Ashley Jones still has the Polaroid camera that her parents gave her when she was young. She's held onto the first photo the camera took as well. Many years later, when a friend gave her an older model Polaroid, the pictures it produced gave her more than images. The camera built a new connection to her photographs.
"I started thinking about experiencing what's in front of me before making an image," she says. "The Polaroid camera allowed me to be a photographer and an artist but also experience the moment in front of me. That's when I was like, 'OK, I have to pursue this.'"
The quality that Jones, a photographer and educator, felt in her refound camera will be on display at Redux's upcoming exhibit, Instant Gratification, featuring 25 photo artists, which Jones helped curate. Beyond the new show, Jones utilizes Polaroids in her own work.
"For me it's transformative," she says, "this whole idea that I can hold this moment or an experience in my hand."
But what is it about the character of Polaroids and their kin that give them merit? What can people appreciate about a photo that's birthed from a camera — one they can't see in an image taken on the same device with which a person calls their grandmother on her birthday? What's really the difference?
While instant film has been under attack by technological innovation over the decades, the photography method has hung on long enough for professionals to give the medium new life. Accounting for that resurgence is elusive. For Cara Leepson, Redux's executive director, instant film's appeal comes from the basic instinct of a camera holder to capture a moment. The rawness of the images versus what a person is inundated with daily will be on display at Instant Gratification.
"We all have access to these devices now and we can be reactive photographers," says Leepson. "But so often in this tangible method of being able to take a photo and seeing it develop in your hand or on your phone as soon as it goes digital we have the ability to completely edit it. So often we don't see that first outcome. It's a filtered version of reality."
Hoping to set the stage for more collaboration in the coming year, Redux also enlisted curatorial assistance for the new show from Aint—Bad, a Savannah, Ga. based collective that publishes new photographic arts in book, magazine, and web form. They also put together shows based on their publications. With Instant Gratification, they started from the opposing direction.
"Something that we've always said with Aint—Bad when designing a publication is that we treat our pages of a magazine like the walls of a gallery," says Carson Sanders, co-founder of Aint—Bad. "This is kind of the opposite."
Instant film promises that what you see, be it staged or spontaneous, existed at some place and at some time. More simply, instant film is real.
"It becomes an object you can hold," Jones says.
Or as Carson puts it, "When you're looking at it in person you're not hiding anything."
Sanders says that most people don't think about the South as a home for photo arts. "We are really dedicated to showing work within the Southeast, getting people off their screens and physically to exhibitions to see this work. That fits back into this tactile object [of instant film]. ... You'll notice more imperfections than you might on a screen. There's no retouching, there's no hiding flaws."
The instant method sets the photographer in a place. They have to be aware of their surroundings more so than with modern manners of taking a picture. That gives the film a sense of awareness to Jones, one that can't be re-created digitally.
"It's about process and being actively engaged in the process," she says. "You're very thoughtful behind the camera when you're using a Polaroid."
This grounded aspect of the film coupled with the nuances of lo-fi modern cameras compared to refined Polaroid models from decades past provides a character that people can, in a way, touch with their eyes.
"The photographers are taking a lot of time and considerations into their surrounding conditions and environments when making these images," Carson says. "Instant film can be very sensitive, fragile, and stubborn to work with."
From that perspective, instant film seems pretty human. For Jones, one of film's greatest strengths is the connection it can make to people.
"The Polaroid becomes a memento," she says. "My work is about an exchange of the moment but it's also about an exchange with another person. I make a Polaroid for whoever poses for me. So I get a takeaway from that moment and they get a takeaway from that moment."