Every day, advances in digital technology throw up new ways of making images. But for photographer Rhiannon Adam, nothing beats Polaroid.
“It’s so unpredictable,” she says. While some photographers prefer to see their technical process as pure instinct – like changing gears in a car, as Magnum co-founder Henri Cartier-Bresson put it – Rhiannon likes to embrace the unexpected. With Polaroid film, every roll produces different results, depending on how it has been stored or the temperature. “Say I’ve gone out to shoot beautiful sunshine and the pictures come out incredibly blue – then I have to adjust the subject matter to match the film type,” she says. “It becomes a collaboration between the film, the environment you’re in and you. It takes you on an adventure.”
Rhiannon’s love of Polaroid began when she was a teenager. This was before digital cameras were widespread so Polaroid had an immediacy that 35mm photography lacked. Her early pictures were less artistic, more a visual diary, a proto-Instagram. “I used to always write the time, date and where I took them. It was a way of archiving time. We didn’t have any photos from when I was a kid, so I was determined to take loads of pictures to remember things.”
During Art A-level, then later at university, she started experimenting more creatively. Although it was through the website Polonoid that her artistic practice really took off. “It was like Flickr but just for Polaroid,” she recalls. “It was an amazing community. Because there weren’t thousands of pictures going up every day, you could view everything. You’d upload something and have 30 people comment on it; if you were going to Berlin, you’d say, hello whatever-the-screen-name-was, I’m coming to Germany - and they’d show you around. There was a magazine and a ‘shot of the day system’ and if you won lots of them, they’d give you a discount code to buy more film – so that fuelled the obsession.”
The company behind Polonoid was Unsaleable – now The Impossible Project. “When Polaroid stopped making new film, Unsaleable bought up all the dead stock to resell it. Polanoid was their showcase website,” Rhiannon says. “The most recent expiry date of any Polaroid film you can get is 2009." The Impossible Project makes compatible film for more consumer Polaroid cameras. Rhiannon explains: “There were two tiers of Polaroid camera. One is the SX70, which was made in the 1970s and is relatively expensive, even today. Those you can manually focus. The cameras produced in the ‘90s are all auto focus. You can click whether you want to shoot close-up or far away, but that’s about all the decision making process.”
Rhiannon shoots most of her work on an SX70 but she has “about 50” cameras in total. “When I started getting into Polaroid photography I went on eBay and used to buy up every camera – I assumed that if I bought the camera I’d somehow get hold of the film. Once I reached about 150 cameras, I started selling them off. Now I have about 14 SX70 cameras and three 180s, which are manual focus and shoot 669 pack film. I’ve also got a Toyo 4x5 Monorail camera with a Polaroid back and an underwater one.”
At her IdeasTap workshop, Rhiannon will be teaching emulsion lifting – a technique she uses to creating dream-like, composite landscapes [see main image and below]. “Effectively you separate the different layers of the Polaroid film and you float the image, like a temporary tattoo, in water. Then you lift it up onto a sheet of acetate or some other transparent plastic. You take it out of the water, arrange it on the acetate and push it from there onto your paper. You iron out the edges, make sure it’s all smooth, and then you keep on layering image upon image.”
Is Polaroid especially suited to certain, more nostalgic subjects? For her book, Dreamlands / Wastelands, Rhiannon photographed Brits holidaying in Margate and Benidorm. “I shot the project mostly on the SX70 because the film has that white frame. I wanted it to be harking back to going on a beach holiday with your dad. Knowing it’s Polaroid makes people read the pictures in a certain way. Sometimes that’s a negative thing. It can be seen as a throwaway medium – tacky and cheap, not fine art enough.” And yet at a time when we can so easily produce and reproduce images, the Polaroid print’s status as a unique, material object sets it apart. “I’ve always seen it as almost sculptural. It’s recording light with a chemical, but it almost doesn’t bear relation to the idea we have now of photography.”
Are you a photographer? Book a place on Rhiannon's workshop.
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All images © Rhiannon Adam