Q&A: Cheyenne Morrison's Series Instax Island

Cairns Photographer Cheyenne Morrison steps back in time as he captures beautiful images using vintage Polaroid cameras and film. In an era of technology and speed, Cheyenne Morrison has chosen to use a dying technology, the Polaroid Transfer process to create unique works of art. Photographs are shot on a Polaroid 180 camera, or to 35mm slides which are then transferred onto expired Polaroid 669 film which ceased production in 2009, before being transferred onto watercolor paper. The end result is a unique work of art, like a watercolor painting crossed with a photograph, with a softness and grain that can only be achieved by shooting this way.

Formerly he was the number one private island broker in the world, traveling to over 100 countries documenting some of the most beautiful islands in the world. Prior to that he was a world-leading body piercer, had a Native American jewellery business, a bodyguard, and a Cartographer in the Australian Army. 

Cheyenne has just returned from 5 weeks as a castaway on a private tropical island at remote Cape York in Australia and brought a Fuji Instax 500AF along to document his adventure.  We sat down with him to discuss his resulting series, "Instax Island". Connect with Cheyenne on Flickr and Tumblr!

Tell us about your #InstaxIsland Project:

The biggest reason for getting back into analogue photography was because of my daughter Angelique, who just turned 10 years old. Like many people of a certain age our family kept family photo albums, and when people came over you could show them your travels, or have your parents show embarrassing photos of you. Shooting digital photos of my daughter growing up made me ache for the tangible, print photos kept in an album I like I had in my youth. I became increasingly concerned about the validity and long-term results of digital photographs after my external Hard Drive became corrupted and every single photo I had taken of my daughter was almost lost. I have family photos from the 1870s, but digital photos are such an ephemeral medium that we are in danger of losing our history.

My major goal in doing the project was to create a physical, lasting reminder of one of the biggest adventures in our life; spending 5 weeks alone on a remote tropical island. Secondly to document our adventures on Instagram, and finally push myself as a photographer with the instant medium. I was care-taking Restoration Island, on remote Cape York, in the state of Queensland in Australia for my friend David Glasheen, Australia’s own Robinson Crusoe. I have been friend with Dave many years, created his website and gained him publicity all over the world. He has been featured on the BBC, New York Times etc, ad when he needed a lengthy holiday offered me to be caretaker of this amazing island. The only civilization near the island is the Aboriginal settlement of Lockhart River which is 45 minutes’ drive away on the mainland. My daughter and I, two dogs and the occasional crocodile were the sole inhabitants of the island for the 5 weeks documented in the project. Sadly, on the boat voyage over to the island my camera was damaged which resulted in the weird lens flares you can see in some photos. Funnily some people liked this effect. All in all I achieved my result, we now have the photos in a vintage photo album, and this amazing experience is preserved for posterity. When she grows up my daughter can show my grandchildren these photos, and even in 100 years’ time they will endure.

In your former life you were a Private Island Broker, what was that like?

I was a private island broker for nearly 10 years, eventually becoming the number one private island broker in the world, with 250+ islands listed in over 80 countries, valued at over $2.5 billion. I was featured in Forbes, Fortune, The NY Times, London Times, Time, Newsweek and nearly every major newspaper or magazine around the world. Part of my success in getting all that publicity was the incredible photos I took of tropical islands all over the world. I used to have my photos on a server called Webshots.com, and my photos were their No.1 downloaded photos of islands in the world. I took hundreds of trips to remote islands all over the world by boat or helicopter, but my best shots were achieved flying around the Philippines in a 1963 Cessna Seaplane. The global financial crisis, tsunamis and 8 months a year traveling and being away from my daughter finally led me to giving the islands business away. Being number one in the world at my profession is an achievement I will always be proud of.

Tell us about when instant film came into your life and what inspired to you to keep using it:

I love everything analogue, and appreciate the beauty of anachronistic technologies, such as typewriters, letterpress printing, fountain pens, the handwritten letter, and love writing my ideas in paper notebooks. Writing with a typewriter is a totally different experience and thought process to writing on a computer, and shooting with film also requires a different thought process. You have to slow down, and consider each shot before you take it, and an analogue photo is something tactile and tangible you can hold in your hand and cherish as opposed to megapixels floating around in the ether.

I’ve loved photography all my life, and for many years when I was selling island solely relied on Canon digital cameras, but despite the fact they work perfectly there was something lacking in the image, and the process. I really missed the ritual of taking a roll of film, sending it off to the lab and getting back tangible prints, and negatives. As a child my father was an Engineer and he owned a Polaroid 250 which he used to document his work, I still remember the magic 60 seconds and then seeing you photo. With that childhood experience in the back of my mind I discovered the blog of a photographer called Sean Rohde who had an incredible array of work with expired Polaroid cameras and film, and that discovery sent me down the rabbit hole of the instant photography world. So I’d like to thank Sean for that initial inspiration and the beautiful work he does.

What is your favorite instant film?

Fujifilm Instax Wide film which I used for the #InstaxIsland Project is fantastic, even better in term of color and clarity than the original Polaroid film. However, my favorite film is undoubtedly Polaroid 669 film, because I work with the Polaroid transfer process. After exposing the film I pull it apart and then rub the negative onto watercolor paper. The subtle colors and textures it creates are unlike any other photographic process, the closest analogy is that is a cross between a photo and a watercolor painting. Each image is the result of a series of variables including the quality and expiry date of the film, temperature, humidity and the actual hand-peeling process; this makes each Polaroid transfer absolutely one off and unique.

Nothing in the world is like this unpredictable, ethereal and definitely nostalgic medium. I was fortunate enough to get 1,000 shots from a US Military radiological laboratory which had been refrigerated since new, and another 1,000 shots here and there, but it’s amazing to see the prices being paid for it now. It worries me that I have embarked on a new profession using a dead and dying medium, but the results cannot be produced by any other means.  Another attraction of the Polaroid Transfer process is I can shoot 35mm transparencies (slides) which I can then later use to create transfers multiple times. I currently have the rare Japanese black lacquer version of the Canon Canonet QL17 GIII, but I’m tracking down a Leica M3 with a 50mm Dual Range lens for close work.

What types of Instant Cameras do you own? Which One is your favorite and why?

I own a Polaroid 180, a Fujifilm 500AF, an original Polaroid Mio and I’m fortunate enough to own a Big Shot Polaroid camera personally owned by Andy Warhol, although Warhol owned dozens of them. To me the Big Shot is of course my favorite to the extent I named my business after it. It is the least recognized and respected of all the cameras produced by Polaroid, and I love it because it produces perfect portraits every time. It took me over a year, but I tracked down the inventor, and got him to autograph a set of patents I had made. The story of how the camera was invented can be read here.

Do you have any upcoming exhibitions/publications?

I will be exhibiting the shots taken on my #InstaxIsland project at Expolaroid in Melbourne in April. I’m working on a series of Polaroid Transfers of tropical flowers which I hope to exhibit at Les Rencontres d'Arles in France in September.

Do you have any instant photographers that inspire you?

I really admire what Andy Warhol did with Polaroid; he used a Big Shot polaroid camera from 1971 until his death in 1986 to produce all his famed silk screen portraits; he called the camera his “pen and pencil”. I’m part of the Facebook “instantfilmgroup” and there are so many inspiring photographers there. Matt Marrash, Penny Felts, Eva Flaskas, Philippe Bourgoin, Emily & Victor Soto, Rhiannon Adam, Kyle Michael, Jarrod Renaud, there are just too many to name. I’m proud to have as my mentor Peter Balazsy a master of the Polaroid Transfer process who worked with Polaroid, and who pioneered and developed the Fuji transfer process in 1992. Peter was kind enough to sell me all his Polaroid Transfer equipment, and is my biggest inspiration.  

I’m really inspired by Mark Sink who was Warhol’s assistant for many years. I am his Australian Ambassador for his Month of Photography Project starting. Mark used Polaroid with Warhol, and was one of the first to use a Diana F camera to produce fine art, in fact I think you could call him the Grandfather of Lomography. He is now working with wet plate collodion process with his partner producing beautiful and ethereal images. I did a recent interview with him in Enchantress Magazine.

I love the work of New York photographer Lucas Michael who shot the Golden Globes for several years using a Big Shot camera. His shots really show that a plastic camera that originally sold for $19.99 can produce images as great as any modern digital camera. The photographers using Polaroid film I most admire would be Paolo Roversi and Cathleen Naundorf, both working with Polaroid 809 film in Paris. I’m working on a project in Paris later this year and it’s my goal to meet them. For those who aren’t familiar with is work wrote a detailed article about Paolo Roversi here.