CURITIBA, Brazil — Despite Polaroid having officially discontinued its product in 2008, it has resisted extinction. In 2012, the company started selling new instant film, which, while not as good in quality, has allowed it to live on. Created in 1937, Polaroid developed as an art form in the 1970s thanks to the work of artists like David Hockney, Andy Warhol, and Mary Ellen Mark. Part of the appeal, for artists and non-artists alike, has been the film’s unpredictable and imperfect qualities. Charif Benhelima, a contemporary Belgian artist whose Polaroids are now on view at the Oscar Niemeyer Museum in Curitiba, takes advantage of the camera’s unsophisticated technology to produce photographs that look more like drawings or watercolors.
There are four series on display, ranging from images of daily objects and plants to street scenes in Harlem, New York (where he lived for a while), to portraits of people of Semitic descent. The latter project emerged out of Benhelima’s interest in his Sephardic Jewish origins, which he only discovered as an adult. His father was Moroccan and his mother Belgian, but having been orphaned at the age of eight, Benhelima grew up with many gaps in and questions about his personal history. His art, in turn, reflects how we build memory and identity with images.
His most compelling photos are the least obvious ones, unattached to specific subjects and putting our own memories and associations to work. Black-Out (2005) is composed of outdoor scenes, often capturing a single subject: a car, a chair, a traffic cone, a basketball hoop, a pair of tire swings, an orange garbage can. Sometimes the items appear discarded (are those plants growing out of that sofa?), but, as Maira Kalman once said about found objects, they seem “brave to survive,” and tender in their loneliness. The subjects here emerge out of white, foggy backgrounds — Benhelima places a gray filter in front of the light meter so that the film overexposes — appearing a little lost and out of context, while still evoking place: two colorful, striped chairs suspended in a yellowy mist bring to mind a hot day on the beach, as a couple has abandoned them for a swim. In each frame, the object yearns to belong.
As the title of the series suggests, there has been a loss of vision or memory that these photos are trying to retrieve. On the verge of appearing or disappearing, the barely delineated objects are like apparitions. They recall scenes from Federico Fellini’s Amarcord, a film based on the director’s childhood in Rimini, where he attempts to reproduce, rescue, or re-see moments of his past. Images register as visions or daydreams: the famous transatlantic ocean liner Rex that materializes in the night suddenly, its immense body like a house you can’t enter; or the whistling boy walking in the fog who stops in his tracks when a white bull appears, glinting in the mist. Both the bull and the ship remain for only a few seconds and, like Benhelima’s photographs, emerge from empty expanses, filling in absence while also acting as reminders of it: of something that once was or soon will no longer be. (Benhelima’s blown-up photographs, two of which are on view here, are especially eerie in this sense: life-size but not wholly present.) Fellini invented the word “Amarcord,” taken from “a m’a cord,” which in the Italian dialect of Emilia-Romagna means “I remember.” He said he “intended [the word] to be … the reflection almost of a mood … the fusion of two extremes … such as indifference and nostalgia.” “Amarcord” refers less to the objects of Fellini’s memory than to the mixed feelings of living with those memories. Similarly, in Benhelima’s Black-Out series, the focus seems to be less on what is depicted (he never discloses location, for instance), more on the hazy process of searching or feeling for a moment.
The series Roots (2008–15) is divided into two parts: “Occupancy,” portraying plants growing in urban environments or that have adapted in cross-breeding, and “Memorial,” showing flower arrangements in pots, which, like the objects in Black-Out, are each placed in a white nowhere. Here, again, the images do not register as photographs, but as soft washes of color. Plants appear as negatives, or deletions, in the landscape, and many are floating, unrooted. Our roots, the series begs to say, are more scattered and difficult to trace than the word suggests. Our pasts do not form neat foregrounds and backgrounds, or whole and linear stories.
Benhelima’s technique fails when his attempt to “erase” looks like erasing. In Semites (2003–05), rather than retreating or coming forth on their own, the portraits of men and women — gathered from archives, the artist’s personal albums, and flea markets — are censored with a bright light that could also be mistaken for a clumsy flash. His Harlem on my Mind series compensates for the photographer’s outsider perspective with too many effects: red filters and black-and-white film seem to want to transport us to another time (where men wear bowler hats and women, flowers in their hair), and sharp angles from above and below attempt to capture a moving city, a lived-in space. But we see the technique before we see the image, and we’re left trying to see what lies underneath, with an urge to remove all the layers.
Still, Benhelima’s continued and insistent use of Polaroid film — he bought large quantities of it when he realized it was being phased out — is apt. The Polaroid is ephemeral: each photo is unique and cannot be reproduced (at least not in the same way other film can), like the very moment in time it registers. Whereas most photographs serve to remind us of what was there and experienced, Benhelima’s photographs, when at their best, expose what isn’t, or what is gone.
Charif Benhelima: Polaroids, 1998–2012 continues at the Museu Oscar Niemeyer (R. Mal. Hermes, 999, Centro Cívico, Curitiba, Brazil) through April 3.