THE PRECIOUSNESS OF A POLAROID

I have been putting off writing a post about Polaroids for a long time because I am not entirely certain that I will be able to adequately tame my emotions surrounding these objects of enchantment, in order to think clearly enough to channel writings that make any kind of sense. My hope is that after you have read this post, you will, at the very least, feel a greater appreciation for and understanding of Polaroids and the preciousness of their nature.

For most of my life, I never thought very much about Polaroids. I thought, as everyone does, that Polaroids were cool, and pretty much left it at that. I went to The University of the Arts (1998-2002) in Philadelphia to study photography (this was just around the time that digital photography began to emerge, and I was educated for the most part in the art of analog photography, using traditional film and darkroom techniques), and I recall during many of our studio classes, we used Polaroids to aid in the exacting of our film shoots.

When you are shooting photographs in a studio setting, there is always a lot of coordination and apparatus, and studio photography is not exactly candid or loose. It is quite a production in fact, and taking a Polaroid beforehand is necessary in order to gauge the lighting and every other aspect of the composition of the shot, so you don’t waste your actual film on getting all of those fine details correct.

We would have a ginormous 4” x 5” camera set up (this means that the actual negative that was produced from this camera was 4” x 5”, which is pretty damn big), and this camera was massive and heavy and cumbersome and crazy. The large 4” x 5” negative film sheets (4” x 5” film does not come in a roll like 35mm film, but in individual 4” x 5” sheets that must be loaded by hand) were rather expensive. So, we would shoot a Polaroid first and if the Polaroid looked perfect, we would then go ahead and shoot with actual film. Since I found studio photography tedious and un-inspirational in general, I linked Polaroids with just one of the many aspects of a very boring and time-consuming creative process.

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The 4” x 5” sheets of film go behind that rectangular gridded area and this is essentially the frame of the shot. Image obtained from here.

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This is a 4” x 5” film holder and only two sheets of 4” x 5” film go in here, one on each side. PS, you have to load this film blind in a pitch-black room so you don’t expose the film.

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This is an exposed and developed 4” x 5” negative, ready to be enlarged and printed in the darkroom. These are also great for making contact prints, which means that you don’t enlarge the image, you print the image at the actual size of the negative. In general, when you enlarge something, you gradually lose quality the bigger you go. But when you make a contact print, the quality is 1:1, so contact prints are incredibly crisp and delightful.

The only time I enjoyed using Polaroids was when the department head would get a new camera and would want to test it out and play with it, and we would all mess around in the studio, taking fun Polaroids of each other. In many ways, this messing around with a camera reflects one of the fundamental natures of a Polaroid—FUN—and the studio photographic process seemed to take all of the fun out of something that was so potentially dreamy. An instant photograph is truly dreamy when you really break it down, and even though I didn’t care for the exactness of studio photography, it is important to note the versatility of this amazing product; up until digital photography took over, a studio photographer literally could not do his or her job without the assistance of Polaroids.

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Playtime in the studio with Polaroids

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Worktime in the studio with Polaroids…I hated this shoot and felt 100% uninspired…

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Taking a break outside the studio, probably on my way to get pizza. PS I loved that coat…

As I gained greater exposure (pun not intended, but accidentally awesome) to the Polaroid and its many uses, I began warming to this phenomenal invention, and really started to become rather attached to having “The Polaroid” in my life, feeling an exquisite lack if I went too long without utilizing some form of Polaroid-ic process in my creative work. Also around this time in college, Polaroid released a fun-as-hell plastic camera called an i-Zone (1999). The camera was small and lightweight and the Polaroids it produced were preciously miniature. The image itself was only about 1” x 1 ½” and it spit out of the camera in the form of a brightly colored strip of paper with the image in the center. This camera was perfect to take with you to a bar or a party and just snap away, capturing the evening of magic and madness.

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So now that we have smart phones and Instagram to capture images of fun times with friends, and massive digital cameras to take care of perfecting studio photography, what now is so great about a Polaroid picture, and why is it so precious?

For one thing, Polaroids are currently quite rare and in order to obtain a Polaroid camera, you can’t go into any old store and buy it like you could in the 80s. You have to order it online, bid for a used one on eBay, or maybe if you are lucky, you can find one in your parents’ attic (if you are of a certain age). Even if and when you do get your hands on a Polaroid camera, you still have to purchase the expensive film. One pack of Polaroid film is $16.99 on Amazon and you only get EIGHT Polaroid pictures out of that! I actually ordered a Polaroid camera (not an original, but a newer version) online a few years ago and it sucks. It actually doesn’t even work now and I can’t figure out how to make it work. It was over $100. And the images I did take with it looked terrible. They were washed out and whitish and just not the same as original Polaroids. Even the worst looking Polaroid back in the day was still beautiful in terms of quality.

In general, the nature of rarity implies preciousness. If you don’t have something anymore and you want it back (one version of rare), this object of desire becomes that much more precious to you, as you long for its return. If you have finally obtained something that you have wanted for a long time and have worked very hard to get (another version of rare), you don’t want to lose it, and that thing feels extraordinarily precious to the point of desperate clinging. I personally feel both versions of pain when it comes to Polaroids.

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The operative word in the above definition for “precious” is “object,” and in my opinion, the object-like nature of a Polaroid is what sets it apart from all other forms of photography, with the exception of the Daguerreotype, the most precious photographic object of all [if you are curious, click here to read my post about The Incredible Daguerreotype].

Photography in general is quite an elusive medium. It is essentially the process of capturing little particles of light and holding them in a box, then regurgitating those particles of light in whatever way the photographer chooses. This is fundamentally a process of removal (within the process of creating something new), and with each step of the process, more and more of reality is subtracted. By the time we have our finished product, it is only a whisper of actuality, which is what truly makes photography so fantastical. However, we give up a token of concrete reality in place of the slippery image we have created, and that token is part of what makes something precious. No one wants a picture of a baby when they can hold the actual baby in their arms and feel it breathing. No one wants a picture of a sunset when they can be on a beach and feel the warm light dancing across their face. The preciousness of reality, that token of tangibility, like a gem in the palm of our hands (as opposed to just an image of said gem), is removed during the photographic process, and a Polaroid is one of the few comforting antidotes to that loss.

[Keep in mind, the Polaroid doesn’t pretend be the messenger of any image-based factual reality, but it does offer us something compact that we can literally grasp and actually feel.]

A Polaroid combines the dream-like nuances of everything fleeting about the photographic process, with something you can still hold in your hand, like a jewel-encrusted locket. Of course, we can hold in our hands a 4” x 6” snapshot or a digital printout of an image as well, but it doesn’t have the same effect. The amazing part about a Polaroid, and my favorite aspect, is its encasement. The Polaroid represents the product of what is literally a portable darkroom, showcased within a sharp white frame. The Polaroid camera itself is a box that handles the shooting, the developing, the printing, and the framing, all in one machine, and the Polaroid picture is the prize for such efficiency. For the most part, I don’t even really care how the image of a Polaroid picture looks. The object-ness of the thing wins me over every time.

The misleading aspect of Polaroid pictures is the image quality. In general, the images produced from a Polaroid camera are pretty lousy. Many of us take one look at a Polaroid and feel a speck of frustration from the lack of information that a Polaroid provides. We inspect the image and have a little fun with the fact that it only took about 60 seconds to produce, and we literally toss them aside. Polaroids are the quintessential tossable photographic images. And it is true, the quality is always off, always fuzzy, nothing crisp, with color shifts and glitchy spots. There is very little a person can actually control with a Polaroid picture, and this tends to piss people off, or at the very least, bum them out. However, I take the opposite stance, and believe that once that surrender of control is embraced, so much beauty emerges, if you just take the time to observe.

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A cropped portion of one of my Polaroids. Look how dreamy and beautiful this image is. The various shades of green deliver me to a blurred and magical forest, dripping with life and vegetation; and that strip of golden goop lining the bottom edge is a wonderful accident that just happened. The image is reminiscent of an actual dream.

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Close up on the goop. This is evidence of the portable darkroom aspect of Polaroid picture production. In short, when the image is captured within the camera, a light sensitive chemical process takes place inside the box, and when the image is spit out, the chemicals are smeared across the image. This is why you always have to wait a minute or so for a Polaroid to complete its developing process, because the goop that smears across the image is still working. This golden strip is just a bit of that beautiful goop that accidentally hopped outside of the frame, and it’s my favorite part. If you want to geek out on the process, this article explains it pretty well. 

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In order to understand the precious nature of a Polaroid, I think it’s important to inspect the back of a Polaroid as well as the front. I happen to LOVE the backs of Polaroids. The square inside the frame is matte and silky and decadent, like black chocolate truffles.

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One of my Polaroids from 2004 (this is the full version of the goop-lined close-up example from above). I am an abstract photographer by nature, so I’ve never been interested in capturing reality in a photograph, but rather creating another reality entirely.

I swear I’m not the only one who thinks Polaroids are incredible, and even though I’m not an art historian, I think I would be missing something if I didn’t mention Gerhard Richter in a post about Polaroids.

Gerhard Richter (don’t quote me on this, but I’m pretty sure I’m not far off) was one of the first, if not the only, contemporary artists to put Polaroids on the map in terms of “high art” and “fine art,” and Polaroids are often an integral part of his body of work. He uses Polaroids in sketches and collages, often paints in the style of a Polaroid (blurry and hazy with washed out colors), and also paints over photographs and Polaroids. If you don’t know who Gerhard Richter is, in 2016, he was listed as one of the top 10 highest paid artists with a net worth of $40M. In 2013, one of his paintings sold for $37M at Sotheby’s. Not that money should be the deciding factor when it comes to art (unfortunately, money tends to be the deciding factor when it comes to many, many things), but Richter is influential in the contemporary art world, so if he is saying that Polaroids kick ass, people in the art world listen.

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One of my favorite creations by Gerhard Richter. He combined two things I love the most in art—Polaroids and collage. Image obtained here.

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I can’t find an image credit for this one and I don’t know if this is using a Polaroid or not, but this is to give you a general idea of how he plays with imagery, mixing photographic images with paint and creating an alternate reality within this clashing of opposing worlds.

If you can obtain some old Polaroids of your own (attics and basements in the homes of family members is a good place to start), I’m envious of, but also happy for you. I only have a handful of Polaroids left from 2004 and I am working on converting them to a series. They had been sitting in an envelope for 15 years and when I finally took a closer look at them, I couldn’t believe how beautiful they were/are. I hope I did the Polaroid at least a little bit of justice, and I hope the next time you come across one, if ever, you will take the time to hold it in your hands, turn it over and feel that silky black surface, and enjoy for a moment, the wonder of this precious object.

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The beginnings of my series of Abstract Polaroids ca. 2004

SPIRIT ANIMALS

I feel so much gratitude this week, coming off of a rich and inspirational weekend with my tribe. Last year, for the first time, we decided to rent a house in the woods of Pennsylvania for a weekend, and the trip was cathartic and beautiful and amazing. We decided to do the same thing again this year, and this gathering was another resounding success. There is too much that happened and most of it is quite sacred to me, not even appropriate to share on my beloved blog. However, I do feel excited to share with you the details of one of the exercises that took place on this trip (each of us plans a spiritually reflective activity or workshop for the group to partake in). The exercise I led focused on exploring our individual spirit animals, and it was incredible and super fun! If you are fortunate enough to have a tribe, or even just a group of friends who are open to new things and with whom you feel comfortable being vulnerable with, give this a whirl!

If you are new to the idea of spirit animals, I recommend taking a look at Animal Speak by Ted Andrews. I acquired this book long ago and use it regularly, especially to translate the meaning of animals that appear in my dreams. My copy of this book is tattered and torn from over-use and I always learn something new when I refer to it. Also, Ted Andrews is generally considered a bit of an authority when it comes to all things nature-spirit-related, so if you are going to invest in any book about this kind of thing, I would go with anything by Ted Andrews.

PREPARATION

To prepare for this exercise, I purchased five small picture frames, one for each member of the tribe. I went with 5″ x 5″ and they were about $8 each at Michael’s Arts and Crafts. I then cut out five equal squares of bright white Bristol paper (any paper will do, but thicker is better) to fit within the dimensions of the frame. On one side of each square, I printed one of the names of each of our tribe members, so essentially, one square of paper for each member of the group.

I also purchased one large packet of colored pencils and one small packet of liquid glitter pens. I divided up the colored pencils and separated them into small bundles of four colored pencils each, keeping each bundle within a certain color group. For instance, one bundle had a yellow green, and dark green, a grass green, and an emerald green. Another bundle had an auburn color, a dark orange, a rust red, and another darky orange color. Then I matched each bundle with a color corresponding glitter pen. There were leftover neutral colors like browns and grays and blacks, so I kept these all together so everyone in the group could use them. Finally, I wrapped each bundle in a fun animal print wrapping paper and mixed them up so I couldn’t tell which color bundle was which. This whole sorting out of colors process was maybe the most exciting and fun in terms of preparation but also made me the most psychotically frenzied. Definitely don’t stress out about this part and just have fun with it!

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Finally, I selected a meditation track to be played during the exercise. I went with my intuition on this and also made sure to choose a track that I thought everyone would love. I typed in “Spirit Animal Meditation” and sampled different tracks. I ended up going with a beautiful and very evocative track called “Animal Images” by Shamanic Drumming World. I highly recommend using this track, as it was very effective and everyone LOVED it.

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THE EXERCISE

When it came time to begin the exercise, I set up the room beforehand and laid down the five white squares of paper (VERY IMPORTANT: KEEP THE SIDE THAT HAS THE NAME OF EACH PERSON IN THE GROUP FACE DOWN AND MAKE SURE TO TELL THE GROUP THAT THEY ARE NOT TO TURN THEM OVER), the five wrapped colored pencil packets, and five pencils. Before the group entered the room, I told them to pick a seat where they felt comfortable, and to intuitively choose one square of paper, one wrapped bundle, and one pencil, again reminding them not to turn over their square of paper. I also had them each choose a hard surface, such as a book, to lean on, so they could remain comfortable and work in their laps.

Once everyone was seated, I explained to them what we were going to do. I essentially told them that one of the members of the tribe’s name was printed on the back of their card, and that we were each going to be tapping into the spirit animal for that person, and then illustrate the animal on the card. I also told them that the bundle they chose contained several colored pencils and a matching glitter pen, and that this reflected the color energy of their spirit animal. I asked that they use those specific colors within their illustration since the color is just as significant as the animal. [I let everyone know that of course, if someone needs to borrow another color from someone, that’s fine, but it is important to stick to the color scheme that each person intuitively chose.] I made sure we did the meditation before we revealed the color, so our meditation would also not be tainted or influenced by the color we selected.

I played the meditation track, which was about four and a half minutes long, and checked in with everyone after the track was complete. This is a group activity, so of course, if someone needs more time, we all wait patiently, no pressure at all. Once we were all ready, we each went around and opened our wrapped bundles to reveal our spirit animal color. The surprise factor was the funnest part of this whole thing and we all loved it! Some group members saw colors during their meditation and ended up with that same color–nothing is a coincidence! Other group members felt uncomfortable with the color they received, indicating that they had effectively channeled the energy of another tribe member and clearly not their own. Once we had all opened our color bundles, I made sure to INSIST that everyone use the glitter in some part of their illustration. Glitter is an often overlooked and underutilized medium, but it is very important, especially when it comes to spirit, animals, and magic! Glitter is truly DER BERST thing ever invented…

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Everyone in our group is a highly gifted intuitive, so I didn’t really have to get into much detail with them about how to do their meditation and how to call upon the spirit animal. Some of us used reiki, and some of us asked our guides for assistance. For the most part, every one of us had a spirit animal reveal itself very quickly, and for the remainder of the meditation, each tribe member spent that time gathering more information about the animal, it’s environment, it’s personality, it’s significance, etc. I understand that working with intuition may be new to many people and can feel intimidating. However, it can be a very simple process, and the more you use it, the stronger your intuitive abilities become. For those of you who are new to intuitive meditations, here are some basics to keep in mind:

  • Make sure you are surrounded by people you trust and feel safe with.
  • Make sure your body is comfortable and relaxed.
  • Close your eyes and take some deep breaths.
  • It may be helpful to place your hand on the object (in this case, the square of paper with the person’s name printed on the back) so you can tap into the energy.
  • Your mind does not have to be completely clear, but make sure your mind is not racing with thoughts. Your mind should be calm and open. Let go and allow. [I had an animal in my mind before I began my meditation, but that was the animal I created with my thinking mind. When I actually closed my eyes and asked, a completely different animal appeared and it was very clear and remained clear for the entire meditation. This is the difference between using your thinking mind and your intuitive mind. It’s subtle but distinctive.]
  • Ask in your mind a direct question, such as, “Please show me the spirit animal for this person.” You don’t necessarily need to know who you’re asking, and you can default to something like “Spirit” or “Source” or “God” if you are unsure, but if you still feel like you want to address an entity of some kind.
  • If you do have angels or guides whom you connect with regularly, ask them to assist you.
  • If your mind bounces from one animal to another and doesn’t really stick to any one thing, that probably means that you are using your mind too much and not your intuition. When you are using your intuition, the response is usually pretty clear and simple and you can feel it. Emotions might accompany the information you receive. But if your mind is too bouncy bouncy, try taking some deeper and slower breaths and focusing your mind on something static, such as an apple. It sounds silly but it works. Next thing you know, some animal might pop into your mind’s eye view and take a chomp out of that apple. And that just might be the spirit animal you summoned. Go with it.
  • For this exercise specifically, you can also try imagining an environment in nature, such as an open field, and you can ask for the animal to reveal itself in the field. Just be careful, if for instance your animal is something found in the water, it might have trouble showing itself in that field. Just be open and allow the environment to change if it wants to. Visualizations are very helpful to concentrate on if your mind is overactive and not relaxed.
  • If you are really having trouble focusing, you can also try concentrating on your third eye area (the space slightly above the bridge of your nose, in the center of your forehead). Take deep breaths and focus only on your third eye. Once your mind has calmed down a bit, then ask again.
  • Try not to doubt yourself, and if you are not sure, just ask for more certainty.
  • Have fun!

Once our meditation was over, I played some lighter and more uplifting music to listen to while we worked on our drawings. I personally chose some tracks by Jai-Jagdeesh, but you can choose whatever you want!

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Final illustrations, from left to right: King Cobra, Mystery Bird (the bird in this meditation was very clear, but not exactly defined in terms of species, and that is okay!), Mink, Elephant, Owl

Once we were finished with our drawings, we each went around and first revealed our drawing (NOT THE PERSON’S NAME…YET) and explained the information that was received during the meditation. This part was so fun because we were all secretly trying to guess who’s animal was who’s and the surprise factor again made it so fun! Once we had all gone around and revealed our animals, we then went around again to reveal who’s name was on the back of each card. Lots of sharing, lots of back and forth, lots of fun and excitement. It was truly magical!

Once the glitter dried, I popped each image into one of the pre-purchased picture frames, and everyone got to take away something sacred from our weekend.

You can conduct this exercise in whatever way you want, but this format allowed for enough structure to make sure the result would be effective, and yet enough openness and time for play. Again, being with a group that is loving and trustworthy is key. Even though this was tons of fun, it was also very sacred and very special and everyone must feel safe to explore and be open within themselves and within the group.

My tribe and their spirit animals..

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Erin’s spirit animal is an owl, channeled and illustrated by Matt

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Matt’s spirit animal is a king cobra, channeled and illustrated by Erin

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Amanda’s spirit animal is a bird, channeled and illustrated by Hillary

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Libby’s spirit animal is a mink, channeled and illustrated by Amanda

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Hillary’s spirit animal is an elephant, channeled and illustrated by Libby

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Beautiful Pennsylvania