When it was launched in 1947, the Polaroid instant camera represented the biggest breakthrough in photographic technology since the introduction in 1888 of the Kodak Box Camera ("You Push the Button, We Do the Rest"). Kodak's system required that an amateur photographer send in the camera and the exposed film as a package; in return, the photographer would receive printed photographs and negatives. Polaroid, decades later, cut out the middleman. The Polaroid Instant Camera allowed photographers the opportunity to have pictures develop right before their eyes.
This handy process had advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, there was no waiting for images and no extra costs involved beyond the (expensive) cost of film. For some, the list of minuses included the fact that there were no negatives. Polaroid images can't be reproduced unless they are rephotographed. As advanced as they were, Polaroids represented a throwback to the 19th-century days of the daguerreotype, when extremely long exposure times resulted in unique, unreproduceable images on shiny copper plates.
Plenty of people enjoy the speed and convenience of the Polaroid instant process. But ever since the 1960s, when Polaroid began aggressively marketing its process, a number of crafty photographers have exploited its unique qualities toward truly innovative ends. Todd Thomas is one of those photographers.
In a show of around 15 Polaroid-based works now on exhibit at the Bonsack Gallery at John Burroughs School (yes, a school more on that later), Thomas shows off a selection of weird things that can be done to the Polaroid print. Some of the works are Polaroid emulsions the actual filmy images after they are literally boiled off their backings. Some are digital prints made of those emulsions, manipulated to greater and lesser degrees. A few are collagelike, whereas others are single images that inhabit shadowboxes. Variety counts here this is a lesson in what can be done with a good eye, imagination and relatively simple materials and equipment.
And Thomas does have quite a good eye. He turns it to some of the more colorful buildings around St. Louis, places like Park's Drugs (see artwork) or the Meyer service station on Delmar, a canary-yellow building highlighted by a vivid red stripe and set off by an azure-blue sky. These places make for good photography, and Thomas' idiosyncratic technique heightens the effects of the already effective scenes.
Thomas takes a Polaroid, boils off the emulsion (the colorful chemical concentrate that contains the scene), and uses it in a great variety of ways. The very best of the works are the ones that feature the actual emulsions. "Menu," for example, is an emulsion piece lifted from a Polaroid of a diner menu painted on a brick wall. Small in scale (around 3 by 5 inches), the emulsion is thin and filmy, and Thomas has pushed it around on the glass so that wrinkles warp the view just a bit. This tiny piece of St. Louis history, contained in this indescribably fragile bit of chemical solution, has the resonance of a religious relic. The immediate urge is to reach out and preserve it.
The same reaction is sparked by another work, a tiny emulsion image of yellow lilies transferred onto glass and backed by a border of actual flowering buds. The fragility of these shadowbox-like works comes partly from knowing that the images are unique. If these emulsions should disappear, there is no replacing them. They partake in that singular sense of preciousness that all Polaroids possess.
Thomas' work is not limited to these singular emulsion transfers, however. He also investigates scale and collage processes by combining Polaroid emulsions, scanning and enlarging them to produce digital Cibachrome prints. This multistep process results in wonderful scenes like "View from my Roof" and "Studio at Sunset," introspective but fractured looks into Thomas' private working world.
Thomas has a fantastic talent for recording real scenes that appear as transient as the materials they are printed on. His work falters, however, in the more staged studio pieces. In "Writing a Letter," a representative of this kind of work, an image of handwritten diary pages is juxtaposed with a vague portrait profile, resulting in a hokey, awkwardly confessional kind of construction. Frankly, these pieces look like the work of a less experienced artist than the one who authored the other pieces in the show. Thomas should concentrate on his strengths, his eye for the poetic found object and incidental urban scene, and avoid the artificial, "heartfelt" constructed pieces. They don't do his keen eye any justice.
But the show as a whole must be given its due: It's a solid survey of what can be done with that most magical of media, the Polaroid print. The exhibit is well worth a visit, even though John Burroughs School is fairly far off the beaten path (it's in Ladue, no less) and the opening hours aren't exactly convenient (remember high school? Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-4 p.m. or so). Word has it, however, that the gallery (officially known as the Bonsack Gallery, located in the main administrative building of the school) is scoring some very interesting shows for its upcoming schedule, so heads-up for the future. In the meantime, the Todd Thomas show is highly recommended.
Todd Thomas' works are on view at the Bonsack Gallery of John Burroughs School through Oct. 5.