One-Shot Wonders

Everybody knows about instant photos--aim, shoot, and sixty seconds later a small square of photographic paper pops out and develops itself into an image of Aunt Rosie. Because there's no negative, reprints, retouching and other arty effects aren't possible: What you see is what you get.

Even so, a number of artists defy Polaroid's untouchable image by manipulating instant film to make original art. Perhaps the best known of these artists, Lucas Samaras, paints on, cuts out and otherwise creatively interferes with Polaroid, sometimes using a gigantic camera and film. Samaras reproduces his originals on Cibachrome, the preferred fine-art format. Sierra Club photographer Lorran Meares controls the shutters of his homemade stereo Polaroid cameras so that the film's one-time image can be played with and altered during indefinite exposure times.

The applications for instant, self-developing film are expanding thanks to new computer/video/CD systems. Sony and Polaroid both offer home machines to produce fast, cheap "hard copies" from images on videotape or CD. And computer printers can digitally reproduce instant-film photos on large fine-art papers, with far more faithfulness to the subtleties of the original than even the revered Cibachrome.

This last feature is what spurred the three artist/partners of Live Art in the 21st Century to experiment with computerized printing of Polaroid pictures. The temporary gallery displays oversized digital reproductions of altered snapshots. Blown up, enhanced and laminated, the limited-edition art that results is impressive and durable.

The photographs themselves begin as more or less typical shots of familiar subjects: mountain views, street scenes, junkyard objects. Using manicuring tools, the artist directly manipulates the still wet and undeveloped image in the photo emulsion, producing swimmingly hallucinogenic moire effects and turning recognizable forms into curvy, jumbled-up abstractions. Careful strokes on the film surface make banal snapshots look like painted canvases.

Similar effects can be created with computer paintbox programs. But what sets Live Art's prints apart is that the mosaics and paint-over effects are done by hand. Although the technique is not original, it's difficult to master without transforming the tiny Polaroid into a scratched-up mess.

After completion, the dainty Polaroid originals are scanned, digitally plotted and reproduced on large sheets of paperboard. Unlike past digital translations of images, which had a machinelike, obvious grid, current technology allows natural variations in shadow and color, though the prints still consist of colorful microscopic dots. The resulting works have a more accidental, painterly quality.

None of Live Art's works pretend to have the fierce political content of cutting-edge art. But the final pieces have a disturbing quality: What may have started as a beautiful vista, calendar or postcard shot becomes a distorted whirlpool of color and form. Part of the fun of street scenes like "Octoberfest, `93" is picking out the landmarks: This view of Larimer Square is unlike any other. "Trinity"'s collagelike composition includes the Colfax cathedral and some KingKong-scale downtown skyscrapers. Custom tints and overpainting give it a special look and feel.

"Crystal River Mill," a weathered ghost-town structure that may be the most photographed building in the Rockies, is perhaps the least messed-with image here. Nevertheless, watery ripples carved in the photographic emulsion by artist Steve Zavodny give even this old warhorse an interesting slant. "Wreck," a study of a junked pickup truck in a barnyard, becomes a dreamy vision of the past.

While the choice of subject matter may lack imagination, these unusual photoprints compensate with their fascinating technique. Affordable and accessible, the works exhibited at Live Art for the 21st Century make Polaroid snapshots seem like artifacts of the future.

Live Art for the 21st Century, at 2817-G East Third Avenue, 399-6886. Current exhibition runs through January.

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Hart Hill