Looking Back: Collaborations and Investigations

On the occasion of my exhibit “Shadows and Traces, the  Photography of John Reuter”, a 40 year retrospective of my Polaroid imagery I thought I would republish an essay I wrote in 1997 for my exhibit at Pittsburg Filmakers and Silver Eye Gallery.

John Reuter: Collaborations and Investigations

Afterglow, 1978

In 1997 the Pittsburg Filmakers and Silver Eye Gallery in Pittsburg presented an exhibit of works from John Reuter’s personal collection of 20×24 images by the artists he has worked with for 18 years and his own experiments in Polaroid imagery. The exhibit was curated by Linda Benedict-Jones. The following text was written for the wall panels accompanying the images.

“You have the greatest job in the world”. I have heard that on many occasions over the years that I have directed the Polaroid 20×24 Studio. I often just smile and kind of mumble that “it’s complicated”. For although it may not be as true as the person watching me thinks it is probably truer than I wish to acknowledge. For many that might have this job all that it entails would seem enough. But for one whose original ambition sought to be well known only for my own work, the job alone falls far short. And yet I have continued in this position for nearly seventeen years, so there must be something that keeps me here. That something has always been clear to me, it is the relationships I have developed with the many artists I work with. It is a unique relationship, for although I consider most of them close friends it goes beyond that. The creative process we enjoy is like no other that I can really think of. The closest parallels are those of the cinematographer and film director and/or the master printer and artist. The main difference between either of those situations is the medium itself; Polaroid. The creative process is greatly accelerated by the fact that we are working in an instant medium. To those who have never seen the Polaroid 20×24 camera this may be difficult to grasp. The handmade, 235-pound camera at times defies the artist to make the image they want. While it does some things easily, such as portraiture, many of the other things we ask it to do require hard work, intuitive decision making and on occasion good luck. Its eccentricities are fortunately countered by the fact that we know the results of our efforts in 60 seconds. We learn from our mistakes and build on our successes. The extraordinary reality that a direct camera image this size provides is amplified by the instant aspect of it all. None of us would likely be here trying this with a conventional camera. The payoff keeps one coming back for more.

Perhaps the most unusual aspect of my working with the camera and others is my own relationship with the camera. When I first saw it in 1978 while interviewing for the job I thought it was one of the most ridiculous things I had ever seen. I couldn’t see any attraction in it for my work and certainly couldn’t see running it for others. My work at the time was manipulated and painted Polaroid SX-70 prints. The aesthetic of super large format saturated straight color photographs was so alien to me that I eventually turned down the job when it was offered to me. I instead took a position in a research studio within Polaroid, where I worked with all of their films and cameras. My original intent: to stay for three years. Many things changed along the way. I met Karen Nelligan at Polaroid who later became my wife. The camera kept calling to me and in 1980 I moved over to 20×24. In 1981 however the studio as it existed was closed and I was laid off from Polaroid, an early victim of downsizing. The studio situation was restructured and moved to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts School and I became an instructor there. The camera also became an essential part of Polaroid’s Artist Support Program. It was at the Museum School that the reputation of the camera really grew as an artistic force. Local artists such as Rosamond Purcell and Olivia Parker continued their unique and beautiful still life explorations. Rosie Purcell in fact was responsible for bringing me to Polaroid. We became friends while I was in school at Iowa. I invited her to speak at the University of Iowa’s Refocus program. She introduced me to Eelco Wolf of Polaroid in 1977, who supported me with film and cameras for the last two years of my graduate career. Rosie also taught me the transfer process in 1978 for which I am ever grateful.

New artists such as Sandi Fellman, Barbara Kasten, Ellen Carey and Luciano Franchi de Alfaro III became regulars in the studio. Many of them would often stay at my house when they came to Boston to use the camera. William Wegman, who was supported by Polaroid in his first efforts on the camera, became the first artist to rent the camera in a substantial way, creating the legendary Man Ray photographs.

Bill used to describe us as “Polaroid friends”. We got along so well while we worked but never really spent time with each other outside of the studio, even after I moved to New York. But he worked so often that many of my life’s events were shared with him. He was with me the day my father died and later the day my first child was born. Bill married his wife Christine in the studio while surprising my staff and even his own. A few week later we would have to watch Fay Ray die after a quick and unexpected illness. It has really become “Polaroid family”.

I first met Chuck Close during the early Museum School years. I was taken by his sincere interest in me as a person and particularly his interest in my work. He was very encouraging as I struggled to teach my self to be a painter. His advice and support really helped me grow as an artist. When tragedy struck him in 1988 as he became paralyzed, he inspired me all the more with his courage and amazing talent. He fought back to create paintings even stronger than before. His candor about his condition and his own work continue to impress me. He will always be a hero.

I have had several opportunities to work with my “heroes”. The first was Lucas Samaras,whom I had done my Master’s thesis on in graduate school. I first had occasion to meet him during a workshop in Boston, before I worked for Polaroid. He seemed quite interested in my SX-70 work, which is unusual for him to show support. I later met him at an opening in 1980 while we were in New York to test market the camera. I told him I now worked for Polaroid and would he be interested in working on the 20×24 Camera. “What are you doing working for Polaroid?” he said, “I thought you were an artist.” I have never forgotten that line. I did bring him the camera to his home no less. I spent a memorable week with him in the fall of 1980 when he completed his “Sittings” series. These were portraits of Lucas and many of the people important to him in New York. I ended up becoming one of his sitters. Pretty heady for a 27-year-old two years out of graduate school.
Jerry Uelsmann was one of my favorite photographers when I first became interested in creative photography. I first met him in 1984 in Daytona Beach during bike week in a shoot arranged by Daytona Beach Community College. We hit it off very well and it was an incredible challenge to try and make a “Uelsmann” on such an unwieldy camera. We staged incredibly elaborate multiple exposures with several different magnifications. When we finally succeeded, all we had to do was create an edition. We have since run into each other at workshops across the country and always trade images when we do. Who could ever have thought that when I began in photography that this would come to pass? There are many more artists and relationships I could describe. Many have suggested I should write a book, which is no doubt true.