The Past in Polaroids

Review of “Polaroids: Personal, Private, Painterly” Photographs from the Collection of Robert E. Jackson at Bellevue Arts Museum.

Written by TeenTix Press Corps Newsroom Writer Soren Kopp, and edited by Teen Editorial Staff Member Lily Williamson!

"Personal" courtesy of Bellevue Arts Museum.

Human beings are constantly categorizing. “Polaroids: Personal, Private, Painterly" Photographs from the Collection of Robert E. Jackson, showcases a variety of Polaroids separated into the aforementioned categories. Out of the 13,000 photos in his collection, about 300 are Polaroids, 150 of which were selected and curated by Jackson in conjunction with Ben Heywood, chief curator at the Bellevue Arts Museum.

“Personal” refers to portraits. These images capture individuals, and the essence of who they are—the focus is on the photo’s subject rather than their actions or environment. There are certain parallels to be drawn between these portraits and selfies in our age of instant, digital cameras—they serve the same purpose. The importance doesn’t rest in what’s happening in the photo, but in the subject. However, when one thinks about photos as documents of history, even if they’re not depicting a well-known historical event, one can think about not just what’s going on inside the photo, but what’s going on in the world around that photo. Compiling photos from similar time periods can help you piece together foreign places. Social and political movements can cause people to make similar art and take similar photographs—the shared experiences of a group can influence a whole generation and their ways of thinking. Textbooks can easily miss out on depicting the way history has impacted individuals, but experiencing history through a lens makes the intangible, tangible, and the inaccessible, accessible. Conversely, capturing individuals in the context of different societies shows the universally human responses to situations, despite the circumstances. Two pieces framed together in this section portray two couples: one from the early 2000’s of a young pair posing by a fountain with flowers, and the other of a middle-aged couple posing on the beach, superimposed above the ocean. Although the individuals are from different worlds with different historical settings, they both display the same human response to being in love: a desire to capture their bond as couples.

"Private" courtesy of Bellevue Arts Museum.

The “Private” collection, located in a more secluded area of the museum, has fewer concrete parameters. These images capture intimate and inexplicable moments. Moments where “you had to be there”; without context, it’s up to you to decide what’s going on. The stories in these images are private, and only clear to the people involved. In continuity with the rest of the exhibit, many of the Polaroids were paired intentionally, leaving the audience to interpret the common theme. A pair of images: one of a man holding a gun with his arm wrapped protectively around a young person who is presumably his child, while the other is a set of four children lined up in order of height and donning costumes complete with frightening masks. Although the images are seemingly unrelated, they carry the same uneasy feeling. Both elicit a sense of discomfort, despite the fact that neither situation is intended to produce such an effect. The emotional reality of these pieces brings them together, rather than something tangible in their visual components.

The third and final portion of the exhibit, “Painterly”, encompassed photos that had been altered, through the manipulation of the gel emulsion in the film, or the use of expired film, yielding a variety of earthier and deeper tones. Some of the images in this category had been scratched, drawn, or painted over. The creation of these pieces focused more on visual effects rather than using emotional effects to influence viewers. The artists played with colors, shapes, and textures, even if it meant obscuring the original photographs.

"Painterly" courtesy of Bellevue Arts Museum.

In a world where instant cameras are readily available, it feels relevant to return to the roots of spontaneous photography. Nowadays, we can instantly immortalize any moment without a second thought, and it’s easy to take that for granted. The images taken on Polaroid cameras reflect on how technology influences the way we create, capture, and process our fleeting existence. The Bellevue Arts Museum’s collection featuring  miscellaneous Polaroids comments on the illusion of permanence provided by photography in our technologically accelerating world.


The Teen Editorial Staff is made up of 5 teens who curate the review portion of the TeenTix blog and manage the TeenTix Newsroom.  More information about the Teen Editorial Staff can be found HERE.

The TeenTix Press Corps promotes critical thinking, communication, and information literacy through criticism and journalism practice for teens. For more information about the Press Corps program see HERE.

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