Polaroid Journal

I mentioned in a previous post that I’d acquired my parents’ 70’s-vintage Polaroid SX-70 Alpha One while preparing them for a move to assisted living. Except for a few scuffs on its leather coverings, it’s in pristine condition. The camera wasn’t cheap, and Mom and Dad tended to take care of their “nice” stuff. My orders of film and a few functional accessories for the camera have arrived, and I’m ready to start making some $2.40 prints with this thing. Nothing concentrates the photographic mind like a high marginal cost for an image, but I figure the first film pack will be a sacrificial offering.

Instant photography has made a comeback, as part of a larger analog-photography renaissance in recent years. (Thank you, hipsters, for this, if not for skinny jeans and man-buns.) Polaroid and Fujifilm were the players in the instant-film market, and Fujifilm has continued to offer consumer instant cameras and its own instant-film stock since Polaroid’s demise. I have shot their film stock happily, using both their Instax consumer cameras – which you can buy online at the usual outlets – as well as their professional products. But the registered-trademark name “Polaroid” has become like “Kleenex” for facial tissues, or “Coke” for any soft drink consumed in the Deep South: the member that denotes the entire class.

Before digital, pro photographers used Polaroids to “proof” their lighting and composition setups, prior to shooting the final images on expensive color-transparency (“slide”) film. You’d compose the shot, pop the Polaroid film magazine onto your Hasselblad or Mamiya, shoot, check everything, and then commit to the final film. Amateurs shot instant film for the same reason people now click away with their iPhones: to make memories that are quickly available and easy to share – albeit by physical means rather than over the aether. Aficionados of instant photography prize the images for their slightly unsharp character and beautiful color palettes. Each photo is a one-off, unique image, so the artifact itself becomes part of the appeal of the picture.

Polaroid Corporation offered its first consumer instant camera in 1948, and its products were hugely popular through the mid-1970’s. Polaroid was the Apple of its day, run by its genius-visionary founder, Edward Land. Everybody had a Polaroid camera when I was growing up in the 60’s and 70’s. It was a $3B company at its peak, employing 21,000 people, but filed for bankruptcy in 2001. In 2008, the people at the Impossible Project bought some of its assets and intellectual property, and eventually succeeded in their quest to resurrect Polaroid film. That’s what I’ll be feeding this thing with.

So stay tuned and we’ll see what sort of trouble I can get into with this thing. Meanwhile, I’m back on the Labor & Delivery deck for another 24 hours…..Polaroid film doesn’t buy itself.

Michael Sebastian @mikeseb