“Polaroid?” mused Roland Barthes within a pair of brackets in his 1981 book Camera Lucida, “Fun, but disappointing, except when a great photographer is involved.” By the time the French theorist wrote this treatise, the Polaroid had become quite fashionable, a situation that produced some tension among photography’s leading theorists and artistic authorities. Yet in spite of its decline in popularity over the decades (and even after the company declared bankruptcy twice during the early 2000s), the Polaroid has enjoyed a surprising revival of late, both as digital simulacra (via smartphone photo filters) and as a millennial nostalgia commodity, suggesting a history that is still unfolding.
The exhibition “400 Polaroids” brilliantly conjures this unusual trajectory by putting two artists, Nobuyoshi Araki and Daido Moriyama, in conversation. Longtime friends and occasional collaborators, the pair have elaborated the idioms of postwar Japanese photography in parallel for more than fifty years. But while Araki has long embraced the Polaroid as an experimental medium through series such as “Polanography,” (a portmanteau of Polaroid and pornography; the work presents spliced images of nude models performing), 2016, Moriyama, for the most part, only ever used it as a diaristic instrument.
In the existentially titled series “bye-bye polaroid,” 2008, Moriyama takes his device to the streets of Tokyo, snapping old shop vitrines, passersby, and architecture with the tender poetry of the flaneur. If Moriyama seeks out the immediacy of the soon-obsolete medium to capture a city in decay, Araki uses it to document his hometown’s liveliness by taking pictures of hot girls, friends, flowers, and food. This formal dialectic on the sentimentality of photography is deliciously staged in the exhibition via alternating racks of the artists’ work, which display their images in freestanding Plexiglas frames. As a highly physical souvenir (or in an etymological sense of the word, as a memory prompt), the Polaroid is no longer appreciated only for its rapid seriality or instant gratification, but its unique materiality as a print-only medium that, in all its ordinariness, contains something exceptionally moving.