In the spring of 1973, deep in the interior of Haiti, in the midst of a jungle tribe that sees but one white man each year, a missionary doctor was making his rounds.
On this particular visit, the doctor produced a Polaroid SX-70 camera, which he used to snap a shot of one of the villiage elders. A crow gathered to watch.
As the photo faded into perfection, all hell broke loose. Tribesmen were grabbing for the 3-by-3 inch image as if it had been sent by the voodoo gods.
Americans were just as fascinated. And just six years later, the SX-70 is so assimilated into our culture that it's as taken-for-granted as digital watches -- accepted and understood enough, for instance, that a developing print can provide the complete visual imagery for the promotional trailer to "Kramer vs. Kramer."
Which is where art enters into all this, the timeless attempt to transform the ordinary into something beyound a snapshot of young Charles, age 5, opening a Batmobile under the Christmas tree.
Today, the Corcoran opens a fascinating, major exhibit of color Polaroids, which hints at some of the boundaries that can be conquered with Edwin Land's understated invention of instant photography.
Although a majority of the 135 images in the show are SX-70 prints, there are other examples of Polaroids, ranging from the overwhelming 20-by-24 inch presentation of silverware by Jan groover, to the 8-by-10 inch Arnold Newman portrait of English painter David Hockney -- an SX-70 is painted into one of Hockney's large canvases in the background -- and a subtle, rich-hued landscape of Point Lobos by Ansel Adams.
More than 30 years ago, the inventive Land approached Adams and asked him to become one of the company's artistic advisers. Land realized from the outset that the spontaneity of his process was uniquely suited to artists. Polaroid gave the photographer an undreamed-of opportunity to see his shot within a minute. And if he wasn't satisfied -- Bang -- he could do it again before leaving the scene of the crime.
Adams has snapped thousands of Polaroids since his initial meeting with Land. Yet few people were aware of the artistic potential of the Polariod process. Indeed, Polaroids largerly had been considered litter-producing novelties that rarely yielded correct exposures and inevitably produced technically flawed prints -- a result of pulling Tab A too fast or Tab B too slow or standing outside in the cold or . . .
The infallibility of the SX-70 changed that. Even the late Walker Evans, one of the world's seminal photographers, hated color work until he encountered the SX-70. Here was a format that allowed the photographer to concentrate on the potential of color subtlety.
And that's precisely what this show does: present a new way of see color that standard photographic processes don't allow. Whether it's a simple yellow are bisecting the sky in the work of Jack Caspary. Or David Hockney's own ethereal SX-70s' of a swimming pool.Or the eerie lighting captured in Benno Friendman's night scenes. Or Kenneth McGowan's brutally basic sequences exploiting the quality of a camera that ejects prints as quickly as a semiautomatic weapon fires. Or Don Rodan's juxtapositioning of reds and fleshtones. Virtually all of the work reveals a creative, imaginative sense of color that until now has been explored only by Stephen Shore and Joel Myerowitz (sadly missing from this show), as well as by William Eggleston, whose two Polaroid prints reveal a creamy understated tone lacking in most of this conventional color work.
There are a few photographers in this show who unfortunately didn't heed of the advice printed on every box of Polaroid film: Protect the environment; dispose of all trash properly. But One-Of-A-Kind, as the show is called, is largely a visual delight, as is the handsome, sumptuously printed catalogue published by Godine. The show closes Feb. 3.