{ An Interview with My Mother, Who Invented Polagrams }
Paul Harm

Genevieve Wilk, my mother, is a photographer who lives in Pittsburgh. Her new series of digitized Polaroid manipulations, "Polagrams," can be seen on her Web site, www.wilkprints.com. Recently, I spoke to her about this new work. Our conversation follows.

How do you make a Polagram?
If you look at a Polaroid, the square framed part is the film itself. The chemicals are down at the bottom, in three pods. I just squish it up, and manipulate it. I have to work really fast. Usually less than ten minutes, depending on the film.
Which is really different from your previous work, like the flower series, which was all very set up.
There was a lot more time spent processing, and they were all set up. I had to set a plant there and look at it for a long period of time, and take a negative of it. I never took very many negatives of one particular thing. A lot of the pictures I took of you, weren't set up, they were more like snapshots.
Though there are pictures of me that are very formalized.
Oh yeah, any of the ones that I took with that 4x5 camera. Like the one with you in the chair in your long johns with your eyes closed. You got really good at posing.
People still yell at me for not smiling when they take my picture.
"Don't smile Paul." "Okay, mom."
"Smile, you have to smile!"
"And close your eyes."
Ha ha ha.
Ha ha ha.
What do you use to manipulate the film?
Here's my primary tool [she holds up a ruler]. This is for dots and circles [pen top]. And this is for lines [brass letter opener]. For one, I used a rolling pin. I also use some pens and pencils.
Do you consider Polagrams photography? They almost seem more drawing than photography.
I'm drawing on Polaroid film. I do still consider it photography, if only barely. Everything I've done has been in photography, and I don't want to get away from it. To me, it's very similar to a photogram.
What's a photogram?
It's a photograph produced using light, objects, chemicals and paper, but no camera. Making a polagram is similar to that, except that I've gotten rid of the mess of photochemicals, and the enlarger. I've added a computer to the process, and its much cleaner.
What do you use the computer for?
I do editing, especially if there are spots, or stray marks. I enhanced the eye spot here on this one, and the mouth on this one. They just didn't look right, so I made them look better. And I make them bigger. Polaroids are very small. With Polagrams, the initial act is real fast. Then I go back and adjust these really tiny things. I'm particularly fussy about edges.
It sounds like you're keeping the same ethic of photography. There are little problems to be fixed, and that's a natural part of the process.
Yeah, there are little glitches and spots that I get rid of. Painters paint over. Like anything, there's some rework. But I want to stay as close as I could to the original, there's just a thing in me about that.
You're mentioned "the mouth" and "the eyes" on a print. When you draw them, are you drawing specific things?
Yes. Well, for some of them, I start making it, and it comes out so fast, that its almost like I don't have time to think. I can't sit there and think, "Well, I want to draw the leaf on that plant over there." I push the chemicals up, and all this stuff comes out, and into my head, really fast. But in some cases, I have a general idea, like, obviously, the faces (here).
How did you come up with this? Have you done anything similar before?
I did something like this in 1980-something. I was taking a photography course, where we would do experimental things, like putting Polaroids in a toaster. I was just playing with one, and I squished the chemicals up, and made a face with it. I called it something really inane, "Mountain People".
Mountain People?
Something like that. The chemicals were pushed up, and I made a face.
That's what people do: they make faces.
That's what I did, and I made some "Cloud People" too. But, what I didn't realize at the time was that you could get colors. Because I just squished it, and left it at one layer, it just stayed beige. Which can only be so interesting. So I put it away. Then [in mid 2001], after I finished your origami vase, for your wedding present, I was taking pictures of it, before I gave it to you. And I think the film was outdated.
And it leaked.
It might have been the camera. I think that something in that camera catches on the film.
I'm not sure. I posted a question on a newsgroup. One person said, "Outdated film", another said, "Camera problem." So, to test it, I took a ruler, and got a blank piece of film, and pushed up the emulsion, and it leaked out of the same places as before.I played some more with the film, and realized I could get colors out of it, if I waited a little bit, and then push on it some more. The colors depend on how long I wait; there's a time factor. I can also wait for colors to show up. If you scrape real close to the backing, and then wait a couple of days, you get magenta.
So, it takes ten minutes, except when it takes two days.
That's the whole thing, with these, I do the initial drawing, and the colors look pretty nice. I say, "Oh that looks pretty good" and I scan it right away. And then, I sit with it for a while, because I know from past ones that certain colors will change to another color. For example, this one, #19, when this one started out, it was very blue, which I didn't really like. It was one of the first blue ones, and I set it aside. A few hours later, I looked at it, and said, "Oh, the blue's disappearing! How nice!"
Does blue always disappear?
Pretty much, yeah.
There's still some blue in there.
Yes, yes, some of it stays. But, it's not all over. It mellows out, it sort of ages.
It's like cheese.
Yes, they're cheese pictures.
And you found that magenta shows up after a while?
There's more control making these, than just taking a photograph and developing it, but there's still that little element of luck or chance. In this one, #16, I discovered that magenta shows up. Initially, I liked it; I thought it was nice, and that it was done. I looked at it a few days later, maybe a few months later, and it had that magenta thing in the top, and I said, "This is even better. Thank you, whoever it is." It's all these little things that make the process "semi-controlled", I guess. Do these things, and wait, and it might come up.
So, you've been working on these since last August?
I did most of these in August of last year. Actually, from the nineteenth to the twenty-ninth, I did eighteen of them. I did a couple in September and three in December. Like anything, they came in clusters.
Like I have good art weeks, and bad body weeks. One week, I sold a few prints, got into the art festival and put up my Web site. The next week, I fell in an elevator, hurt my shoulder, and got an infection. This was a bad cluster. Things come in clusters. The same with making polagrams, I got on a roll. I had to slow down a little bit, because I made so many. I had to start printing them, because it doesn't do much good if they're just sitting in my computer. I decided to take the time to work on the little details, clean them up, enlarge, and print them. Otherwise, it turns into a lot of sketches, with nothing completed. I like to stop and completely finish things. When I'm done with that, I'll go back to making new ones again.
I remember a long while ago, your not liking that there were a lot of photographers that would take thousands of photographs and send them off for people to print, or never print them.
You remember that? To me, it was like, "What's the point?" Why have all these kids if you're not going to spend any time with them? What's your reason for doing this? If you're just going to point and shoot and take ten thousand pictures, you're going to hit upon a good one. I guess that's true, but it seems awfully wasteful to me. And to me, the darkroom was such a big part, that I couldn't understand why you wouldn't print your own.
You've always been very darkroom-oriented.
I've spent more time in the darkroom than I ever did photographing. I would spend hours and hours in the darkroom, sometimes a whole evening, 5 or 6 hours, printing one negative. I was a real fussbudget in the darkroom.
Your new work is done all on computer. Do you miss the darkroom?
Yeah, I liked it. I like that red light, and the smell. I got accustomed to that smell.
I guess you could turn off all the lights, and put on a red light.
I do! I still have the red light in the kitchen, above the sink. I turn it on, and everything looks really neat. It looks sort of like infrared. I miss it; I worked in the darkroom for years and years.
So what's ahead?
Well, my Web site is up at www.wilkprints.com. I have a print in the Three Rivers Arts festival, in the photography section. And I hope to find a place without such noisy upstairs neighbors.
Well, I guess that's it. Thanks. Now let's have ice cream!
Yeah, ice cream!

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