The Last Polaroid Show

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‘Floating ladyslippers,’ next to the actual ladyslippers, at the Como Conservatory in St. Paul. Art by Mark Roberts and Denise Rouleau

At first, Mark Roberts and Denise Rouleau’s images appear to be paintings, not photographs. But their otherworldly images are actually based entirely in reality, using old Polaroid cameras and Polaroid SX-70 film. Rouleau says the film is unique, because once the sheet ejects from the camera, the film dyes behave like wet paint.

Using simple tools, like a wooden stylus or crochet needle, we exaggerate and distort the lines of the Polaroid image. The results, depending on how the film behaves and your creativity, are pictures that can be impressionistic, surreal or abstract. We go a step further by enlarging the Polaroids to 48 inches square which brings out the topographical textures and nuances.

Roberts and Rouleau’s most recent body of work focuses on the grounds of the Como Conservatory in St. Paul, and are now on display in the conservatory’s Bonzai Gallery.

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Floral Abstraction

Mark Roberts has worked in photography for 40 years. As a child he carried Ansel Adams’ equipment on photo shoots in the Sierras; ever since he’s been hooked. But Roberts says he has a special fondness for taking polaroids: the suspense, the playfulness, even just the sound of the camera as it shoots out its film. He says It allows him to create his own reality.

I’ve never tired of the process; Even now when an image really works for me I feel like I’m 18 again. When I hear someone say, “Well I can do that in Photoshop, or why not use digital technology?” I think how unfortunate it is that they miss the point, it’s all about the “Process”. The hands on tactile experience is an experience in itself.

For her part, Rouleau says she loves the instant gratification – you don’t have to go back to a studio to manipulate the image – you can work on it at a coffee shop, or on a clipboard out in a park.

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Denise Rouleau uses a variety of tools to manipulate a polaroid image while it’s still in the “buttery” phase. Photo by Joe Ward.

Unfortunately (thanks at least in part to ponzi schemer Tom Petters) the future of Roberts’ and Rouleau’s work with Polaroid film looks dim. Rouleau says they were in the midst of shooting at Como for this exhibition when they heard that Polaroid was ceasing production of its SX-70 film, along with others.

We thought, “Well, I guess this is the “Last Polaroid Show” and the name stuck. I think there are many artists out there holding their own “Last Polaroid Show.” The equipment is dismantled and the film is no longer available so it is basically extinct. In fact, the 9th of October was the final “Use by” or Expiration date of the last batch of Polaroid film. Now the clock is ticking…

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Polaroid camera with some of Rouleau and Roberts’ last shots. Photo by Joe Ward.

However a group of ex-Polaroid employees in Europe have created what they call “The Impossible Project” to create their own version of the instant film. Based in the Netherlands, they hope to have a new line of similar films out in mid-2010. Working with TIP, Polaroid has decided to bring back the instant camera.

Whatever the future of their photography, Roberts says the end of the SX-70 film marks the shuttering of an era.

The loss for Photography is immense. Polaroid has played an important part in the history and development of photography. Ansel Adams called the SX-70 system “an absolute miracle.” Many significant artists have built their careers on Polaroid.

Unfortunately the loss of Polaroid film has become part of the current trend. I can cite other examples: the demise of Agfa’s very fine photographic papers and Kodak’s infrared film. Traditional photographers are always having to worry about what they are going to lose next as everyone goes digital.

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Manipulated images of Denise Rouleau and Mark Roberts with their Polaroid cameras

Roberts says the upside of the trend towards digital is the creation of organizations like ‘The Impossible Project’ and other small manufacturers who find a niche market by picking up the abandoned product lines and often times improving them.

The Last Polaroid Show runs through January 19th at the Como Conservatory. A reception for the artists will take place Monday, December 14th.