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The Polaroid, Resurrected

A mixed-media remembrance of things past

In 1980, I bought a Polaroid SX-70 instant camera at K-Mart. I used it to document my paintings. But then several packs of the film began to age and yield incorrect colors. Just for fun, I started taking self-portraits with this past-its-prime film, and the results were so hilarious that I did an entire series called I’ve Fallen and I Can’t Get Up because I was laughing so hard.

Soon I was manipulating the photos, resurrecting the film with my fine-art skills. There was the film, and there was my brush, and when they met, it was a marriage. I had always loved the feel of Polaroids, the softness and texture of their surface; now I found that I could create intriguing effects by engraving on them with a pointed instrument and painting over selected parts of the image with oils.

I started branching out beyond self-portraits, creating painted Polaroids of the world around me. My first book of such works, Dog in the Dunes (Andrews McMeel, 1998), later republished with enlarged images as Dog in the Dunes Revisited (Fields, 2005), is a series on my black Lab, Gabe, and the summer of 1997, when we lived together in a Cape Cod beach shack. Because he was old—tiring more quickly from chasing sticks in the ocean—I knew that it was our last summer. Our bond deepened, and photographing his every move brought me closer to the smells and sounds and vistas of the dunes.

Next came Provincetown East West, (University Press of New England, 2002), my homage to the magical Cape Cod fishing village and artist colony where I typically live part of the year, and after that, New York Love Affair (Fields, 2010), about the city where I make my home in the colder months. That latest book, dedicated to the memory of Honey Black Kay, my partner of fifteen years who died of pancreatic cancer in 2007, is an intimate, even romantic take on the Big Apple. As the novelist Michael Cunningham (The Hours) writes in the foreword, the New York I celebrate is both my personal stomping ground and “a revival of a past city—or, more accurately, a revival of a past perception of a city—that glows, that shimmers, that holds within itself dazzling brightnesses and deep, deep darks.” What lends the images a special poignancy is that some of the businesses they show have vanished or, like the Cupcake Café, moved.

My most recent painted Polaroids have been of the potholders that Honey and those who visited her in her final days used to make. Polaroid stopped manufacturing film for the SX-70 years ago, and I have long relied on a supply hoarded in my refrigerator. With this potholder series, I have finally used up the last of it.

The artist’s black Lab, Gabe, in the dunes of Cape Cod.

The artist’s black Lab, Gabe, in the dunes of Cape Cod.

The Pilgrim Monument in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

Fisherman’s Wharf in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

The corner of Broadway and Forty-Second Street in Times Square.

Model sailboats in Central Park.

The Cupcake Café in its old location at Ninth Avenue and Thirty-Ninth Street.

Three renderings of a potholder woven during the final illness of the artist’s partner.

BARBARA E. COHEN, SMFA72 a painter and sculptor, divides her time between Manhattan and Provincetown, Massachusetts, where she is represented by the Ehva Gallery and Kennedy Gallery. Her latest book is New York Love Affair (Fields, 2010). She has been awarded an artist’s residency for September 2011 from the Emily Harvey Foundation in Venice, Italy.
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