Before the Polaroid very nearly went extinct, five years ago, there was something about the medium that, poignantly, already suggested its devolution. Iconic in its bold and voluminous white frame, the Polaroid has always been associated with a particularly nostalgic lens and self-documentation. Part of this, surely, is the fermenting process it undergoes before our eyes. We capture, we shake, we make the recent past material.
In the same alchemizing blur that materializes its images, the Polaroid also makes transparent the machinations of its eventual extinction. We can see how it will, like memory, come apart. Its subjects swim into form, streaking and shuddering as the border and our patience concretize its image, and our photographer watches on as a real-time moment becomes historicized. The process we witness, in these important and seemingly slow seconds (what now, to digital-age gadflies, feels protracted) implies an instability that has long provided the Polaroid’s sustaining quality: the suggested brevity of our archive and the impossibility of locking a moment in time. The medium’s threat is that its very image, and its subject within, can disappear. Its diminishment works much the same, in reverse. Like the recession of memory, like death, this is a threat waged in the medium’s very production.
The Polaroid suits Frank Mädler’s practice. A GDR-era photographer who’s maintained real-life stations on the margins of former, now fantasized, places he calls home, Mädler is an artist who’s used the darkroom like a place of prayer, but also, a place of reinvention, of magic, and enterprise. He’s an artist who has, ultimately, milked the experience of homesickness, and attempted its image. He is, in this sense, a documenter of the little deaths experienced in our daily reminders of impermanence, our attempts to frame the fugitive. And so it’s fitting that Mädler’s Polaroid series revolves around a medium (a ledger) that cannot be sustained.
The most captivating and painful work of Mädler’s is, ultimately, the result of an accident. It’s also an indication of how his Polaroid series becomes anchored. The small but important mistake in Mädler’s quiet and heart-ached series, Wiesen (2010–2011), features a church – part of a former German village in the Czech Republic where Mädler’s father was born and which he was forced to leave – and is shot on film using a box camera. When Mädler hung the wet negative to dry, the clips he used to hold it to the line seared two rings in the photograph, pocking the church steeple. In this collection of soft-focus photographs that render a haunted station, the accident feels appropriate: nothing here leaves comment more than trace, no subject more than shadow. Its true felicity lies in its final comment on memory: the fallibility of the medium at its service, and the things we think we remember, despite forgetting.
Mädler’s embrace of the fallible image finds station in this latest pursuit, the Polaroid. In a brief interview about this series, the artist admitted that his “first impulse” with the medium came “in the time before digital photography,” and that he was “fascinated to have the picture immediately,” and by the idea that he could “see the picture just after taking the shot.” He liked the idea, too, that he could “have the possibility to take it again, better.” Despite the potential Mädler was exploring, here, for do-overs and recalibrations, the images that comprise this 1200+ series of Polaroids communicate an ethos of constraint. “I found that the small size of the Polaroid needs an other/different regard of photography, by comparison to my large-scale landscapes,” Mädler says. “In addition to my other bodies of work, it felt light to take Polaroids anytime and anywhere, from anything. I was working with Polaroid until the end of this material. I bought the last films in 2009 and took the last picture in 2012. At this time the material was old and the colors lost their power. That’s why the last Polaroids are more brown than colorful.”
Mädler opened himself up to incident, in this series, as he has consistently throughout his photographic career. The Polaroid series provides the possibility of a layman technology, while remaining painterly, and utterly of the inventor’s control, until … it’s lost. What remains from each of Mädler’s Polaroid images is a haunting afterimage: it is, ultimately, an aura produced; its subject is secondary.
Born in the German Democratic Republic, and confined to the Eastern bloc until his mid-twenties, Mädler’s photographs limn beauty through constraint. Amidst the four series he’s best known for, the large-scale Gold, 2011, shows his ethos best. The photographer, positioned at a high vantage point over Prague (one of the few cities the GDR civilians were permitted to visit), renders the city through a fine – but nearly obfuscating – lattice of trees. The suggested barrier patterns Mädler’s psychological remove, admitting brick-red rooftops and glancing light to filter through the scrim.
The Polaroid images affect something similar: removed, in a sense, from darkroom control, the images bear out a certain constraint. While Mädler is working against personally determined limitations, the results suggest an ultimate frustration: we can never image the thing lost, the thing partially remembered.
The subjects of Mädler’s Polaroid series are presented, ultimately, within the frame of a cryptic sentimentality, a recognizable but distant notion of nostalgia. The Greek interpretation of the term “nostalgia” is the “pain from an old wound.” As we suffer the ache of this, and the desire to circle back to something we cannot reach, the artist’s images, within this series, matter less than his inculcation of the medium itself. Yes, leitmotifs from his previous series string themselves through these frames: erected wings form architectural decoration, caught on rooftops, just so; industrial markings transcend purpose, even architecture, to form abstract design and ethereal markings, under his scope. Yet Mädler continues to document, in essence, the untraceable. In a format suggestive of permanence and yet built for dissolution, he pools together detritus of observed and forgettable subjects who are made briefly, stunningly, memorable. He ultimately suggests we hold on, we burn to memory, the lived and painful moment.