Art beat: Artist at play

Sean Tubridy shows off his toy collection

THE WEDGE — Graphic designer Sean Tubridy bought his first Polaroid instant camera about a decade ago, and using it for the first time transported him back to his childhood.

“When I first took a [Polaroid] photo as an adult and watched it develop, there was just something kind of magical about it,” Tubridy said.

Holding the photo in his hand, watching the image appear — faint and ghostlike at first, then slowly gaining life and color — he experienced a sense of wonder and excitement. Tubridy compared it to tearing the wrapping paper off a Christmas present.

That gets us to his other obsession, besides Polaroids: toys.

Not only does Tubridy still have his old Star Wars action figures, he has collected toys for much of his adult life. When he started shooting those toys with his Polaroid SX-70, a 1970s model still prized by instant-film enthusiasts, something clicked.

“They just seemed to go naturally together, the medium and the subject,” he said.

The result was “Toys on Roids,” an exhibition of about 60 toy photos on display at the Soo Visual Arts Center [SooVAC], 2640 Lyndale Ave. S. The photos are collected in a book by the same name, the first ever published by SooVAC.

The carefully staged photos achieve an uncanny illusion of depth, while at the same time exploiting the instant film’s palette of candy-colored hues. The white frame of the square-format Polaroids is like a porthole into a fantasy world peopled with retro robots, superheroes, cute aliens and spacemen.

There’s a playful irony at work when Tubridy poses a 1960s-era G.I. Joe figure against a red backdrop for a portrait. In another photo, Star Wars droids mill about like they’re at a robot cocktail party.

The images are so slick and amusing they could easily be the art for some quirky print advertising campaign. What makes them so remarkable is Tubridy had very little photography experience before beginning the project.

There’s no Photoshop magic at work, either. True to the nature of Polaroids, each photo is a one-off, unique print.

“Part of the joy of this was sort of challenging myself to see what I could get out of a Polaroid,” he said.

Tubridy works out of the Northrup King building in Northeast, so he was able to enlist some of the building’s resident photographers to give advice on set-up and lighting. But his makeshift studio — built with “less than $50 worth of lighting from Home Depot” — was decidedly low-tech.

Tubridy modeled scenery and made backdrops of printed photographs or illustrations. His charming, Lilliputian worlds are rich with nostalgia. It’s like looking through a View-Master.

Most amazing, though, are the intense colors Tubridy extracts from the Polaroid film.

The majority of images were shot on Polaroid integral film made for his model SX-70 camera. The film’s pastel-tinted palette shifted white to cream and sky blue to aqua, Tubridy said.

When mixed with brightly dyed plastic, it launches these photos into the lollipop spectrum. It’s a magical effect, but one Tubridy soon may not be able to replicate.

In February, Polaroid announced that it would stop making instant film. The company previously had ceased production of its instant cameras.

“The film all expires in 2009,” Tubridy said. “That’s the last batch of it, and I stocked up.”

Other companies continue to make instant film, but none replicate exactly the chemistry of the stock preferred by SX-70 users. That’s one of the reasons Tubridy launched his grassroots Save Polaroid campaign, an effort that has won supporters from the online photo-sharing site Flickr.

Their cause has the perfect villain, too: Tom Petters, the Minnesota businessman accused of a multibillion-dollar fraud scheme, purchased Polaroid in 2005 through his Petters Group Worldwide company. Within a few years, the company announced it would drop its instant film product lines.

Sure, Polaroid had declared bankruptcy in 2001, and it was already fighting a losing battle against digital photography. But Tubridy marked the Petters purchase as the beginning of the end for Polaroid.

“It’s kind of sad to know that’s what happened to such an intriguing company,” he said.

What was so special about Polaroids? They were fun, spontaneous and unpretentious, before digital made every camera just that.

Tubridy’s photographs, with their careful staging, are the opposite of spontaneous. But they are unpretentious in the way that they’re loaded with visual gags and pop-culture references.

Tubridy said using a Polaroid made him feel like a kid again. Seeing the Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia action figures embrace while Obi-Wan Kenobi looks on will make you feel like one, too.

“Toys on Roids”runs through Dec. 24 in the Toomer Gallery at Soo Visual Arts Center, 2640 Lyndale Ave. S. 871-2263.