Polaroid photography is not dead, and Isa Grassi is one of its leading resurrectors. When the 23-year-old San Francisco-based artist incorporated instant photography into her personal recreation, she did so without the intentions of it evolving into what has since then become known as The Polaroid Project. While the rest of the crowd desperately tries to get that one perfect, soon-to-be-Instagrammed shot with their smart phones during the concert, Grassi gets up-close for a highly exposed, unfiltered snapshot backstage. Although her work has already caught the attention of many, and she’s interacted with musicians most could only dream of, Grassi is simply a passionate young artist who enjoys capturing other artists in a fleeting moment. Cliché talked with Grassi to find out more about her photo project, what draws her into the music scene, and of course, Peter, the alien mascot.
Cliché: How did The Polaroid Project begin?
Isa Grassi: It’s something I’ve had in mind for quite some time, but nothing as elaborate as it turned out to be. Mostly I would say it was developed out of a need for a new creative outlet. I also paint and draw, and I focused most of my life cultivating those skills. However, that spectrum of the art world was lacking something that I was able to find in The Polaroid Project. I love music and have attended live shows since I was a kid; it’s a world I wasn’t part of and was extremely fascinated by. I use art as a way to process things and understand the world better, so I thought, why not take a glimpse at this industry that was so foreign to me and document a time and place in history, as well as in my life? Even though I don’t make music myself, it has always played a huge part in my life, so in a way, this project is my tribute to the people behind it and all the work that they put into it.
Do you go to live shows for the sole purpose of this project, or has it grown from your personal pleasure?
I grew up going to shows, and for that I have to thank my parents who have always encouraged my sisters and I to attend concerts. Of course, I wasn’t going to nearly as many shows as I am now. It’s a real commitment, both financially and physically, which I can now endure and afford compared to when I was 17. That’s why I started The Polaroid Project recently—I wanted to make sure I could give it the attention and development needed. Moving to America has also made the music scene a lot more accessible compared to when I was in Italy. We get international artists when they are at the peak of their careers, which implies big venues and a lot less shows in comparison to here especially because I’m a sucker for small venues and more intimate performances.
The green alien is pretty cool. Can you explain what it’s all about?
Since I knew it was likely of me to photograph bands I had already portrayed, I wanted the second run of polaroids to be different. The question was, what to do? I thought of doing a set of four polaroids per artists where they made different expressions, but that itself defeated the purpose of the project—artists portraying themselves as they want to be portrayed. Using a prop seemed the right way to go; the picture would have The Polaroid Project stamp on it while still giving the artist the freedom to deliver whatever they wanted. And that’s when my sister suggested Peter, and he has been the mascot ever since.
You take up-close and personal shots of band members. What’s it like meeting them? Do you get starstruck or have you gotten used to it?
It’s mesmerizing. It’s hard to say whether you get used to it or not; in a way, you do, but it’s always an adrenaline rush. Sometimes I’m nervous and others I couldn’t be more at ease with—it really depends—but it has allowed me to fully see these individuals as people, which they are. They are just people. We are so used to putting them on a pedestal, forgetting their most obvious attribute, and that’s what I try to capture with my polaroids. I want people to see them for what they are and not necessarily what their status is among my peers.
Why did you choose polaroids as your form of photography?
I wanted the portraits to be as raw as possible, and polaroids seemed to be perfect for that reason. I wanted the pictures to be what they are without the influence of outside forces or the possibility to apply changes afterwards. You can’t plan the shot ahead of time as much as you would with a DSLR for example, and I like that. It’s unpredictable—you never know how the picture turns out until it’s fully developed. At times you frame the shot in a specific way and it still comes out cropped completely different, or the exposure is wrong, and that’s okay. The accidental becomes a key element, it adds to the final product. The whole project is about artists portraying themselves however they want to, without my influence. That’s why I wanted a medium that would keep the pictures as untouched and unedited as possible. The less I do, the more the picture is pure. If I had the choice of planning the outcome of the photograph, it would lose its authenticity.
What is it about the live music scene that draws you in?
The atmosphere; it’s like being teleported into another dimension, with its own vibe and flavor, where time ceases to exist. It’s a place where you can let loose, embrace yourself, and explore the worlds within you while sharing it with others. It’s a natural high. It’s magic. The different energies that explode from each performance and create the unique reactions of the crowd are a beautiful event to be a part of, and in those moments, in a multitude of people that you don’t know, you can still feel united as a whole, connected by the invisible thread that is music.
Which bands/celebrities would you absolutely love to capture on polaroid that you haven’t already?
The list is infinite. From upcoming bands such as Phoria, Aquilo, Years and Years, Kwabs, to more established acts like Ellie Goulding, Alt-j, Lorde, Disclosure, James Blake, and of course the old gods of music such as Peter Gabriel, David Bowie, and The Rolling Stones.
What was the best concert you’ve ever been to?
Each concert is special in its own way, so it’s tough to pick just one, but there have been a few highlights: SOHN’s set at The Independent was majestic—the performance, vocals, and visuals were on point. The light work was absolutely stunning. Also Sir Sly’s opening set for The 1975 has to be one of my favorites—definitely the best act of that night in my opinion. MO’s debut in San Francisco is another show that will be hard to forget; she has so much stage presence and energy that’s contagious. It really brought to life the entire venue, and she’s an exquisite person.
What was the best meeting experience you’ve had so far?
As it is difficult for me to choose a concert among the ones I’ve attended, it’s even more difficult to pick a meeting experience. There have been bands with whom I have clicked more, but each artist is unique and has brought something different to the table. To pick one wouldn’t be fair. All of them—artists, management and staff—have been extremely nice towards my project and me. I’m extremely grateful for the support and welcoming feeling I’ve always received from them.
The cool thing about The Polaroid Project is that it can be an ongoing thing if you want it to be. Do you plan to quit it at some point and move onto something else?
To be honest, I don’t think The Polaroid Project will ever come to an end. It’s something I can see myself doing for the rest of my life, whether full time or not, especially since I do not plan on quitting the live music scene. It could very much bloom into something else and take different directions. I thought about extending the project to videos, capture little snippets of artists, and maybe turn it into a short movie, sort of like Vivienne Dick’s “Guerillere Talks.” I’m also very interested in depicting other types of artists (writers, designers, visual artists), but I wouldn’t necessarily use polaroids. I think each field has a medium that has the ability to represent them better. Collaborations are something I value a lot. There’s a lot of talent out there, and when you combine forces, astonishing things come to life. I have a couple of ideas I’m working on, so it should be interesting to see where they will lead. I like to have variety in my art forms and I’d love to keep exploring other mediums that I am not comfortable with or that I don’t know much about.
All photos by Isa Grassi
Isa Grassi Interview “Polaroid Project” originally appeared in Cliché Magazine’s Aug/Sept 2014 issue.