Remember the Polaroid? You could be forgiven for thinking of the clunky 1970s camera that spat out “instant” prints as a format that, in our brave new digital world, was as obsolete as the windup gramophone.
But SF Said, a Beirut-born writer and photographer, proves the medium is not only alive, but thriving. He’s about to have his first exhibition of Polaroids, all of them London landscapes, in the high-spending environs of Maggs antiquarian booksellers, in London’s Mayfair.
His love of Polaroid is not about a 1970s aesthetic. “It’s got nothing to do with nostalgia,” he says. He gestures towards a picture in the show: “The 1970s did not look like that. To me, that looks like a dream or a memory. There is something in the colours and textures of Polaroid that I don’t think any other type of camera comes close to. It’s pure magic.”
Said’s pictures do seem touched by magic. They’re unconventional, with notable “flaws” in the exposure, but possess an unsettling sense of mystery that will stop you in your tracks.
“When I first saw them they blew me away,” says Carl Williams, the curator of the exhibition at Maggs. “SF has captured a side of London, a particular psychology of the city, which is all to do with things you know but can’t quite remember. They have a sense of the uncanny, what Freud called unheimlich. It’s very hard to deal in this feeling, but SF really gets it.”
The pictures were taken for a book, London’s Lost Rivers, by Tom Bolton, published last year. Even native Londoners are often unaware that London is underscored by several waterways, such as the Fleet, the Tyburn and the Westbourne.
Said and Bolton trudged around with an aquatic map of the city to research the book — a map that a 19th-century Londoner would have been familiar with but that has long since fallen out of use. Rather like the Polaroid.
The exhibition also includes the photographic work of Jon Savage, the foremost historian of punk counter-culture in the 1970s, who wrote the acclaimed England’s Dreaming. Together, their pictures are a poetic, deeply felt response to forgotten London: edgelands, derelict sites, empty riverbanks, alleyways and tunnels.
“I find it wonderful that London is a kind of palimpsest, that it contains all these layers of history and experience,” says Said. “The lost rivers project was a perfect way into that. I am fascinated by the idea that landscapes might have memories or dreams.”
Polaroid, more than any other format, is perfectly suited to capturing this. It seems to scrabble away at the surface of things, trying to locate the intangible and invisible. Said uses a second-hand SX-70, a classic model first made in 1972, and scours dusty old pharmacies and eBay to buy expired film. New film is available again, thanks to the Impossible Project in New York, which saved Polaroid’s last factory at the 11th hour in 2010, but the quality, says Said, is not quite there yet.
Said loves expired film, particularly in a range thrillingly titled Time Zero. Far from ruining an image, its ageing, unstable chemicals contribute to the dreamlike quality of his pictures. Leaking colours; blurring; unexposed corners; flame-like flashes of light across the surface; smoky shades of mauve and turquoise: Said uses them all to artistic effect. River Walbrook looks apocalyptic. Flames lick the landscape as night workers sweep snow from the streets. River Fleet, meanwhile, has a ghostly, Victorian, intensely melancholic quality. “With Polaroid, the camera and the film play as big a part as you do, and sometimes they know better than you,” says Said.