Jim Lucio opens a shoe box, searches, and then pulls out a photo he took nearly two decades ago. It's a Polaroid of a teenage girl wearing an orange bikini, floating atop a blue swimming pool, her white legs and arms splaying casually as she looks up at the camera. At a glimpse, it's simply a youthful summer snapshot. Hold the picture a second longer and it becomes evident that it's also a terrific portrait, an expressive subject framed at a quirky angle, compellingly composed, saturated with color. Time has not faded the image—the sunlight still glimmers in the water around the girl—or the memory.
"That's my cousin Lisa from 1990 at a country club in Carmel Valley we used to sneak into to go swimming on hot days," says Lucio, 39, smiling. "I do like the fact you can tell it's mine, that the same qualities in my pictures today are there early on."
Last spring, Lucio, a former City Paper graphic designer and the co-owner of Flux Studios gallery, assembled a bunch of his Baltimore portraits into a self-published book called Mondo Defekto: The Polaroid Photography of Jim Lucio. (Defekto is a moniker he uses on Flickr, the popular photo-sharing website.)
He actually sold a few, too. "It did help add to my nonexistent income" he chuckles, "and paid a couple months of the mortgage."
Pretty soon that book might be a collector's item, because the film that's made pictures magically appear for 60 years is about to disappear itself.
Lucio was initially drawn to Polaroid film as a teenager because he was impatient—he didn't want to wait a week for his film to develop (this, of course, was before the dawn of digital cameras). Later, he became attached to the rich quality of the color and the unique bond between subject and artist that Polaroids encourage.
Twenty years after he started taking his instant portraits, Lucio's recognized as "the Polaroid guy" around Baltimore for his cool, yet intimate close-ups of pals, hipsters, curious strangers, Jesus freaks, tattooed super heroes, punks, addicts, naked wrestlers, masked misfits, musicians, magicians, Roller Girls, bartenders, bike messengers, trapeze artists, and transvestites.
"Jim relates to everybody, he spends time with them and they open up to him," says photographer Josh Sisk, a friend who has been published in Rolling Stone, among other magazines. "When you see his photographs, you might think, 'This is someone I'd enjoy talking to.'"
When he first heard that Polaroid was discontinuing film production (the company stopped making the cameras two years ago; they announced that they were shuttering film production this February), Lucio bought all the spare film he could find and began stockpiling it in his refrigerator in Lauraville. "I might have to get another [refrigerator] for food eventually," he says, noting the instant film lasts longer in cold storage. Ultimately, he decided to accept the situation and let go gracefully. To that end, he started chronicling his final several hundred shots in a photo blog, "The Last Days of Polaroid" (lastdaysofpolaroid.com/blog).
"But yeah, I'm upset over it," he sighs. "I've taken probably 2,500 portraits in Baltimore over the past six years." He estimates he has maybe 700 exposures left.
"I love the nostalgia aspect of Polaroid and his style, but really his stuff is about the community of Baltimore," says G-Spot co-founder Jill Sell. Her gallery/performance space hosted Lucio's "In Your Face" show—where he took one portrait every single day for a year—back in 2006. "Baltimore is a small village and his work makes you feel connected to that."
This month, Lucio's exhibiting new work at his Flux Studios gallery at Station North. And in November, Metro Gallery owner Sarah Williams has scheduled him for a solo exhibition.
"One thing that's funny, is that now when people see Jim with his camera, they'll purposely try to get in front of him to see if he'll take their picture," Williams says.
He most likely will. You see, Lucio's philosophy can be boiled down to this: Everyone deserves a portrait.
"I think there is something interesting and of value in everyone," Lucio says. "I don't think that I have actually ever put this into words before, but maybe what I've wanted all along is for everyone else to realize that, too."
Eventually, the Polaroid Guy will have to forge on—without his trusty 1980's-era Spectra camera. Lucio promises the loss of his favorite medium won't deter him forever.
"I have other interests—writing, painting," he says. "And I take digital photos like everyone else."