Instant Light: Tarkovsky Polaroids

By James Norton


The definition of photography as ‘a mirror that remembers’ could also apply to the cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky. Now, with the publication of this beautifully mounted album of 60 polaroids taken by the late Russian film-maker, we are able to witness him stopping time in still photographs. These are no mere ephemera for devotees only. It should be too much to expect that snapshots taken with such a camera, which allows so little aesthetic or technical control, could ever match the rapturous visuals and spiritual intensity of Tarkovsky’s films, and yet these do just that.

The book is divided between photographs taken in Russia and Italy from 1979 to 1984. The images in the first section, mostly taken in autumn, have the radiant melancholy of lengthening shadows and trees looming through misty dawns near Tarkovsky’s country dacha, together with portraits of his wife, son and dog, loaded with nostalgia by quotations from his later diaries, when he yearns to be reunited with them from his exile in Europe.

If the landscapes in the first half of the book are familiar from Tarkovsky’s masterpiece Mirror, those taken in Italy cover locations for Nostalgia, scouted with writer Tonino Guerra; exquisite still lives and glimmering ruins accompanied in the text by the kind of fervent mission statements that few other directors could get away with.

The book concludes with photographs from Tarkovsky’s personal collection, including a prescient image of the young Andrei posing against a mirror, wrongly captioned as his poet father Arseny.

Like that other Slavic holy fool of the cinema and gatherer of elapsed time, Andy Warhol, Tarkovsky is here unexpectedly revealed as realizing the utmost potential of this fleeting, disposable medium. But while Warhol’s flash polaroids seize the chilly essence of celebrity culture, the natural sunlight of Tarkovsky’s images capture eternity in a moment.

Instant Light, Edited by Giovanni Chiaramonte and Andrey A. Tarkovsky, is available from Thames and Hudson priced £15.95

James Norton is a critic and researcher for television arts programmes.