"There is tenderness only in the coarsest demand: that no-one shall go hungry any more" – Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia (1974: 156)
“An image is not some idea as expressed by the director, but an entire world reflected in a drop of water. In a single drop of water.”
“Art is a sense of magic.”
It’s been a long time since I handled a polaroid camera. There is something about the particular way in which they seem to offer access to an immediate present that I really miss. While there has been plenty of ink spilled recently about the contemporary emergence of large scale tableau-sized photographs, the modest artefactual quality of the polaroid would seem to solicit a form of beholding that merits further critical attention in its own right.
I recently picked up a remarkable volume of polaroids produced by the famous Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky. Bright, Bright Day is edited by the photographer Stephen Gill and includes polaroids shot by Tarkovsky in Italy between 1979-1984 as well as some images shot in Russia in 1980 and 1981.
The results are staggering. In an interview that the director made during the production of his film Nostalghia, he commented on the relationship between nostalgia and the experience of time. Nostalgia, he opined, “is not the same as longing for the past. Nostalgia is a longing for the space of time that has passed in vain” (quoted in Bird, 2008: 189). Or as Robert Bird, one of the director’s more prescient interlocutors has recently argued, “time becomes palpable when it coincides with space; it is at this very moment that it becomes the object of our longing and of our regret” (Bird, 2008: 189).
If Tarkovsky’s films are famous for their long takes, his polaroid images transpose these concerns to a more intimate space. These are images saturated with the ‘substance’ of time and one senses that the very materiality of the polaroid format only serves to intensify this effect. Tarkovsky, it should be said, often likened the practice of filmmaking to a kind of “sculpting in time” and it is clear that such a ‘working method’ finds further distillation and perhaps even refinement in his series of polaroids.
But these are images that also recall earlier painterly antecedents. As the art historian Boris Groys has noted, “they look like Romantic painting of the nineteenth-century, in their composition, and also in the play of light” (2008: 124). While Groys sees similarities with some of the early images of Jeff Wall, their documentary qualities ultimately eschew the kind of constructedness which comes to overdetermine much of Wall’s impressive body of work. What distinguishes Tarkovsky’s polaroids from some of the more recent examples of advanced photographic practice is, in my view, an ability to somehow inhabit and bridge that seemingly irreducible discrepancy between intention and effect. These are images that rework the “extraordinary copiousness” of the medium in order to create a rich painterly texture out of the most ordinary and personal of scenes (see Fried, 2008: 272). There are few if any more important statements of why, to quote, Michael Fried, “photography matters as art as never before.”