Midway through my conversation with artist Polly Chandler, she shows me a picture of the contents of her refrigerator. Like every Austinite, Chandler has a condiment collection worth bragging about. But that’s not what she’s trying to point out. Chandler’s fridge is packed with over 200 boxes of Polaroid 4”x5” film. “Don’t worry,” she tells me, “there’s a little space where I put my bread.”
I still suspect that Polaroid film is Chandler’s staff of life, and my suspicion is confirmed. “I fell in love with it,” Chandler says. “The 4x5 film is a little like what you think of as standard Polaroid — the negative develops instantly. And the grain is so fine, you can blow a photo up huge, and it will hold its integrity.”
Sounds good. Just one hitch, though: Polaroid no longer makes this film. Chandler’s stockpile allows her continue to use it — in concert with her large-format camera — to produce moody and electric black-and-whites. You can find these around town: Chandler’s photos appeared in the March issue of Tribeza, for instance, and in Arthouse’s recent 5x7 show. Another photo hangs in Austin City Hall. All these images owe their birth to a single, monster purchase of film Chandler made in 2008.
“I was at a photography trade show in Las Vegas. The only vendor that did not have a booth was Polaroid. And that was the sign — I knew it was bad! So I took my credit card and bought $11,000 worth of Polaroid film [that day]. It’s all in my fridge.”
Just four years earlier, Chandler had graduated from Southern Illinois University. She experimented with graphic design and drawing, but it was only when she started using Polaroid with one of the University’s large format cameras — a real clunker, she tells me — that she realized her calling.
“I was at a trade show in Las Vegas. The only vendor that did not have a booth was Polaroid. And that was the sign — I knew it was bad! So I took my credit card and bought $11,000 worth of Polaroid film [that day]. It’s all in my fridge.”
“I have never had any person, or any thing, or any drug make me feel as high as I do when I make a photograph. I will start shaking. I feel euphoric. I feel exhausted in the most amazing way. I feel like I have a purpose.”
That’s when Chandler mentions the photographic series she’s been working on since 2009. Called You Build it Up, You Wreck it Down, it riffs off the work of singer/songwriter Tom Waits.
If you’ve ever heard Tom Waits, you know he’s an acquired taste. To me, for example, he sounds like a guy recovering from tracheal surgery. But Chandler says Waits’ lyrics are what matter most. “He’s a poet!” she exclaims, and rattles off a few lines. “It’s the tattooed broken promise hidden beneath my sleeve!" Or how about, "Why do I save all this madness in the nightstand drawer?”
We banter for a while, and Chandler and I settle in on a photograph of hers inspired by the Waits song “House Where Nobody Lives.” In the song, Waits refers to a beat-up wooden house that’s been abandoned by a family. Years ago, the image planted a seed in Chandler’s imagination. “I started buying all these little wooden and cardboard houses at [Austin craft store] Hobby Lobby,” she says, “but I didn’t know why.”
Then, this past February, she took a picture of one of these tiny houses in her driveway. A woman’s long shadow — Chandler’s own — looms over it. While the photo invokes sadness, the process behind it sounds charmingly 78704.
“I was on a ladder in my driveway wearing this really big hoop skirt. And I had to hide the camera in front this skirt, which was hard because the camera is so big. And the sun was moving behind me so it took me hours to get the shot of this tiny house into my shadow.”
As with every piece of Chandler’s, the photo reflects a technical coup. An emotional honesty rests behind each picture, too.
“When I made this photo, I had just had a huge conflict with many members of my family over Christmas. It was bad. I’m 39, I don’t have a family, I’m not married, and the house was placed in the shadow of right here [points to her belly]. And I’m just struggling with being okay with not having a family. And struggling with the idea that the white picket fence isn’t gonna happen for me. So [the house is] in my shadow. I think that’s what the picture’s about.”
“I started buying all these little wooden and cardboard houses at [Austin craft store] Hobby Lobby,” she says, “but I didn’t know why.”
Chandler’s work explores themes like addiction, loss and helplesness in a private, exquisite language. I wonder aloud about how she feels living in Austin, a city which takes pride in its upbeat vibe.
She tells me, “In real life I’m goofy and stuff, and sometimes people point to my pictures and say: ‘You made that?' ...[but] my work is definitely dark! I think now that I’m teaching I feel in good company. I think when I’m not around other photographers, I feel isolated.”
Chandler worked for several years as a staff photographer at the Texas House of Representatives, and serves today as an adjunct faculty member at the Art Institute of Austin. She loves the job. “It’s helping me talk about photography. And when I find students that love it as much as I do, we can really connect over that.”
She says a tough lesson for students to learn is that, even though a creative pursuit might be your passion, it doesn’t always equate to joy.
“There are times when I make a photograph where I can’t get it to come out the way I had envisioned it. Or I’ll have technical issues with [developing]. I have cried, felt like I was gonna pull my own hair out. And I hate it, I hate photography in that moment! But I’m still always going to love photography, and work through it to get that image.”
Though I know Chandler’s not a huge fan of digital photography, I ask how a beginner like me can approach taking digital photos — Instagram photos, for instance — to the next level. She responds that, no matter what instrument you’re using to take a picture, cultivating your eye is the most important first step.
“Don’t stop at your initial thought of what to photograph. Take that picture because you needed to make it, but then think: How can I photograph that like no one’s ever photographed it before? Should I lay on the ground to take the shot? Instead of taking a picture of the whole leaf, what about just the tips of the leaves?”
She adds, “A lot of times we’re letting our conscious mind tell us what our work should look like. If you can let go of that, you’re style will float up. I had to let go of the fact that what I picture in my head is not what I’m going to see on my [film] negative. Once I quit having anguish about that, everything moved with more grace.”