How Lucas Samaras manipulated the Polaroid age

Lucas Samaras pushed film beyond its limits, opening new creative opportunities, but Polaroid did not approve
Share
AutoPolaroid, 1969-71. Dye diffusion transfer print (Polaroid film), 3-3⁄8 x 4-1⁄4 inches (paper). © Lucas Samaras
AutoPolaroid, 1969-71. Dye diffusion transfer print (Polaroid film), 3-3⁄8 x 4-1⁄4 inches (paper). © Lucas Samaras

Before there was Instagram and its accompanying selection of digital filters, there were instant Polaroid prints, which, for a brief period, allowed users to manipulate their self-portraits in a much more hands-on manner.

The emulsion of early Polaroid film, protected under a layer of Mylar, remained wet and malleable for up to 24 hours – a feature the company later corrected.

 

AutoPolaroid, December 24, 1970. Dye diffusion transfer print (Polaroid film) with hand-applied ink, © Lucas Samaras
AutoPolaroid, December 24, 1970. Dye diffusion transfer print (Polaroid film) with hand-applied ink, © Lucas Samaras

However, that temporary chemical oversight opened a world of possibilities for the New York artist Lucas Samaras, whose AutoPolaroids from the late Sixties and early Seventies are on show at the Craig F Starr gallery in Manhattan this summer, until 12 August.

“Armed with a simple Polaroid camera, Samaras created a series of innovative and grotesque self-portraits in the tiny, confined space of his New York apartment,” explain our editors in The Body of Art. “After removing the Mylar, Samaras could manipulate the emulsion with a stylus or his fingers to create fantastic, often gruesome effects.”

 

AutoPolaroid, March 1971. Dye diffusion transfer print (Polaroid film) with hand-applied ink, © Lucas Samaras
AutoPolaroid, March 1971. Dye diffusion transfer print (Polaroid film) with hand-applied ink, © Lucas Samaras

These distortive works were not the only way the artist embellished his exposures. Samaras, who had already created paintings, sculpture and performance works, pushed these practices into his pictures. He decorated the photos with ink, fooled around with lighting, worked out how to double expose the film, created sequences and scratched letters onto the pictures, pushing the limits of both photography and self-portraiture.

 

AutoPolaroids, 1969-71. Dye diffusion transfer prints (Polaroid film) © Lucas Samaras
AutoPolaroids, 1969-71. Dye diffusion transfer prints (Polaroid film) © Lucas Samaras

Polaroid, dismayed with the artist's term 'AutoPolaroid', sent Samaras a cease-and-desist letter threatening legal action unless he stopped. The fine-art establishment too was, for the most part, unimpressed. Yet Samaras eventually persuaded the firm to relent and let him use their name.

Today, when we view these shots in light of the work of subsequent artists such as Francesca Woodman, Hans Eijkelboom and Cindy Sherman, we can see how Samaras managed to undermine and manipulate ‘straight’ photography so fruitfully, pushing the form into more painterly, performative areas.

 

AutoPolaroids, 1969-71. Dye diffusion transfer prints (Polaroid film) © Lucas Samaras
AutoPolaroids, 1969-71. Dye diffusion transfer prints (Polaroid film) © Lucas Samaras

For more on Lucas Samaras's work order a copy of Body of Art here; for greater insight into the way his Polaroids fit into the history of fine-art photography get our book Art and Photography.


You May Also Like


Related



ABOUT PHAIDON

Phaidon is the premier global publisher of the creative arts with over 1,500 titles in print. We work with the world's most influential artists, chefs, writers and thinkers to produce innovative books on art, photography, design, architecture, fashion, food and travel, and illustrated books for children. Phaidon is headquartered in London and New York City.
Read more