'"Each Click of the Shutter Is Precious": The Polaroid Artist Who Specialises in a Dying Medium'
words by India Irving, Culture Trip
In the age of smartphones, taking a bad photo has zero consequences – if you don’t like what you see on the screen, you can just delete it and start over. But for Polaroid photographer Cyrus Mahboubian, who takes photographs on a type of film no longer available for purchase, every shot counts and one mistake is one less photo he can ever take.
We live in an Instagrammable world where everything is picture-worthy. People queue for hours to snap a photo pouting in front of a nondescript pink wall and cut into their benedict with painstaking care to capture that perfect #eggporn ooze.
Photography has mirrored the culture of excess. Everyone has a camera in their pocket at all times; everyone is a photographer. There are no limits to how many pictures you can take or to how much you alter them. But what if that wasn’t the case?
British-Iranian photographer Cyrus Mahboubian is faced with exactly that dilemma. He works with Polaroids and owing to his professional-standard instant film – also known as pack film or peel-apart film – being discontinued, he has only 60 photos left until his art practice changes forever.
The 32-year-old’s passion for photography was sparked 12 years ago. “When I was 20 my father gave me a Nikon he bought in Japan in the 1970s,” he says. “It was a really beautiful object in beautiful condition and I just fell in love with it.”
Mahboubian, then a student at the University of Bristol, took some photography classes and slowly taught himself to operate the fully manual, analogue device. A few months later, he bought a vintage Polaroid camera and his response to the process was as instantaneous as the photo: “I was hooked from the first exposure.”
Mahboubian still remembers the first image he ever shot on Polaroid. “It was a wintry day in Somerset,” he says. “It was really misty and I took a photograph of this abandoned barn. The Polaroid came out of the camera and I slowly watched the image manifest. A few minutes later, I was holding that photograph I had just shot in my hand. It’s incredible. I still experience that stimulation and I’ve never lost interest in that process. I find it special and magical.” Sparked by the instantaneous yet personal nature of the film, Mahboubian dove head first into his Polaroid practice, shooting a mix of rugged landscapes, seascapes and nudes. His 10.8cm x 8.5cm black-and-white photographs manage to be wild yet serene, making the viewer feel like a secret is being shared with them. This is partially due to his work’s small size, which draws you in to look closely and transports you into that tiny world.
In 2008, just two years after Polaroids got him hooked, the company stopped producing their professional-grade instant film. Determined to keep making the work he loved, Mahboubian experimented with as many alternatives as possible until he found a match. “I came across this professional-standard instant film that Fuji was still making. It’s the predecessor of the iconic square Polaroids which were developed in the ’70s. These are the rectangular, black-and-white Polaroids that I still shoot today.”
Mahboubian was thrilled. “It was the first time, even though I’ve been shooting since 2006 and exhibiting since 2010, that the kind of images I would visualise and imagine in my mind would translate exactly the way I wanted them on to the photograph. The film was a big part of me finding my aesthetic as an artist. It’s really precious to me. It’s my medium.”
But within weeks of Mahboubian discovering his perfect film, Fuji announced that their product, too, would be discontinued. Mahboubian bought up as much of the film as possible but now has only six packs left. That’s 60 photos – assuming all of the packets are still good; they’re all technically expired.
Meanwhile, billions of photos are snapped every day across the world. But while most of us “take photographs”, Mahboubian “makes” them. There is purpose, creativity and deliberateness in every shot because there has to be. With each click of the shutter, the artist is one tangible photo closer to his last.
“It’s bittersweet,” he says. “This type of instant film has been important to my development and helped me find my voice as an artist but the fact that it’s finite pushes my process to the extreme. Each click of the shutter is precious, so it has taught me to look more closely at everything and made me a better photographer.”
Knowing his shots are numbered has pushed Cyrus to consider new ways of working with his favourite material. For his most recent body of work, he has gone back to his archives, selecting previously discarded photos, cutting them in half and collating them with another of his photographs to create a composite image. “It’s a way for me to keep working with Polaroids even though I don’t have the film,” he says.
But what does he make of Huji – the app that imbues images with a distinctly Polaroid vibe? “I often get asked if I’m annoyed with these apps or with Instagram because they make it easy to replicate a nostalgic vintage aesthetic,” he tells us. “But actually the average young person is more photo-literate than ever and probably has an interest in contemporary art just from being on Instagram so I think it’s a good thing.”
His hope is that people will begin to realise that pictures on a screen should not be replacements for physical photographs. “The reason we felt so moved by our family photo albums that we all had growing up is because they’re physical. We know those photographs were printed and looked at and loved. When you view a photograph on a screen, you don’t encounter it in the same way. It’s not the same experience. You experience it differently when you hold it.”
To Mahboubian, it’s the creating and holding of the photograph itself that makes his Polaroid practice, however fleeting, all the more special. “The physical photograph comes into existence in the moment and it’s an original. The light actually enters the lens of your camera and touches that paper and then you put it in your pocket. If you view that photograph in 10 years’ or 20 years’ time, you’ll know that it was there with you on the very day you chose to make it. The light you were seeing that day, those lightwaves entered the camera and touched that actual piece of paper. It’s a really special idea. It makes them sentimental.”
'These Beautiful Polaroids Are Casting a New Light on the Refugee Crisis'
words by Imogen Calderwood, Global Citizen
Discarded lifejackets, crowds of people waiting at barbed wire fences, families packed into dinghies hoping to be rescued. These are the images that most of us see when we think of the refugee crisis. But a group of London artists are hoping to change that, with a photography series that offers a different perspective.
“I think because we live in London, we’re somewhat detached from what’s going on across Europe. There’s the scale of the crisis, but it’s also something that we are slightly oblivious to here, and when we do hear about it, it’s always the problems that are reported,” artist Cyrus Mahboubian, 31, tells Global Citizen.
“My feeling was always that it’s a reality and it’s something we should talk about in an open way. We want to inspire people to be engaged and have a conversation.”
Mahboubian is the co-creator of the series, entitled “Migrate”, along with Sandra Nuoramo, who he met through NEXTGen London — a committee of young people in London that works to raise awareness and funds for Unicef. The pair gave the eight photographers involved a very open brief — to explore global migration. The only rule was that the artists had to use Polaroid film, donated to the exhibition by film manufacturers, Impossible Project.
“Polaroids are on a small scale, so the photos feel really intimate and unlike other photographic media, each one is unique, there’s no back-up, so they feel precious. The artists are all very different so they all approached the project very differently. Some took it very literally, but some others have made more conceptual work,” says Cyrus.
“I went to Dover, because it’s geographically the closest point to Calais and northern France. But also it’s the main point of entry from mainland Europe. I thought there was an interesting duality of the White Cliffs because they’re something that we celebrate in the UK, but they take on a different meaning for me now in light of the refugee crisis. They’re a barrier.”
London-based photographer Jack Harries created a series of images of his friend Mahamri, a Sudanese refugee his family have been supporting since he was granted refugee status in the UK.
Meanwhile, documentary photographer Alice Aedy’s work shows a mother originally from Somaliland, who Aedy met on a bus in west London.
The images are on show in London until Sept. 2, and are also featured in a book that can be bought online , with all proceeds being donated to support Unicef's appeal to help the children of Syria.
For Cyrus, who has been a full-time artist for five years, this is the first time that he has felt passionately enough about a political or social issue to engage with it in an artistic way.
But the refugee crisis is an issue that resonates with Cyrus’ own family history.
“Although I was born in London and have always lived here, my parents were refugees from Iran. They were studying in London, but during the 1979 revolution in Iran they couldn’t go home and applied for asylum in the UK. They were only 19 or 20 at the time,” he says.
“My family is dispersed all over the world. When I was growing up, I never understood why my family was so scattered because I never really thought about it. But it’s impacted my understanding of what’s going on now, because, next generation, there will be Syrian families living all over the world.”
He adds: “That’s why I think it’s really important just to have that conversation, because we are an island here. People aren’t reaching the UK in the same numbers as the rest of Europe, but we need to be open-minded."
'Moments in migration: Polaroids from the refugee crisis'
words by Polly Rodin, The Guardian
Earlier this year, Unicef initiative NextGen asked eight photographers, including Jack Harries and Cyrus Mahboubian, to respond to the concept of human migration. “Living in London,” says Mahboubian, “we find ourselves largely detached from the ongoing refugee crisis, despite its staggering scale. I wanted us to inspire fellow Londoners to have a conversation about it.” For the project, called Migrate, the photographers used Polaroid cameras, and film supplied by The Impossible Project. By using instant, says Mahboubian, “the interaction with the subject becomes more personal, shooting fewer pictures, talking more”.
'Reimagining Film in 2017'
words by Brian Oosthuizen, Loupe Magazine
Cyrus Mahboubian, a British-Iranian photographer, is an artist of note. He takes a thoughtful approach to his photography, manifest in his method and medium. In a culture becoming increasingly dependent on technological advances, Cyrus bucks the trend by utilising mostly instant film.
Cyrus writes about his approach to his subjects as follows:
The act of taking photographs is a meditative experience. I’m not a ‘decisive moment’ photographer. I don’t set out to capture a moment in time, but rather a feeling; an atmosphere. It’s the story of time spent with another person, or alone in contemplation.
As an instant film photographer, Cyrus might be expected to snap so-called moments in time, shooting and watching them develop instantly. Instead, Cyrus treats his subjects with thoughtfulness and consideration, an approach which often reveals itself in dark and thought-provoking images.
The subjects of his work are diverse, ranging from sensuous nudes to striking, bleak landscapes. Cyrus finds photographic inspiration in hidden, quiet locations where he can have an authentic experience with his surroundings. Perhaps this explains the stillness and depth that is evident in his photographs. He also speaks of his desire to create timeless images, a facet of his photography that is consistent across each subject, whether urban, rural, landscape or portrait.
It is worth dwelling more on one of the most distinctive and interesting aspects of Cyrus’ work – the medium. Cyrus shoots almost exclusively with polaroids. Reflecting on this, Cyrus writes:
Polaroids are objects. Each one is unique and cannot be reproduced. I’ve always found the physical aspect an important part of photography and it’s something that is, generally speaking, being lost. With their singularity, immediacy, raw quality and small scale, polaroids give us insight into a very intimate world.
On this he speaks adroitly. Film photography is a beautiful photographic niche and therein lies the relatively unexplored terrain of polaroid film. The immediacy is enticing and yet scary. Cyrus confronts this with integrity, meditating on and cultivating each photograph.
Cyrus mostly uses a now-defunct Fujifilm instant film, discontinued a number of years ago. Naturally, one laments such a loss. For the observer, this might add a certain nostalgia to Cyrus’ images. With the film stock only accessible to a limited number of people, the photographs become artefacts of a bygone era. When asked how he sees his work changing as older film stock runs out and new technology develops, Cyrus states:
It's a great loss and a source of sadness for me… but I believe evolution is important for an artist, so I'll move on and experiment with different materials until I find something that enables me to materialise what I see in my mind's eye. There is some hope for film lovers; Impossible Project's film is getting better and there are a few other specialist producers cropping up, such as new55 from the States… In terms of my own work, I have a large-format camera that I'm yet to tackle. I think that'll be the next chapter of my art practice and I'm excited to develop it.
Cyrus is correct – the photographic landscape is changing, and out of that change is growing an exciting generation of film photographers. Let us hope that Cyrus and artists like him are able to maintain the poetry of analogue photography in an ever-digitalising culture.
words by Kelley Mullarkey, Majestic Disorder Magazine
Uniting spatial awareness and a respect for nature, Cyrus’s forward- thinking-meets-nostalgic-appreciation offers a sincere insight into the world. His vision is an honest statement, but also a poetic one, capturing both wondrous backdrops and ordinary life at a pivotal time when human survival and longevity for our planet remain a serious matter.
A remarkable variety of texture, pattern and light, these photographs taken on the road set the tone for us to ponder and wonder how man is both a speck in the landscape and a part of it.
The cinematic mood and the influential force of Americanness that pours through each photograph narrates an exquisite beauty, but also a brewing forthcoming change on the long journey home.
' Cyrus Mahboubian : lieux d’être '
words by Jean-Paul Gavard-Perret, critique d'art et journaliste français
Cyrus Mahboubian aime explorer des réalités d’absence qu’il recompose. Les femmes sont présentes à travers lieux et indices. Mais le voyeurisme se renverse : les photos sont assez énigmatiques pour laisser le doute sur savoir qui regarde qui... On ne sait plus si le lieu d’exploration est le véritable jardin de l’être ou s’il se transforme en zoo dans lequel cages et allées des visiteurs sont interchangeables.
La mémoire de l’instant et des lieux ne cesse de s’altérer. Les photographies de Cyrus Mahboubian semblent "simples". Pourtant rien de plus complexe que cette apparente simplicité. De quoi en effet les photographies de l’Anglais portent-elles la trace ? D’amours, de blessures et de joies ? Le tout s’en doute avec parfois une pointe d’humour, un clin d’œil. L’artiste poursuit une partie de cartes et de cache-cache afin de prendre par défaut le réel. La moindre photographie anodine (quelques palmiers californiens vus en contre-plongée) ruine les thesaurus, écarte les pensums affectifs afin de préserver ce qui fait l’essence même de sa quête : une fabrique d'images qui soulèvent plus des doutes que des certitudes.
' Murmur '
words by Alison Bignon, Paris-based artist and curator
' murmur ' est la seconde exposition personnelle de l'artiste photographe anglais Cyrus Mahboubian; à la galerie Nivet - Carzon.
Après une première échappée dans l'atmosphère nostalgique et sensuelle de Los Angeles, rivée sur les recoins cachés de Mulholland Drive, l'artiste nous propose cette fois, un voyage photographique / initiatique en tension. La mer comme objet d'étude symbolique principale, comme objet mental, qui nous conte en détail la polyphonie musicale intérieure, propre à l'imaginaire de chacun.
La photographie devient abstraite, tire vers l'inconnue, malaxe notre imaginaire.
Cette exposition nous amène à visiter le " murmure " intérieur de Mahboubian, donnant lieu à une forme poétique fidèle à la liberté de rêverie de celui-ci.
' Murmur '
words by Jean-Paul Gavard-Perret, critique d'art et journaliste français
Pour Cyrus Mahboubian, il n’existe pas d’images accomplies, arrêtées propres à satisfaire d’emblée le regard. L’Anglais procède non par un gonflement par accumulation mais par une forme de réduction pour faire jaillir de la précarité du quotidien banal une poésie. Il rappelle ainsi que la photographie est toujours une recherche de la vie.
Mais ce n’est pas simple et cela contraint de naviguer en eaux troubles— même dans la clarté d’une piscine. La femme est souvent objet d’un culte érotique où l’artiste plus que son « modèle » est en position de victime d’un genre très particulier qui répond à l’injonction de Baudelaire : « Je suis la plaie et le couteau / Et la victime et le bourreau ».
« Remontant » le réel de manière souvent minimaliste, Cyrus Mahboubian garde un rôle aussi ambigu qu’astucieux : il n’est pas sans lever des ambiguïtés tout en en laissant d’autres fermées. Chaque photographie semble une approche, une attente. Ajoutons que l’œuvre ne tient pas du simple aveu et du déboutonnage de l’intime. Voir devient un mélange du su et de l’insu. Tout le travail l’artiste tient donc dans cette traque de l’intervalle, de l’entre, ou tout se joue entre l’artiste et son sujet – femme ou paysage.
La photographie ne contribue plus à engendrer du fantasme ou à distribuer de la nostalgie. Elle demeure en amont de la perception et de la remémoration. S’inscrit non une errance mais une expérience là où quelque chose vibre et soulève afin de retrouver en nous l’image la plus naïve, la plus sourde : celle qui n’ajoute rien mais ne retranche pas plus. Au contraire.
words by Megan Mulrooney, L.A.-based curator
L.A. I love you, but I hate you, but then I love you all over again because you're all lines and palms, lines and palms... And, really, it makes you think about this linear quality that is so uniquely Los Angeles, a religion unto itself that makes its worship predictable and often so monotonous that you wonder if freeways actually lead anywhere or if the phone lines function beyond their aesthetic sensibilities. It's this monotony that blinds its viewers - not the heat of the suppressing sun that makes travellers sluggish and housewives tan. It's this monotony that crystallizes the silver screen with the same kind of women - you know the kind - skin- and-bone skeletons of human form, blonde hair and glistening tans from the infinity pools which overlook the canyons.
It's precisely this monotony that Mahboubian's lens captures. As a photographer, writer or artist we feel confined in Los Angeles, yet this confinement is voluntary. We are sun seekers, worshippers of the line, addicted to the beauty that linear perspectives afford us. The city that rose from dust and sets in the light. A city where taking home a nude doesn't mean a painting or a prostitute... Angelenos. Angels. Angles. Assholes. If you capture this feeling, you capture Los Angeles.
'Mulholland: Polaroids from L.A.'
words by Kathryn Radin, Suitcase Magazine
Towering phone lines and palm trees line the streets; swimsuit-clad, sun-soaked women line the poolsides— Los Angeles, the City of Angels, home to long stretches of freeways, beaches and dreamers. The idea and image of L.A. is familiar, whether you’ve lived there for twenty years or haven’t even stepped foot on its soil. It is the monotony of L.A. that so entraps those who live there and the lines and stretches that keep people moving forward, striving for the next bigger and better thing. Los Angeles gives an allusion that it never ends, that there’s always more to come; those who live there get sucked in to the idea.
Cyrus Mahboubian is a British artist based in London particularly known for his work with polaroid photography. Previously, his work has been featured in shows worldwide and he has taught workshops at Tate Britain and the The Photographers’ Gallery. Mahboubian’s latest project took him to Los Angeles, California where he shot the endless array of palms and phone lines that stripe L.A. streets. He equates the “emotional power” of polaroid photos to “a handwritten letter or a ticket stub”, as they are moments in time captured in physical form. He explained, “conceptually, the main thing for me is that polaroids are originals; each one is unique and, unlike other photography, isn’t printed later…Each photo can be thought of as an object that has travelled.”
These polaroids capture moments in a city that’s always speeding by. It freezes viewers in a dreamlike moment, the very type of dream that inspires people to seek out L.A. in the first place. The images epitomise fleeting moments of the ‘American Dream’, bottling up the heat of Californian sun, the sight of poolside beauties and the infamous palm trees that dot the city. The contemporary world and landscape is captured in a nostalgic, old school art form, highlighting the surreal nature of this town.
'The Magic Portrait'
words by Mohammad Miraly, scholar and art collector
The reason Cyrus’s photographs are timeless is because he is able to step outside time’s barrier. The limited shots available in his ancient Polaroid camera means that he must do all he can to create the right conditions to get the best shot, which includes not only perfect lighting and staging, but also the psychological state of the subject. To foster the right state of mind, Cyrus manipulates time and nature: he takes you on a journey through the world’s beauty in order to inspire your internal stillness to reveal itself.
Whether it’s because he uses techniques now displaced or because of the depth of his own humanity, Cyrus is unique. He is out of step with the busyness of modern life, and that puts him askance to the norm. But, this gives him a rare perspective on the world. It’s the perspective of those who live in the province of the pensive, of those who deviate from the popular, and those who see things that others don’t.
words by Charles Johnstone, New York-based photographer
Last year on a blustery fall day I walked into the bookstore at The Photographers’ Gallery, the largest public photography gallery in London. It was there that I first met the young British photographer Cyrus Mahboubian. Over coffee he showed me images of his work and I was not only very impressed, but I hired him on the spot to assist me on a project that I was working on in Italy.
All this brings me to his first solo show in the US, Muse, a series of stunning photographs of a young lady photographed against the backdrop of the English countryside. The work combines elements of the dreamy landscapes of seminal English painter John Constable, with the beautiful portraits of British photographer David Hamilton. But Mahboubian takes it one step further with a captivating series of double exposures that not only highlight his muse, but shower her in a mysterious aura. As interesting as these double exposures are, my favorite work in the exhibition is the diptych of his model walking away from him as if to say “yes, you are photographing me, but I will always have the last word,” as has been the case in the history of art between artist and muse.
This exhibition shows us an exceptional young artist at the beginning of his career. It will be exciting to see him go from strength to strength, after this auspicious debut in Los Angeles.
words by Jennifer Cavanagh, London-based editor and critic
The prevalence of manipulated imagery can dull the impact of great photography. Brassai, Cartier-Bresson and Lange captured moments which astonished and provoked reflection. These and other photographers of their ilk inspired my love of the medium and I’ve recently struggled with contemporary work wondering how much is real and down to the eye of the photographer versus reformulation and computer enhancement.
So it is with great pleasure that I stumbled across Cyrus Mahboubian’s ‘1/1’ exhibit this week at The Tabernacle. This Notting Hill landmark never ceases to surprise me with events from African drumming to an intimate audience with Adele.
Mahboubian’s show is dedicated to the lost Polaroid format. The title ‘1/1’ references the unique one-off quality of his wok. The small gallery is hung with enlarged and smaller collage Polaroids highlighting layout and angle work.
In 2008 Polaroid discontinued the production of their film. As a Polaroid aficionado I was gutted to lose the instantaneous spontaneity of this medium. My own camera came from a road-side sale in rural France, holds a lot of good memories and still sits on a shelf in my home.
Mahboubian’s resurrection of this format seems particularly relevant in a time of manipulated news and messages in the media. His images are refreshing, and without time or place stamps allow the viewer to create their own story. It’s an exhibit with layers to consider, from the significant realness of the images to the importance of perception without manipulation and the beauty of “flaws” in an artist’s work. Pretty heady stuff for an emerging London artist in his 20s.
The lack of clarity in ‘Under Water’; the swimmer just below the surface is ephermeral, almost transparent, reflecting an impossible transient permanence beneath the weight of water. Turnpikes from a distance transport me along mundane repetitive journeys while a blurred tourist makes my imagination wander.
In an age of media manipulation this is a thoughtful, personal show that captures the stillness of reality and the passage of time, while reflecting the legacy of a format and, in the artist’s words, “making Polaroid relevant again in this digital age of photography.”
He has established himself through the raw immediacy of his work, rejecting any digital retouching or manipulation...
— YAY! LA Magazine
Cyrus Mahboubian can be described as one of London's most promising emerging artists. His evocative photography brings forth a unique blend of mystery, history and the essence of the land in one shot, leaving the audience truly captivated by an almost tangible emotional spirit.
The skill of his work and the effort of taking the time to find the right moment — sometimes hours — propels the pictures into the realm of the magical, making them otherworldly...
— If Looks Could Thrill blog
In Cyrus Mahboubian’s show at De Re Gallery, two Polaroids of a model — young, brunette and perfect for some lusty film that Éric Rohmer might have made in the 1970s — have been scanned and enlarged. As a result, the girl's a little blown out, as is the greenery behind her, which creates just the right effect.
— L.A. Weekly
His intimate Polaroids pictures, also shown in the exhibition, reveal the level of trust he developed with his model—a relationship forged through time, presence and nature.
— ArtBlitz LA
Cyrus reels in the fleeting and disposable nature of our world by delivering pure magic with each click of his camera.
— Majestic Disorder
According to Mahboubian, photographs should not only represent a final scene, but also the time the photographer spent in contemplation and meditation.
— Marie Claire Finger