Art and Design

Polaroid, Kodak and the art of black and white

Matthew Partridge

The racist practices inherent in the history of photography are reflected in its technology.

Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin. Nudniks, 2012. Print on fiber-based paper. (Goodman Gallery)

Exploring “the radical notion that prejudice might be inherent in the medium of photography itself” the title of the Goodman Gallery’s latests exhibition To Photograph the Details of a Dark Horse at Night, by the London based duo Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, becomes a euphemism for the racist practices inherent in the history of photographic representation.

The show’s title is not a term coined by the pair, but rather one taken from the CEO of Kodak in the 70‘s when they announced their new product, Kodak Gold, a film that would not underexpose darker skin tones. But as inclusive as this intention sounds, it was as an answer to two major clients in the furniture and confectionary industries who complained about the range of Kodak’s exposures. It was objects, not people that led Kodak’s hand in developing better technology.

“Black skin absorbs 42% more light than white skin”, the artists state matter of factly, and as a consequence is difficult to photograph when using film stock graded to the normative needs of whiteness.

Loosely, this is the terrain that the exhibition traverses in its subtext. Taking the history of two films, Kodak and Polaroid, the pair explore how the history of the medium has been tailored to a visual regime of oppression.

There is something uneasy about this undertaking. Much like the awkward relationship between photography and the gallery, the images on show seem almost to deliberately defy the viewers expectations. After walking around the exhibition I found myself mystified, constantly returning to the script at the front desk to decode the images that confronted me.

Around the walls of the main exhibition space are a number of polaroids of badly rendered images of aloes neatly boxed in frames. Elsewhere, hidden in the recesses of the galleries viewings rooms, there are gigantic black and white test strips of sculptures. Another larger image shows a palm frond in a psychedelic magenta. Two sculptures also figure in this odd assortment of work.

A massive weathered sign belonging formerly to the wholesaler Frank & Hirsch sits in the middle of the floor whilst off to the left there is a white porcelain cube on a plinth. These three dimensional objects it appears are the key to understanding the narrative of this show.

Damning documentation
Frank & Hirsch is a familiar name to many South Africans; as wholesalers of everything electronic they were responsible for importing, among other things, polaroid film into the country at a time when international sanctions restricted the availability of such goods.

The story becomes more sinister. During the 1960‘s Polaroid worked in collusion with the apartheid government to develop a camera known as the ID-2 (the white cube mentioned above) with a boosted flash and film stock that would accurately render the tone of darker skin. Notoriously this technology was sold to the apartheid government for use in the ‘dompas’, the compulsory identification document that black South Africans were forced to carry during apartheid.

After international pressure Polaroid declared that they would discontinue business with the South African government in 1971. However, using Frank & Hirsch as an intermediary, business carried on booming for another six years, with the film being repackaged into unbranded boxes before finding its way to the security police. Then in 1977, in an apparent about-turn, Polaroid became one of the first multi-national corporations to lead the divestment movement in the country.

‘But what does this have to do with images of plants?’ I hear you ask. Broomberg and Chanarin obtained some of these now vintage cameras along with old film stock and after some repairs took a trip around the country photographing aloes. Suggesting that “anything coming out of this camera is political” the results become more about an unseen history. Wanting to “subvert the camera’s function” the pair deliberately ignored the ways to achieve optimum results. What’s left for the viewer is a partially underwhelming series of images that, whilst conjuring a loaded history, also visually neglects it.

Similarly the pair attempted the same type of project with old Kodak stock which expired in 1978 before Kodak Gold was invented. The result from multiple rolls is one image, the magenta palm frond taken in Gabon on a dubious commission to “document the country”. In a way this becomes a “meditation about material” with the pair wanting to subvert the ethnographic intention of such an exercise.

Whilst this exhibition claims to present a unique way of exploring the loaded history of photographic hegemony the results are cryptic and inaccessible. It is not that such meditations should be literal, but the figurative absence dilutes the its political potency. 

The exhibition runs until February 16.

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