Fred, Polaroid impressions

A photo that appears from an instant camera. Inspired by a painting or a Japanese poem. A camera that Fred (@zenjohnzen) loves exploring, using and re-using films…

“Photography is about finding out what can happen in the frame.” (Garry Winogrand) 

What is photography for me? What drives me to take a picture? What do I want to express, to communicate with my images? Difficult to summarize, because photography has meant different things to me over the many years I’ve been doing it. 

As an autodidact, I have developed my creativity and technical skills by exploring various camera techniques, attending workshops, reading photography and art books in the last forty years. I have gained experience with different formats of photographic films, processing and printing them. Photography was sometimes more, sometimes less important for me. I bought a lot of equipment, sold it, bought other stuff, sold it again and bought something else depending on what I wanted to try out. I’ve never been able to limit myself. I was delighted by the stuff and the artistic opportunities of analog photography. The smell of the chemistry in the darkroom and the appearing photo in the developing dish was always a great experience. 

Nowadays I still and mainly shoot digitally with 35mm cameras. A couple of years ago I rediscovered Polaroid photography, maybe because a complete digital workflow did not satisfy me anymore. I was hungry to experiment, to break new ground, to create unique things, but I did not want the hassle of having to set up a completely outfitted photo laboratory again. By then I’ve got several Polaroid cameras and various instant cameras – as I said, the restriction is a problem for me. 

For the contribution to this blog, I will write about my passion for Polaroid photography, showing some of my works. 

I like the authenticity, technical imperfections, unmistakable look and the sound when a picture is being processed and printed by my Polaroid cameras. Every picture is a mystery, a surprise and a little bit of magic. For me, it is a deeply emotional moment, waiting for the picture to come out of that little box. It‘s really satisfying to see the photographic work appear under my hands. 

To take digital images is relatively simple and costs – outside the initial investment – almost nothing. Shooting with Polaroid films in comparison is quite expensive and demands better preparation. The iconic square format of the SX-70 film lends tranquility to the subject and emphasizes the message. 

The square is a neat, stable and confident form. This format helps me to concentrate on the essence of the stories I want to tell with my photographs. With equal proportions, the square is visually less interesting, but the eye is encouraged to move around the frame in a circle and is led to focus on the subject. 


This Polaroid, in a traditional style with warm and earthy color tones, was inspired by Dutch masters’ paintings. 

Where should I go from here

Stairs are a great symbol of the up and down in life. I took this Polaroid in a time of thoughtfulness and a feeling of mortality. It was also inspired by the lighting of Dutch masters’ paintings. 

The (new) round frame Polaroid is a perfect form, too. Used correctly, that means for harmonious subjects, it flatters the eyes. 

The Moon

This was inspired by the wonderful poem written by Saigyō, a Japanese poet (1118-1190). 

Clear and clearer 

with the moon the heart 

swells widening out toward 

what distant end I know not 

The Tree

I shot this Polaroid inspired by another great Japanese poet, Kobayahi Issa (1763-1828). 

The tree will be cut 

Not knowing the bird 

Makes a nest 

Both images were shot with a modified Polaroid SX-70 camera, a Mint SLR670-X. This camera has a time machine, which allowed me more flexibility by adjusting the shutter speed exactly based on the result of a light meter. 

Now I will tell you something about my Magic Realism Still-Life with Polaroids. 

The finished Polaroid can be used as a subject in itself or can be artistically altered. I also like to combine them with real-life objects and create a magical reality. For photographing these tiny still-life scenes, I use studio lighting and digital cameras for better control of the results. This artistic doing allows me to bridge both worlds of my photography. 

I’m a big fan of Magic Realism and Surrealism. Inspired by this wonderful art, I infuse a sense of magic in my Polaroid photography by combining the images with “real“ things. I try to put a bit of magic in ordinary, everyday scenes. So there is a kind of illusion that still lives. My wish is to make the viewer wonder. 

Egg Yolk

When is a clown a clown?

I love Haikus, this ancient form of a Japanese poem about nature and usually about a specific season. And I love Tangram, this old Chinese puzzle with seven pieces of different shapes that can be reassembled into different figures. These can describe people, animals, shapes and things in a simple way. 

Inspired by Haikus, I make Polaroids of matching Tangram figures and combine them with real objects. In this way I add an important element: depth – both in the literal and the transferred sense of the word. 

Here are some examples.


A huge frog and I, 

Staring at each other, 

Neither of us moves. 

(Yosa no Buson, 1716-1783) 


Plum blossom here and there 

It’s good to go north, 

Good to go south 

(Yosa no Buson, 1716-1783) 

My artistic creativity is most affected by the things happening around me. In the past, so many different and new things occurred and I had to process them somehow. Photography was my outlet, maybe my escapism. The world as I knew it was turned upside down completely, which was both frightening and inspiring. With my cameras, I can express my everyday experiences and inner feelings to the outer world. Photography is my medium to express my innermost thoughts and my way of communicating what I have to say without words. Viewers see pictures of my world, sometimes in black and white, sometimes in color. The decision depends on what I want to express. 

Especially during the Coronavirus pandemic and the social restrictions, I discovered different styles of still-life photography. It’s a perfect style under curfew. During that time, this kind of photography helped me stay creative with a lot of fun. 

Another wonderful possibility to stay creative in times of social restrictions or to have fun with oneself as a model is self-portraits, another favorite project of mine. But this is another story.


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