Photo Books

Laura Letinsky’s Book of Polaroids Questions Photography’s Obsession with the Single Image

August 30, 2017

By Conor Risch

For each photograph we see in books, magazines or on gallery walls, there exist related images that we don’t get to see—the pictures that come directly before and after the image on a photographer’s contact sheet or memory card. Photographers don’t often find opportunities to create books or exhibitions of their contact sheets, outtakes or other photographs adjacent to the “other” pictures for which they are best known. But when photographers do reveal these process images, they enrich our understanding of their work.

Laura Letinsky’s new book, Time’s Assignation (Radius), provides a look at her creative process and her editing through the Type 55 Polaroid images that she made with her 4×5 to test light, composition and exposure as she created several still life series from 1997 to 2008. Letinsky’s color still lifes during this period depicted food, disposable packaging and other items, often on tables covered in white tablecloths and lit with natural light. Some of the images appear observed rather than set-up, as if we’re seeing evidence of something that occurred. Others are more obviously produced for the benefit of the camera.

© Laura Letinsky

An image from “Hardly More Than Ever Series, Rome,” 2001. © Laura Letinsky

Letinsky’s book of Polaroids stands on its own as a collection of beautiful, black-and-white images, but it also alludes to Letinsky’s process of “paying attention and close looking and sitting with” her compositions. Her work, she says, involves “a degree of intentionality” and a “degree of the image being found or built as I’m working.” The book includes sequences of Polaroids showing multiple versions of the same setup. For instance, a pair of Polaroids of paper coffee cups, a cardboard pastry box, paper napkin and other disposable items on a table covered with a white tablecloth demonstrate how darkening the scene alters our reading of the shapes. Another set of images of bunches of grapes show how shifting her camera changed Letinsky’s composition.

The Polaroids are “part of the process,” Letinsky says, which she doesn’t think should be diminished in favor of “the big tomato, the way we tend to think about the finished piece as being the kind of grand overview. [The Polaroids] are different things, but they have value in and of themselves as well as value that relates to that finished piece.”

In addition to revealing Letinsky’s conceptual interests and her method for creating images, the book also opens up conversations about photography: about pictures as physical objects, about the advancement of photographic technology, and about the fetishizing of the single image. “Photography is a serialized instrument,” she explains. “You have the before and the after in several stages and so to choose ‘the one [image]’ also speaks to certain ideas in modernism about there being ‘one.’” This attention to one image among many also speaks to our values, she says. “We can talk [also] about monotheism and capitalism and monogamy and all of those kinds of things.”

© Laura Letinsky

From “To Say It Isn’t So Series, Chicago,” 2007. The photos reveal her process and raise questions about the nature of photography. © Laura Letinsky

Letinsky’s book also reflects her interest “in this idea of the photograph as the past and being about the aftermath of a narrative.” Photographs are “a kind of container if you will for what has transpired,” she explains, whether or not you want to remember it. “There’s a tension between those categories of letting go and holding on in relation to memory, as well as the subject matter of the still life which is so much mired in notions of holding onto the object and how it’s valued and how it’s remembered and how it’s imaged.”

The idea for Time’s Assignation came about after Radius published Letinsky’s book Ill Form & Void Full, a series of color still lifes. Letinsky and publisher David Chickey talked about what they might do next, and she thought of the Polaroids. She hadn’t fixed the pictures as she was making them because she hadn’t intended to keep them, so the Polaroid chemicals “kept on working on the image” until they eventually stabilized. She had hundreds of them, she says, that she couldn’t “bear to throw away” because they were “really beautiful.”

The “faux aging” caused by the Polaroid process also interested her because it makes her images look older than they are. “Yet there is also the very real fact that this type of film is no longer made,” she explains. The speed of technology has accelerated our concept of what is “old.” “Polaroid came and went within a very short framework,” Letinsky notes. “Speaking about photography, about material objects, about how we value the experiential and how we value the world is really what’s at stake in these photographs.”

Related Articles:

Scene from Afar: How Shane Lavalette Used a 1939 Project to Inform His Swiss Travelogue

New Ideas in Photo Book Making: Dayanita Singh’s “Museum Bhavan” 

Robert Frank’s American Contact Sheets