Cromwell Schubarth grew up “with fixer in his nostrils.”
The son of a photographer who worked for Polaroid as a photo engineer, Schubarth himself became a photographer, journalist and instant photography advocate.
Now the man at the helm of the 12:12 Project, which challenges two groups of 12 artists to submit one instant photography piece a month for 12 months, Schubarth says he feels a responsibility to his late father and to the art of instant photography.
Schubarth took up the mantle of responsibility for the project itself from its creator, Nashville-based photographer Penny Felts Colbert, who passed away at age 61 from cancer in 2021.
“This is her baby,” Schubarth says of the project. “We want to honor her and create a showcase for what she’s created.”
Work from the 12:12 Project went on view Sept. 2 at Kaleid gallery on South First Street and will run through Sept. 30. The exhibit features artists from every corner of the globe, presented as several dozen tiny windows into interpretations of monthly themes like “resilience” and “symbiosis.”
Colbert started the project in 2013 on photo-share website Flickr, beginning with a group of 12 women. The group then expanded further to include 12 men. In total the project has involved more than 70 artists, with the two groups of 12 no longer separated by gender, giving more room to be inclusive of gender-diverse artists.
Featured artist Stefano Questorio, based in Italy, says instant photography challenges artists to use their imaginations. Without the ability to take multiple photos in quick succession and alter them in the development and enlargement process or with applications like Photoshop, artists must work within instant photography’s constraint of immediacy.
“One of the biggest charms of Polaroid is that you don’t shoot dozens and dozens of photos—it forces you to reflect, select, imagine, look,” Questorio says.
Film photography in all its forms is becoming more and more a rarefied art, and instant photography even more so. As photography as an industry shifts toward the infinitely more malleable and less-expensive digital, industry founders and titanic companies like Kodak Eastman, Fotokem processing, and Polaroid have faced bankruptcies and halted production of certain film stock.
Still, Schubarth believes film and instant photography will never die.
The 12:12 Project Open Group on Instagram has thousands of followers. As the project continues to grow, more and more people are drawn to instant photography. Schubarth helps lead “photo walks” through San Jose and San Francisco that attract dozens of instant-film lovers, many of whom are in their early 20s.
While its immediacy presents a challenge, instant photography still presents ample opportunity for experimentation and self expression as artists play with light, contrast and the film emulsion itself to create images that trade the sharp focus and high color fidelity of film for a dreamy, ethereal blur and color that whispers rather than shouting.
French artist Sophie Loustau says she’s still a novice when it comes to manipulating instant photos. She uses temperature changes, during development by developing photos in an ice cube tray or under the heat of a hair dryer. Experimentation and unexpected results are all part of the process.
“I like to test experiences right out of the picture,” Loustau says. “Sometimes I get what I want, sometimes not quite. But that’s the charm of the Polaroid and that’s what I like the most: the waiting and the surprise.”
Loustau shot a series on breast cancer, using the Pink October initiative to raise money and awareness of the disease. Though she never got to meet or work with Colbert, she was touched by the loss of the project’s founder to cancer.
Pittsburgh-based artist Lisa Toboz, herself a cancer survivor, echoed Loustau’s sentiments about Colbert and instant film’s unpredictable nature.
“I wouldn’t have discovered any of this if it wasn’t for Penny,” she says.
Colbert united the instant photography community, and Toboz says she was always supportive of artists. Toboz says joining the 12:12 Project helped her find her voice as an artist while working with a mercurial medium that lends itself to expression while remaining utterly changeable.
“There’s always a surprise, whether it’s a chemical streak or a divot or color shift,” Toboz says. “Those imperfections really enhance the emotions of the image and teach me to embrace the unknown.”
Thru Sept 30 Free
Kaleid, San Jose