On some level, it's comforting to know that people 45 years ago were just as much into documenting themselves as we are now. Their environs, their party shenanigans, their fucking.
Robert E. Jackson's exhibition of his collection of Polaroids at Bellevue Arts Museum proves it. Cocurated with museum executive director and chief curator Benedict Heywood, Polaroids: Personal, Private, Painterly is a curious and deeply interesting look into the candid lives of others.
As a collector, Jackson focuses on "vernacular photography," meaning photos that were taken by amateurs of their own lives. All the subjects and authors of these snapshots are unknown to Jackson—the photos are what Heywood described as "pure images." In an e-mail, Jackson told me: "I liked the 'objectness' of it. The fact that it wasn't something precious to be appreciated in a mat or a frame, but rather that it was someone's memory that I could hold in my hand."
Because of the sheer volume of Jackson's collection of more than 12,000 photos, this particular exhibition focuses specifically on the instant photo technology developed by the Polaroid Corporation in 1972.
The Polaroid camera was responsible for leveling the playing field when it came to photographic authorship. Anyone could have one, and there was no special training needed to learn how to use it. All you had to do was aim at anything—party guests, your wife's upturned ass, those three people in front of the Statue of Liberty—and push a button.
The exhibition is divided into three sections: the "personal," the "private," and the "painterly." The painterly section focuses on Polaroids that were altered during or after developing. This section also features photos by Erik Simkins, a Seattle-based artist who works in the medium of Polaroid.
While the distinctions between the categories can be a bit hazy, the logic of the layout intuitively makes sense. The photos run the gamut from abstracted colors and shapes to children trick-or-treating, a woman doing her makeup in the mirror, a man licking blood off a woman's ankle.
The photos don't come across as narrative in and of themselves, but more like beautiful, half-second windows into random people's lives. They certainly appealed to my baser, voyeuristic self, the one whose nose is in everyone's business. One of my favorite photos is in the more provocative "private" section, which I was told represents only a small sliver of the really edgy stuff in Jackson's collection. It features a young hetero black couple sitting on a bed; the woman is leaning back while the man leans over her, his hand slipped between her thighs. The way she looks at him isn't necessarily tender, but is more recognizable as vulnerable. I saw myself in her.
There's an overall sense in the exhibition that we humans are always trying to figure ourselves out. When given the power to record ourselves in a certain context, we take it and run with it. These anonymous Polaroids serve as a good reminder that, first and foremost, we always bring ourselves to a museum. Our biases, our stories, our dreams play out in the photos presented to us. This is an exhibition for dreamers.