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The Polaroid Years: Instant Photography and Experimentation, at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center

  |   April 1, 2013  |  Comment

To the public, it’s a reminder of a bygone era of instant color snapshots at millions of family gatherings.  For historians, it’s an obvious precursor to today’s ubiquitous instant photos.  But from the time Polaroid’s famed SX-70 camera was released in 1972, there were those who saw its ability to instantly produce color photos as an exciting new medium for fine art.  From April 12 through June 30 the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center will present The Polaroid Years: Instant Photography and Experimentation, a groundbreaking survey exhibition organized by the museum that will bring together Polaroid pictures by 39 artists and collectives from 1972 through the present.  Among the many well-known artists whose work will be featured are Ansel Adams, Chuck Close, Walker Evans, David Hockney, Robert Mapplethorpe, Andy Warhol and William Wegman.

Several related events will be held, including an exhibition opening lecture by New York magazine senior editor Christopher Bonanos, author of the 2012 book Instant: The Story of Polaroid; a gallery talk by the curator; a campus series screening films about Polaroid photography or where it plays an important role; a program of child-friendly activities in the galleries; and the curator discussing the exhibition catalogue at the main branch of the New York Public Library.

“Instant photography arrived in the hands of artists at a time when the world of fine art photography had recently become fertile ground for artistic experimentation,” writes exhibition curator and catalogue author Mary-Kay Lombino, The Emily Hargroves Fisher 1957 and Richard B. Fisher Curator at The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center.  “In an examination of the phenomenon of instant photography – in particular Polaroid, a brand known for its innovation and responsiveness to artistic endeavors – we see how it has influenced and inspired amateurs and professionals for nearly forty years.  By juxtaposing early experimental work with more recent forays into the possibilities of the medium, The Polaroid Years tells a more complete story of instant photography than has yet been revealed.”

The exhibit is the first of its kind since the founding of the Polaroid Corporation by scientist and inventor Edwin H. Land some 75 years ago, and will highlight milestones in Polaroid’s history.  That history is bittersweet, in view of the fact that Polaroid stopped production of analog instant film in 2008.  Nevertheless, even today, as Lombino notes, “Polaroid continues to attract new devotees drawn to its luminescence, distinct color, and the happy accidents that occur in the imperfect developing process—not to mention the convenience of instantaneous, direct one-to-one prints.”

The exhibition catalogue (hardcover, 224 pages with 230 illustrations) is being co-published by The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center and DelMonico Books/Prestel, and will be available in March.  Highlights will include color images of all works in the exhibition; statements by a dozen of the artists whose work is featured; a chronology from the 1920s to the present of Polaroid technology and its use by artists; essays by Lombino and Dr. Peter Buse, Cultural Theorist and Senior Lecturer at the School of English, Sociology, Politics and Contemporary History at the University of Salford in Manchester, England; and a foreword by James Mundy, The Anne Hendricks Bass Director at The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center.

After Vassar, The Polaroid Years will travel to the Mary & Leigh Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, where it will be on exhibit from September 20 through December 1, 2013.  Research for The Polaroid Years was underwritten by a generous grant from The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Arts.  The presentation at Vassar is made possible in part by the Smart Family Fund for Art Exhibition Support.


Lecture and opening reception
Friday, April 12

On the exhibition’s opening day, April 12, Christopher Bonanos, the author of Instant: The Story of Polaroid (Princeton Architectural Press, 2012) and a senior editor at New York magazine who also has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, will give a lecture.
5:30pm, Taylor Hall, Room 102

6:30pm, The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center

Film Series
Polaroid pictures play a leading role in each of four films to be screened on select Thursday evenings during the exhibition – one drama, one documentary, one thriller, and one comedy:

Thursday, April 18
Alice in the Cities (Wim Wenders, 1974)
6:15pm, Taylor Hall, Room 203

Thursday, April 25
Time Zero: The Last Year of Polaroid Film (Grant Hamilton, 2012)
7:45pm, Taylor Hall, Room 203

Thursday, May 2
Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000)
6:15pm, Taylor Hall, Room 203

Thursday, May 9
Boogie Nights (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997)
6:15pm, Taylor Hall, Room 203

Family Day
Saturday, April 20
2:30pm – 4:30pm, The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center
Stories, art-making, and special kid-friendly encounters with art in the galleries. Recommended for ages 5 – 11.

Gallery Talk
Thursday, April 25
3:30 pm, The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center
Curator Mary-Kay Lombino leads an informal gallery talk and walk-through of the exhibition.

Catalogue Discussion at the New York Public Library
Wednesday, May 15
6:00 pm, New York Public Library (Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street, New York)
Mary-Kay Lombino discusses The Polaroid Years catalogue she authored (2012, The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center and DelMonico Books/Prestel), and is joined by photographers David Levinthal and William Wegman whose work is part of the exhibition.


The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center was founded in 1864 as the Vassar College Art Gallery. The current 36,400-square-foot facility, designed by Cesar Pelli and named in honor of the new building’s primary donor, opened in 1993. Vassar was the first U.S. college founded with a permanent art collection and gallery, and at any given time, the Permanent Collection Galleries of the museum feature approximately 350 works from Vassar’s extensive collections. The Art Center’s collections chart the history of art from antiquity to the present and comprise over 18,000 works, including paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, photographs, and glass and ceramic wares.  Notable holdings include the Warburg Collection of Old Master prints, an important group of Hudson River School paintings given by Matthew Vassar at the college’s inception, and a wide range of works by major European and American 20th- century painters.

Admission to the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center is free and all galleries are wheelchair accessible.  The Art Center is open to the public Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, 10:00am–5:00pm; Thursday, 10:00am–9:00pm; and Sunday, 1:00–5:00pm.  Located at the entrance to the historic Vassar College campus, the Art Center can be reached within minutes from other Mid-Hudson cultural attractions, such as Dia:Beacon, the Franklin Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt national historic sites and homes, and the Vanderbilt mansion.  For additional information, the public may call (845) 437-5632 or visit fllac.vassar.edu.

Directions to the Vassar campus, located at 124 Raymond Avenue in Poughkeepsie (NY), are available at www.vassar.edu/directions.

Vassar College is a highly selective, coeducational, independent, residential liberal arts college founded in 1861.

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