Hipsters and nostalgia enthusiasts alike mourned the passing of Polaroid’s instant film after it was discontinued last year. But those murky, faded instant photos that slowly materialize in one’s hand aren’t entirely gone from the world.
“Chicago: Hand-Altered Polaroid Photographs” by Cynthia Davis
At the Taubman Center
Through Oct. 12
The place to relive Polaroid glory, albeit in an entirely different form, is at University Hospitals’ Taubman Center as part of the University Health System Gifts of Art program. Award-winning artist and Ann Arbor native Cynthia Davis uses Polaroid SX-70 photographs to create her work in the exhibit “Chicago: Hand-Altered Polaroid Photographs” which runs through Oct. 12.
Davis manipulates the Polaroid SX-70 film to produce photographs that evoke the feeling of painting without the use of paint. The work continues after she takes the photo, when she takes advantage of the malleable consistency of the film. She etches lines into the image with fine utensils, creating texture and blending colors.
“I was always drawn to the alternative photographic processes where taking the picture was only the beginning of the creative processes. I also was attracted to processes where the human hand was evident,” Davis wrote in an e-mail interview.
Though this exhibit centers on Chicago, Davis has also done much exploring in Michigan, sometimes traveling by motorcycle to track down the most resonant scenes.
One of her Ann Arbor works almost makes Nickels Arcade look like the Passage des Panoramas in Paris with its dreamy, nearly impressionistic quality. Her methods evoke the loose brushstrokes of impressionism and lend an old-fashioned quality to these well-trodden city-scapes. These pieces of art take the candid quality of Polaroids and combine them with everything that make cities the vibrant places they are — streets, landmarks, distinct neighborhoods and the way nature interacts with the urban landscape.
The effect is the same for the gallery’s famous scenes of Chicago — the featured landmarks all acquire tinges of whimsy in Davis’s process of altering the film. Tucked away in the North Lobby of the Taubman Center are these Chicago scenes, which are enlargements from her fifth book, “Chicago.”
“I found I really enjoy physically interacting with the photographic emulsion,” Davis wrote. “It brought me back to my painting roots yet had the advantages of photography.”
Altering Polaroids by hand is a technique Davis has stayed with for the past 25 years. But unfortunately, it can’t last forever. Davis stocked up on the film when Polaroid stopped making it, but she is realistic about its future.
“It is an art form that soon will no longer be done,” Davis wrote. “Ultimately though, I am a creative person and creativity is my life. I am ready to move on to other things if necessary.”
Art is always changing and evolving: forms of art die and new ones emerge to take their place. But for now, this mixture of retro technology and impressionism is something unique, and something that may grow in value and importance as the Polaroid continues to disappear from this world.