Shake it Like a Metaphorical Picture

Polaroid as a metaphor for photography

Sometime next year, Polaroid will stop producing instant film. There have been lots of people jumping in to help save the format, and others writing some striking eulogies, as the rest of us start mourning the oncoming loss. But one thing I can’t quite shake is what Polaroid represents to me, something that will likely be on its way out the door too: the visual metaphor of a photograph.

Tangible Metaphors

That little picture window, framed in white with justthismuch more spacing on the bottom so you can hold it. The fucking thing was begging to be held, passed around, shared, pinned up, torn, and written on. It’s a triumphant visual institution. The humble visual of a Polaroid picture, practically synonymous with the idea of photography, will eventually start fading from the general consciousness like the cassette tape, film reel, and rotary telephone. Sure, we’ll remember this stuff, but our grandkids and great-grandkids will just look at us with quiet concern as we ramble on about the sounds we heard coming off giant vinyl disks.

How long do we hold onto past iconography to represent modern concepts? The record might only represent the concept of music to some, perhaps the cassette a few more, the CD more still, but how long before iTunes needs to change its icon because the CD metaphor isn’t what currently means “music”?

The process of photography has seen so many changes in the past decade, that even the methods we use to describe the act have changed. When someone mimes you the act of taking your photo, chances are they don’t hold an imaginary box up to their eye anymore, they hold an imaginary box a foot away from their face, as if they are looking at a digital camera’s LCD screen. The language, mannerisms, and visual associations we have with photography are being replaced.

Making Meaning

I recently stumbled onto Jamie Livingston’s Photo of the Day (more background), a daily slice of one man’s life from 1979-1997 told through Polaroids (ending when cancer claimed the photographer). 6,697 Polaroids. That’s a striking number of photos to take by any measure, especially to keep it going everyday for nearly 20 years. It’s a testament to both the instant photo format and the act of unintentional art. But how much more inspiring is it to imagine all of those photos, not on a computer screen somewhere, but in boxes and albums, carefully cataloged by hand. Needing to be held by hand.

The Polaroid instant camera pioneered a huge movement in photography, both from technical and aesthetic aspects, and will be sorely missed. There are plenty of people who will continue to produce traditional photographs, me among them, but even as we do, and even if a new manufacturer picks up the torch to continue making instant film, and I hope someone does, the void in the public consciousness has begun growing. But, as our media moves into the virtual spaces on our hard drives, their tangible counterparts grow more foreign to us, never truly being lost, but fading into quaint ephemera.

Yes, I’m aware of the irony of this entry with regard to my last, and it’s fully intentional. Let’s call it artistic license.


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