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Surely fades away: Polaroid photography and the contradictions of cultural value

Buse, P 2008, 'Surely fades away: Polaroid photography and the contradictions of cultural value' , Photographies, 1 (2) , pp. 221-238.

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Abstract

Photography has always had a precarious relation to cultural value: as Walter Benjamin put it, those who argued for photography as an art were bringing it to a tribunal it was in the process of overthrowing. This article examines the case of Polaroid, a company and technology that, after Kodak and prior to digital, contributed most to the mass- amateurization of photography, and therefore, one might expect, to its cultural devaluation. It considers the specific properties of the technology, the often skeptical reception Polaroid cameras and film received from the professional photographic press, and Polaroid’s own strategies of self-presentation, and finds that in each case a contradictory picture emerges. Like fast food, the Polaroid image is defined by its speed of appearance – the proximity of its production and consumption – and is accordingly devalued; and yet at the same time it produces a single, unique print. The professional photographic press, self- appointed arbiters of photographic value, were often rapturous about the technical breakthroughs achieved by Polaroid, but dismissive of the potential non-amateur applications and anxious about the implications for the ‘expert’ photographer of a camera that replaced the expert’s functions. For obvious marketing reasons, Polaroid itself was always keen to emphasize what the experts scorned in its products (simplicity of operation), and yet, equally, consistently positioned itself at the ‘‘luxury’’ end of the camera market and carried out an ambitious cultural program that emphasized the ‘‘aesthetic’’ potential of Polaroid photography. The article concludes that this highly ambivalent status of Polaroid technology in relation to cultural value means that it shares basic features with kitsch, a fact that has been exploited by, among others, William Wegman, and has been amplified by the current decline and imminent disappearance of Polaroid photography

Item Type: Article
Themes: Media, Digital Technology and the Creative Economy
Memory, Text and Place
Schools: Colleges and Schools > College of Arts & Social Sciences > School of Arts & Media > Communication, Cultural & Media Studies Research Centre
Journal or Publication Title: Photographies
Publisher: Routledge
Refereed: Yes
ISSN: 1754-0763
Depositing User: P Buse
Date Deposited: 28 Oct 2011 14:14
Last Modified: 20 Aug 2013 17:16
URI: http://usir.eprints.org/id/eprint/18774

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