woodman's three centered, circular images (a nest, a dandelion and a nautilus) that are among the few works that benefit from the rather cramped installation. Susan Guthrie's "Hull" features sharp-focus bands of color that make for an elegant abstraction punctuated by a barnacle-filled anchor hole on a boat's hull. I also especially enjoyed Stacey Cramp's mirthful "Passage," with its joyously zooming streaks of colored light.

Between these exhibitions and the current photography shows at the Salt Institute, the Portland Museum of Art and Addison Woolley Gallery, this is a very good time to see photography in Portland. 

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:


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Additional Photos

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“Passage” by Stacey Cramp.

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“Lily,” Polaroid transfer by Jan Pieter van Voorst van Beest.


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