Instant Gratification

Italian photographer Claudia Cuomo is making sure instant photography sticks around in the digital age.

Press the shutter and hear the whizz of the camera. You pull out the photo with a satisfying snap, just as a shimmer of color appears in its white frame. Everything about instant photography is iconic: From the unwieldy cameras and their washed out pictures, right up to the (widely-debunked) call to “shake it like a Polaroid picture”.

An iconic status is helpful when technology moves on. Like vinyl records or video tapes, instant photography has been utterly disrupted: Take a picture with your phone and you can see it instantly, no waiting let alone shaking required. Polaroid cameras and their siblings are paradoxes in our age of digital photography, but they’ve nevertheless stuck around. Their fans have carved out a niche for it; one in which people like Claudia Cuomo now thrive.

The Italian photographer uses instant film to create moody pictures, playing to the very strength of their deficiencies: She picks out scenes where the odd colors, ghostly skin tones, and missing detail add something to the picture. Her compositions and subjects combine the film’s inherent surrealism with a sense of adventure.

“Shooting Polaroids means taking a risk,” she tells me. “The camera is a tool and a toy at the same time; you never know what you’ll get.” It’s precisely the challenge that she enjoys. When I speak with her via video call, she regularly disappears from sight to retrieve another model from her impressive collection of instant cameras; each letting her experiment in new ways. “Each one gets you different results. They’re mechanical instruments, very imprecise ones. But that’s what makes them so different from digital cameras.”

When I mention the paradoxical staying power of instant photography, Claudia laughs: “It’s simple: When a shot costs €1, you take each picture only once.” She’ll shoot digital as well, but finds it particularly fascinating to create pictures that are so unique. Although you can digitize them by scanning, there’s only one physical copy, and even that is determined by your camera, the age of the film, or the temperature and light when it developed.

“People are looking for something real, for something authentic,” she says. “An instant photo can’t be retouched. It’s a proof of something real. Sure, it may also be imperfect, but who cares? That’s exactly what’s so great about it.”

“In fact, many are reassured by the physicality of the pictures: Sometimes I shoot the same thing twice to give a picture away.”

Claudia came to photography from an unusual angle: She works as a model and eventually switched from being before to behind the the camera lens. It has given her a unique vantage point from which to look at the medium—and a conviction that the authenticity we’re all after is very much a trend.

“Right now, everybody wants lifestyle shots: No make-up, only natural lighting.” In the fashion world, agencies will ask for ‘polas’ or other such snapshots as part of the casting. That type of photography is a sure way of getting un-retouched natural light pictures.

That’s a style, of course, contains its very own paradox: “Instant photography has a fake allure of cheapness. That makes it seem more democratic than it actually is: The film is quite expensive.” It doesn’t dissuade her, though: “I just love how the photos come out. There’s nothing quite like it.”