We stumbled upon the 12:12 Project on Instagram and it turned out to be a goldmine of creative instant photography from talented artists all around the globe. Managed by Cromwell Schubarth, every month a theme is picked and the 24 chosen artists present their interpretation of the theme. We spoke to Cromwell to learn more about this beautiful project, and he picked some of the latest instant entries to accompany the interview.
Hi Cromwell, good to have you here! Could you please introduce yourself to our readers?
I am the son of a longtime engineer at the original Polaroid Corp. and a member of The 12:12 Project, an international collective of instant film artists. I am a journalist in my day job, writing about Silicon Valley startups and venture investors. One of the things I do for the group is to curate the 12:12 Project Open group on Instagram. This is where we showcase interesting work of instant film artists, regardless of whether or not they are in The 12:12 Project.
When and how did you get into analogue photography?
I have been around it all of my life. My dad worked at Kodak while studying at Rochester Institute of Technology in the late 1950s, a time when I was a pre-schooler and early grade schooler. I posed for many assignments for him and his classmates in those days. Our bathroom was his darkroom, so I grew up with the smell of the processing chemicals deeply ingrained on my nostrils. He later worked for about 25 years at Polaroid in its heyday in Cambridge and Waltham. So I grew up seeing all of the new cameras and films from the mid-1960s until sometime in the 1980s.
In an early journalism job, I worked at a paper where the reporters doubled as photographers. We were handed a Nikon, three lenses and we were required to shoot out at least one 36-exposure roll of Tri-X every day. Over the course of my career I worked with many fine film journalists who did amazing work shooting and printing on tight daily deadlines. So I learned what I could from them.
What makes instant photography so appealing to you?
Given my family connection to Kodak and Polaroid, part of it is sentimental. But a bigger factor is the tangible immediacy of producing one-of-a-kind photos where you never really know exactly what will develop. That and the cost makes me slow down and think about what I am doing, especially when working with the manually-controlled cameras and expired films that I prefer to use. I never throw any image away. I usually find ways to repurpose the duds later on. I love when I find an interesting photo in a box months after I set it aside as a “reject.” It’s funny how the image you had in mind when you shoot a photo can cloud your judgment of the image you hold in your hand. You can see it later without that baggage and sometimes you appreciate it with fresh eyes.
You initiated The 12:12 Project. Can you tell us a bit about it?
I actually didn’t found the group but I do help to manage it. The founder was Penny Felts Colbert, who passed in June 2021 after a short bout with cancer. When she became ill she asked me to keep the project going. I thought at the time it would be just a temporary thing. Now I am just doing my best to keep my promise to her. Penny started The 12:12 Project in 2013 when she felt she was in a rut and needed a jump start. She took inspiration from a feature in the now-defunct Light Leaks magazine where people were asked to post their interpretations of a theme. She invited 12 female instant photographers from around the world to join her in doing that for 12 months. She pushed them to try difficult and creative things, not just fall back on the repertoire they had already developed. Her restless creative drive inspired her to launch the 12:12 Men Project the next year. But instead of inviting 12 men to the group she only invited 11. She wanted to shoot as the “12th man” to see what it would be like to try to imagine how a male would shoot their themes. She didn’t stop there, though. She also shot the whole second season with the original female group, as well.
The two groups merged at the start of the 2022 season. We now shoot in two groups of mixed gender. One group’s theme appears on our Facebook site on the 15th of the month and the other on the 30th. We roll out the interpretations a day at a time on Instagram.
How do you pick the participants?
For the core group of 24 photographers, we try to get a consensus about who is invited. When a vacancy arises, usually at the start of a new season, the members suggest photographers who they think would be good to have in the group. Then we vote and invite the person we have decided on. A good way to get nominated is to have work selected for the 12:12 Project Open Group site on Instagram. Just tag the group with work you are proud of and it may get reposted.
How do you pick the theme/who gets to pick the themes?
Each of the 24 members of the group suggest a theme before we start a new season. Each member of our two sub-groups then shoot the themes suggested by photographers in their group, one per month over the next 12 months. Something new we have added this year is to have each member invite a guest photographer to take their place for the theme that that member has suggested. So instead of just 24 photographers over the course of a season, we actually feature 48 — 24 members and 24 guests.
Over the years, what has been one of your favorite themes?
It’s impossible for me to choose favorites. We have had so many wonderful photographers in the group over the years and so many themes, some more challenging than others. I particularly enjoy the new selfies that all of the members shoot at the start of a new season. It’s a great illustration of how many different ways we see ourselves in a creative way. But one theme that resonated with all of us is the one we all did for Penny in June 2021 when she passed. I can’t call it my favorite but it was a moving tribute.
Are there any future projects/exhibitions on the horizon you would like to tell us about?
I have put together a 12:12 Project show that will open on September 2nd at the Kaleid Gallery in San Jose, California and will run until September 30th. It will feature a sampling of 44 past and present photographers and guests from 15 countries. A catalog of the show can be seen and purchased at MagCloud. There is also the Instant Art exhibition August 1 through August 6 in Arles. Twenty past and current members and guests of The 12:12 Project are showing their work there. Almost anywhere there is an exhibition of instant photography, you are likely to find The 12:12 Project!
Thank you Cromwell for this insightful interview. Follow The 12:12 Project on Instagram.