Article Submitted to the Polaroid Originals Magazine by DJ Pangburn.
In the mind of artist Christopher Manning, the Polaroid image is a memory to be excavated and probed through radical alteration. He cuts his Polaroid photos, flays them and encases them in paint, rips them open, and often inserts found images and text to further alter their surface level meaning. In technique and style, it is a fairly surrealistic mode of artistic creation, where the conscious and subconscious mind are examined without necessarily drifting into the realm of dreams.
But this life in art almost didn’t happen. Originally a pre-med student at Manhattanville College (BFA) and SUNY New Paltz (MFA), Manning was taking drawing, painting and printmaking classes to satisfy liberal arts general requirements. By the end of his college career, he’d switched completely to art, which was when Manning began working with Polaroid film. “I grew up in the 80s and my parents were photographers, so Polaroid cameras were just there,” Manning tells Polaroid Originals. “My dad was an amateur photographer turned businessman, and we had a dark room in the basement, and my mom was a hippie turned art teacher.” Manning would grab his parents’ Polaroid camera and take endless pictures of his soccer trophies, action figures, his tuxedo cat Stripey, and all other facets of his youthful life. The camera was as a way to document and consequently cement the inhabitants of time around me. And it’s a process that has followed Manning throughout his life and work.
“I started messing around with Polaroid film in college because I was up late at night and I didn’t know what to do,” he says. “I had all of this Polaroid film, so I just started taking photos of things that were happening during the night inside this tiny room I had in college.” Manning took photos of objects like outlets and towel racks. For him, the work was a way to explore the energy inherent in such moments and then add to them. “I started drawing on top, etching into, and cutting through all of these polaroids to excavate surfaces to reveal what was underneath, but also add to things as well,” Manning recalls. “It was all about that instinct for what it was progressively in the collective unconscious and the singular notion of time. I need to add to and subtract from that moment.” “The first ones, back in 2004 and 2005, were almost blank,” he adds. “They were just moments of energy. I used to take an etching needle and etch into it, and then take oil pastels and rubbed them into those lines. So it was like adding my energy to that energy, and it worked like an etching plate.”
The slicing came later, as Manning explains. Unlike the etching, the slicing was about excavating the image to find out what lay beneath. “That instant was just the surface, and it wasn’t enough for me,” he says. “I needed to find out if something needed to be covered or if there was a moment forgotten, just as we do with our memories in life.” As a big fan of error, Manning also embraced failure in his early experiments. He still does welcomes error, often thinking, “Okay, that didn’t work, so how am I going to make this work?” Apart from etching and slicing his polaroids, Manning adds acrylic paint to them. This can be in thick coatings that crack like centuries-old paint, or by scraping some of the paint off with credit cards.
“[Early on], I was doing stuff in my studio and I didn’t have heat, and I found that if you leave tons of acrylic paint at near-freezing temperatures, the cracks you get are great,” explains Manning. “I also use spray paint, and then I cut into the film with an Exacto knife and peel it back, and I add things underneath the photo.” Manning appreciates spraypaint for the instant covering, which mirrors his use of instant analogue images as a base medium. “[Spraypaint] is a really easy utilitarian tool,” he says. But after a moment’s reflection, he self-deprecatingly adds, “I have no patience.” Oftentimes Manning takes self-portraits, then cuts his own face out. He says it’s a tough because he kind of feels psycho doing it, but he wants to reveal the true person beneath the public mask, or even something else entirely. In place of his face, Manning routinely inserts images of other faces, or things like lightning strikes, rocks and ancient crustaceans.
The crustaceans, in fact, are a common theme in Manning’s destroyed polaroids. Typically he cuts his face out of a black and white polaroid—a format he opts for because he likes the monochromatic look—and fills the new negative space with a color image. “I’m going to use this more contemporary image of something that’s extremely ancient, this lifeform that lived forever ago,” Manning says in describing his interest in crustaceans. “I’ve always viewed energy as something that never dies but transfers in different ways, so how is it not still with us? And the crustacean has a spiral that just sucks you right into the face.” Manning also adds words to the images. A collector of vintage books, he scours the texts for words and phrases that make a singular statement about how the work makes him feel. More recently he has been using his own handwriting insteaad of found text. “I keep this running document of poetry that is, I don’t know, about 50 pages long at this point with short stanzas,” Manning notes. “I use it for titles and a lot of times they go into the works.”
When not adding or removing elements, Manning creates geometric shapes on his polaroids. He does this by using painter’s tape to section of parts of the photo. This came about because Manning was always lazy in the dark room. “In these photos there was only one thing I liked and the rest had to go,” he says. “I started taping off segments as unnecessary, and I started thinking of it as memory: what’s necessary or what’s the privileged information you choose to remember and the rest you block out? So that’s where those photos come from. I think that when you speak to someone, you only see so much—it’s what they choose to expose,” Manning muses. “With myself, I’ve really struggled with obsessive-compulsive disorder, and a lot of it comes from the Catholic church… I just didn’t get along with religion: it tortured my mind and I wanted to block it out. So with the rest of my life, how have I blocked out certain sections?”
Whatever the theme or technique, Manning characterizes his polaroids as massive experiments. And many of them are failures, but this is typically what he loves about them. “I keep these failures,” Manning says. “I work on anything from 30 to 120 simultaneously, and that’s on top of my other work. With polaroids, it’s about capturing that moment and that’s it, mistakes and all. I love mistakes.”
“Works are constantly manipulated [and] what was once excavated or covered will down the road (sometimes years later) be completely changed,” he adds. “The simple fact is if it weren’t for errors within my process, I doubt progress would be possible. I thrive on it. In that manner, process mirrors life. Without falter, I doubt we would get very far or learn very much. I aim to show these aspects of life concurrently, successes, failures and that grey area in between.”
Discover more of Chris’ work, and his process, on Instagram.
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