Review for Instant Connections Show at the Panopticon Gallery

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Instant satisfaction in Panopticon Polaroid exhibit

Chris Bergeron/DAILY NEWS STAFF   –  Metro West Daily Newspaper

Posted:04/17/2011 8:00 PM

When you got your first Polaroid camera, remember taking those instant photos of your butt, Dad’s gall bladder scar or those honeymoon scenes at the No-Tell Motel?

Rather than embarrassing moments, the 75 Polaroids displayed at Panopticon Gallery capture all kinds of “Instant Connections” when photographers explored the range and depth of Polaroid technology with unexpected results.

Organized by gallery owner Jason Landry and independent curator Jim Fitts, the exhibit reveals a side of Polaroid photography most of us didn’t know existed.

Andy Warhol depicted nubile starlet Pia Zadora with the washed out anonymity of a yearbook photo. Arno Rafael Minkkinen transformed his own big-knuckled hands into objects of anatomical beauty.

As if shooting a mug shot, Stephen Sheffield portrayed detective novelist Robert Parker looking more sinister than the crooks he wrote about. And David Levinthal squeezed a young girl and a Barbie doll in the same frame with unsettling results.

They are just some of 27 photographers whose experiments with Polaroid equipment and technology are showcased in an exciting exhibit at the Panopticon Gallery in the Commonwealth Hotel in Kenmore Square, Boston.

“Instant Connections” explores what a broad spectrum of well-known, emerging and local photographers can do with the technology Polaroid founder Edwin Land invented so his daughter could view her pictures right away.

Fitts said he’d been long fascinated by Polaroid’s six-decade “rise and fall” from market giant to bankruptcy in 2001 and wanted to familiarize younger photographers and viewers with the underutilized creative possibilities of instant photography.

“I wanted to find out if the young generation still wants to use Polaroids. It’s still a fresh medium today. I think it’ll come back in some format,” he said.

A former director from 2006 to 2009 of the Photographic Resource Center at Boston University, Fitts said most artists in the show consider themselves fine arts photographers.

He credited Landry “for taking a chance” by devoting an entire exhibit to “cutting-edge photography” exclusively devoted to Polaroid technology.

“It’s wonderful to see someone hosting something so cutting edge. It’s wonderful to see someone taking a shot,” said Fitts.

Don’t come looking for the classical realism of Ansel Adams or Edward Steichen.

Like impressionist painters, the photographers of “Instant Connections” shape, shade and manipulate people and places, using Polaroid technology to nudge viewers into looking at them in new ways.

Sometimes it can be fascinating. And sometimes it can be challenging.

Warhol’s 1986 Polacolor prints of Maria Shriver and Joan Collins give them the ghoulish complexion of Marilyn Manson. Perhaps suggesting the cauldron of emotions at the core of human identity, Vik Muniz’s 1998 “Philosopher (Freud)” seems to portray the Austrian father of psychology as just a stiff collar and a face without features.

Samuel Quinn’s 2009 “I still love you” relies on its printed punch line “And I still hate you for that” rather than make a visual point.

Yet some images are visually powerful by employing Polaroid technology in innovative ways.

Anna Tomczak created one of the show’s single most striking images, “Devil’s Backbone II,” which depicts a vine of bird-like creatures growing from a naked woman’s back through a complex process requiring several negatives.

In her ghostly 2005 “Self Portrait,” Sue-Yee Leung casts herself as a shadowy presence unable to break through an invisible barrier.

“Instant Connections” begins with a varied selection of 13 photos by featured artist Stephen Sheffield of Boston.

They range from an angel, aged by the cyanotype process, to vintage-appearing diptychs and triptychs to a series of ominous men in dark suits doing improbable things like holding a gasoline can on a platform or climbing a ladder set in the middle of a lake.

Landry, who represents Sheffield in the gallery, said he admires the way he “blurs the line between fine art and commercial photography.”

“He is a prime example of an artist who is able to balance both practices and do them equally well,” he said.

To an untrained eye, using Polaroid doesn’t seem to make much of a difference in images by well-known photographers.

Joyce Tenneson’s untitled 1984 shot of a sage-appearing woman resembles images from her “Wise Women” series and several of William Wegman Polaroids show dogs dressed and posed like humans, his signature images which grow old very fast.

Landry said hosting the exhibit was a “no brainer” because of Polaroid’s longtime connections to Boston and Cambridge.

Working on the show with Fitts, he stressed the importance of showing images that revealed both Polaroid’s “visual impact” and technology.

“I see (‘Instant Connections’) as a way to educate today’s students in the various ways Polaroid photographs were made and are still made,” he said.

Landry said the show includes “straight” and “manipulated” Polaroids and photos ranging from the 3-by-3-inch Polaroids taken by the standard SX-70 camera and others as large as 20 by 24 inches. Some of the most striking images on display, he said, are Type 55 Polaroid negatives, that were printed digitally as gelatin silver prints.

As Panopticon celebrates its 40th anniversary, Landry said the show, like the gallery, features an exciting mix of masters like Warhol and Chuck Close “who were synonymous with the name of Polaroid,” with “local favorites,” including Minkkinen and Elsa Dorfman and “emerging talent” such as Mimi Youn from South Korea and Samuel Quinn who recently graduated from the New England School of Photography.

Landry urged visitors “to feel free to ask questions” about the artists or the techniques they’ve used.

“Our goal at Panopticon is to showcase photographic images by artists whether they are established, mid-career or emerging,” he said. “I also find joy in getting the opportunity to exhibit works by artists who get me excited about photography.”

THE ESSENTIALS:

WHAT: “Instant Connections”

WHEN: Through May 2

WHERE: Panopticon Gallery, Commonwealth Hotel, 502C Commonwealth Ave., Boston

HOURS:10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday

ADMISSION: Free

INFO: 617-267-8929, http://www.panopticongallery.com


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