Developing with passion

Homegrown photographer shares her love of old-school Polaroids

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Wish You Were Here
Polaroids by Isabel Dresler, showing through April 30 at Empire Coffee. Reception Friday, April 11, 6 p.m.

Empire Coffee
434 Orange St.

There’s no debating that taking photos has become dramatically more convenient over the last couple of decades thanks to the continued evolution of digital photography. But when it comes to a purely fun and organic photography experience, it’s hard to beat a Polaroid.

For Chico native Isabel Dresler, the lure of instant Polaroid cameras begins with how the picture is shot and how the photo develops, and even how it ages.

“To me, Polaroids are like a living entity, and a record of the experience. They age over time, and most often you develop them in that moment,” Dresler explained, as she lounged in one of the soft chairs at Empire Coffee on a recent rain-soaked morning. “Say I’m at Table Mountain and I take a Polaroid of Table Mountain, and then I develop it at Table Mountain. It’s organically from Table Mountain. The entire metamorphosis happened at Table Mountain. Which I think is cool.”

Polaroid cameras also lack the ability to zoom in and out, forcing the photographer to work a little more for the right shot.

“You’re in control of your depth of field. But you have to eyeball how far away you are from your subject, and then fix your camera to work at that distance and adjust your lighting levels. It’s much more involved than just snapping pictures,” she said. “And with Polaroids, you can’t post-process them at all. It captures how everything is in that moment rather than a façade of how it is.”

Dresler will be showcasing her Polaroids at Empire Coffee throughout the month of April. The exhibit, titled Wish You Were Here, is a collection of nearly 40 Polaroid prints, documenting her travels around California and Nevada over the last three years.

“Each Polaroid is my way of saving one of my favorite moments in a tangible way,” the 24-year-old said. “So, Wish You Were Here is a reminder of the things that are memorable and meaningful to me.”

Now a professional photographer, Dresler’s love of the medium began as a child, when she would organize photo sessions with her stuffed animals in Lower Bidwell Park using disposable cameras. After her parents purchased a digital camera for the family when she was 13, she saved her money so she could buy one of her own.

As her experience with photography matured, so has her content. After years of shooting bugs and flowers—stunning, brightly colored extreme close-ups of monstrous-looking praying mantises and spiders, and full shots of flower heads against black backgrounds—and then children and families in a commercial portrait studio (where she realized her distaste for artificial lighting), her career path took a more adult turn.

“I started doing erotic stuff on my own around four years ago, and started submitting my work to shows,” Dresler said. “People responded really well to it. So I just started doing that more regularly.”

That in turn led to her photographing sex workers, a niche market that’s decidedly more about fantasy than reality—and one that can have detrimental and de-humanizing effects on those within the industry.

“I like being able to shed light on and humanize the sex industry for people,” she said. “I don’t like to throw around the ‘activist’ word, because it sounds kind of pretentious. But I’m a sex-worker activist.”

Information on Dresler’s boudoir, or “seduction,” sessions, her “performer/entertainer” shoots, and her weddings and commercial work is available on her website at

Dresler’s work has been featured in galleries in Seattle and Detroit, and she currently has photographs on display in Portland, Ore., Las Vegas, Nev., San Francisco and Los Angeles. Wish You Were Here is her first local show since 2011, and she will be on hand for an opening reception on April 11 at 6 p.m. The photos on display will be for sale, as will a pair of her adult-oriented photography books.