Winnipeg through Gord Arthur’s Vintage Polaroid

New Work

by Ryan McBride

The object in the hands of Winnipeg photographer Gord Arthur looks innocent enough at first: a flat, buff-coloured brick with a seam at one end, just large enough to tuck into a coat pocket.

But with a gesture worthy of a magician, he cracks open the seam and the object suddenly doubles in size, ejecting a compact viewfinder and lens.

“Behold the Polaroid SX-70,” Arthur says. “This was my first camera. It’s still my favourite.”

Now 52, Arthur bought the SX-70 in 1974 at a Woodward’s department store for $100. (That was a lot of money back then.) The camera, which came with a precision lens, focus, and exposure control, was state-of-the-art for its time.  He still remembers the first picture he took with it. “I snapped a shot of my baby niece. The picture came out and I could see it developing right there in my hand. It was like magic.”

For nearly 30 years, he’s used this camera to capture thousands of instant snapshots in and around his home in Winnipeg’s Fort Rouge neighbourhood.

But these aren’t your average Polaroids.  These pictures have bite.

At first glance, they appear to catalogue an endless variety of discarded toys, suburban landscapes, and curious lawn ornaments. Look closer, though, and you can’t help but sense something violent and disturbing has just taken place. The toys rest in desperate, corpse-like poses. The empty yards vibrate with menace. And the lawn ornaments stare back at you.

“I think of my Polaroids as little mysteries for the viewer to solve,” Arthur says. “I sometimes call them existential crime scene photos.”

Mary Reid, curator of contemporary art and photography at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, agrees that Arthur’s Polaroids are no mere snapshots. “He’s definitely an artist of merit. He creates these fabulously curious experiences in his work. He chooses his subjects carefully and then frames them in a way that evokes a whole range of emotions, and that makes them art.”

The best of Arthur’s photographs have been showcased in local galleries such as Semai Gallery, Cre8ery, and the Millennium Library’s Blankstein Gallery. Some have sold for as much as $200.

Semai Gallery director Taskashi Iwasaki says Arthur’s ability to fuse the strange and the ordinary in a single image gives his photos their magical appeal. “They show us things we see every day but never stop to really notice.”

A child’s pink plastic play set, peeking out over the rim of a graffiti-splattered BFI bin would hardly stop most of us in our tracks. But isolated in one of Arthur’s Polaroid frames, the abandoned toy invites us to view it as the main character in a tale of misfortune and woe.

The effect can often be quite funny, says Jordan Miller, director of Cre8ery. When “Uncertain Times,” a collection of Arthur’s Polaroids, appeared there in August 2010, Miller says she was struck by how many people laughed out loud while looking at them. “People often take art so seriously,” she says. “It was nice to see them have fun with it.”

Arthur himself admits that much of the humour in his Polaroids comes from looking at his surroundings through the eyes of an outsider. Even though he moved to Winnipeg from Glasgow, Scotland when he was eight, he says he “never really felt like a Winnipegger. More like a stranger in a strange land.”

What makes Winnipeg such a peculiar landscape for him to come to grips with? “I call it prairie despair,” he says, referring to “the almost comical aura of tragedy that accumulates around the objects Winnipeggers discard.”

Arthur has found many of his favourite subjects—“out-of-place holiday decorations”—sitting in plain view in the yards of his own neighbourhood. Many of his Polaroids capture Christmas’s jolly denizens—plastic snowmen, Santa Clauses, reindeer—marching across the sere summer grass, or posing in the warm sunlight. “So many people here keep their holiday decorations up all year round,” he laughs. “Are they being willfully absurd, or just lazy?”

Whatever catches his eye, he’s careful not to alter or manipulate it before taking the photo. Instead, he lets the storytelling come out in the composition. “Usually I have to get very close to the subject to get the right photograph,” he says.

Sometimes this involves walking up a private driveway or taking a step or two into a yard. “So far no one’s come out with a shotgun to scare me off,” he says. “Maybe I’ve been lucky.”

He finds other subjects while riding around on his bike. “It’s all a matter of luck and timing,” he says. “When a picture is successful, it’s because I didn’t expect to find what I ended up photographing. When I see something and don’t have my camera with me, and I go back later to capture the shot, the magic is gone.”

According to Reid, the Polaroid format itself contributes to the magic of Arthur’s work.  “At some point soon there will be no more film of that kind of vintage,” she says, referring to Polaroid’s decision to discontinue production of their instant film in 2008. “So there’s this wonderful synergy between the ephemeral surface of the Polaroid and the ephemeral nature of what he’s seeing. He’s also playing with the medium. He’s finding creative solutions to the limitations of what he has to work with.”

Arthur says it’s precisely the limitations of Polaroid—its unpredictability, its imprecision, its scarcity—that appeal to him the most.

For instance, while his camera does let him control focus and exposure to some extent, much of what appears in the final image is the result of luck. “No matter how clearly you imagine the picture beforehand, you always end up with something unexpected, whether it’s in the lighting or focus or how the colours turn out.”

Arthur tells a story to illustrate his point. In 2009, he bought a batch of instant film from Unique Photo in New Jersey, one of Polaroid’s last remaining suppliers. But when the order arrived on his doorstep, he discovered the film had already expired.

“I went ahead and used it anyway,” he says. “I noticed right away that the colours were a lot less saturated than what I was used to. But strangely enough, that really worked for the photos I was taking. It ended up giving me exactly the kind of image I was after in the first place.”

Ironically, the same chemical properties that help create Arthur’s distinctive-looking photographs also work to destroy them. Some of the pictures have already begun to fade. “I call them ‘age-toned’,” he says. “It’s the price I pay for using an unstable medium.”

And because Polaroid film is now so expensive and hard to come by, he also finds himself being a lot more selective about what he chooses to capture. “You can’t just point and shoot everything you see, like you can with a digital camera. Every image becomes a lot more precious.”

Arthur says this is especially poignant because so few of the pictures he takes “have the magic” he’s after. “A good photo is no easier to produce than a good poem or a novel. I’m lucky to get something I respond to afterwards, that I’m personally satisfied with. If I can capture on film what I felt when I saw the subject, and the camera didn’t put up a fight, then I’ve succeeded. But it’s so rare.”

And yes, the camera sometimes does indeed put up a fight. In winter, the battery often freezes. The film also reacts strangely to the cold, producing purplish, bruised-looking partial exposures. Arthur has managed to solve the problem by tucking the film under his arm to keep it warm. He refers to the results as his “arm-pit photography.”

With only a dwindling stock of instant film still left in his freezer, Arthur has begun to look farther afield for a new supplier. He says he’s encouraged by Fujifilm’s recent efforts to produce a second-generation Polaroid camera and film system, but credit card-size pictures are “too tiny” to suit his style of photography.

He says he’s also intrigued by the Impossible Project, a group of former Polaroid employees struggling to produce instant film in a factory in the Netherlands. Unfortunately, he says, their film is hard to order, and so far the reviews of its quality haven’t been all that stellar. Critics have complained about everything from spoiled exposures to a clumsy developing process. “I’m still waiting to see if they work out the kinks,” he says. “Call me old fashioned, but I like the film the way it was.”

If vintage Polaroid film does run out for good—and the day may come soon—Arthur says he’ll have no choice but to go digital. Last year, his girlfriend gave him a Sony point and shoot, which he uses for vacation photos. Still, he says he’s loath to make the switch for good. “The results are always flatter. The images don’t have the same warmth as film, the same expressiveness as Polaroid in particular. Film is a different thing than digital in that it lends a certain romance to the image.”

And while he’s also tried some of the software that turns digital photos into Polaroid lookalikes (“Faux-laroids”), Arthur says they, too, lack the magic he’s after. “There’s a value in authenticity,” he explains. “People like the Polaroids because they’re tangible, they have a history. They’re objects in and of themselves. They’re real.”

Gord Arthur is a Winnipeg photographer, bookseller, and part-time theatre usher at the historic Walker Theatre. His recent digital work can be viewed here.


Ryan McBride

Ryan McBride is a Winnipeg writer, editor and photographer.