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Polaroid Passion

Art and science unite at New Mexico History Museum.

March 21, 2011, 1:00 pm
By Tim Kraemer

Edwin Land, founder of the Polaroid Corporation and inventor of the Polaroid camera, once said, "We think of photography as the intersection of science and art." In that spirit the New Mexico History Museum invited science writer Victor McElheny to speak about Land in his lecture "Insisting on the Impossible: The Life of Edwin Land" to supplement its Polaroid SX-70 photography exhibition "A Passionate Light: Polaroids by H Joe Waldrum."

McElheny is a science and technology writer of more than 50 years for The Boston Globe, The New York Times and other papers. At his lecture, he likened Land to Steve Jobs and characterized him as a passionate and imaginative scientist who began his inventing career before his 20th birthday; rejected offers from General Electric and Eastman Kodak in favor of pursuing technological innovation on his own terms; worked directly with US presidents; and led innovation in instant photography for nearly half a century, from the 1940s to the early 1980s.

According to McElheny, Santa Fe played a role in the story of Land and Polaroid. During a walk by the Santa Fe River in 1943, Land took a photograph of his three-year-old daughter Jennifer, who asked him why they couldn't see the photograph immediately.

Land took the question as a challenge and within an hour the initial ideas for the camera, film and physical chemistry of the Polaroid camera were in place. In February of 1947, the first instant photography camera was introduced. The millionth was sold in 1956.

McElheny knew Land personally. They first met in the White House on February 13, 1968 as President Lyndon Johnson awarded Land a National Medal of Science, but their collaboration truly began a few years later when they sat down at Land's lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts to have a conversation about McElheny doing an article on Land for The Boston Globe.

"I expected at some point in the future that would lead to a longer interview, but it led to something quite different," McElheny tells SFR. "A month later I was invited to join Polaroid as a sort of consultant and write a history and explanation of the SX-70 system that was about to be introduced."

The Polaroid SX-70 is named after Special Experiment 70, a one-step photography optics project Polaroid worked on for the US government during World War II.

The Polaroid photography of artist Harold Joe Waldrum conversely came from a place of peace. "A Passionate Light," a series of 264 of his 4 1/2" by 3 1/4" Polaroid photographs on display at the New Mexico History Museum and 938 more at the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History, focuses mostly on the adobe churches of northern New Mexico, which Waldrum became obsessed with and constantly photographed with an SX-70 from the late 1970s until his death in 2003.

Waldrum's fascination had little to do with his own religious convictions. It grew more from a love for the churches' particular windows, doors, angles, adobe walls and the way that light and shadows played off of them in stirring and beautiful ways. He eventually founded the El Valle Foundation to raise restoration funds and campaign for the conservation of adobe churches all throughout northern New Mexico.

In addition to churches, flowers became a major focus of Waldrum's photography as he grew fascinated by the way light altered or enhanced their colors. "A Passionate Light" features vividly colorful Polaroids of poppies, hollyhocks, roses and nearly 60 photographs of anemones.

Waldrum's work embodies the intersection of science and art that Land championed.

"A tremendous amount of machinery and chemistry and electronics and mechanics is all embodied in our ability to record a memory," says McElheny. "This is something that hasn't existed for horribly long. It's in the 1890s you start getting popular mass photography by Kodak. Their slogan was 'you press the button and we do the rest.' By pressing the button, that's your emotional response to a scene. Art is an emotional response to experiences, to objects, to scenery, to relations with other people. The art is attempting to express something and to transcend it at the same time; to see something and to express something much more universal."


A Passionate Light: Polaroids by H Joe Waldrum

Through April 10

New Mexico History Museum
113 Lincoln Ave.
476-5200

 

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