When one hears the term Polaroid, he invariably thinks of the iconic white-framed images made with poor quality, plastic cameras. If you were into pop music in the early 2000s, you may also remember Outkast’s admonition to “shake it like a Polaroid” (to which Polaroid Corp. released a response, urging users not to “shake it”). Since the heady years of the Aughties, a few things have happened in the world of photography. The first and most significant is the advent of digital imaging. While it may seem to younger photographers that these two media occupy different spaces, it wasn’t that long ago when the only way to get visual feedback on your shots was to shoot a Polaroid, especially of the peel-apart variety (more on that later). The second and more important fact is that Polaroid Corp., insofar as it being a real, analogue photography company, ceased to exist. With that fact came the sad adulteration of the long tradition of innovation, with the “me too” branding of everything from Instax cameras to media players with the Polaroid name.
The Genius of Land
To truly understand the legacy of Polaroid, one has to re-visit the storied history of its company and founder, “Dr.” Edwin Land. The man essentially invented instant photography de novo, for nothing like it existed before. He successfully pioneered the peel-apart roll and pack film formats, and the one-upped himself with the integral film system that many associate with the Polaroid name. In fact, when i say that these pictures are iconic, I mean it in more ways than one. For, on many computer operating systems, the Polaroid is used as the icon for photographs, thereby underlining the ubiquity, influence and importance of his invention. Right from the start, the plan was to achieve what was, in Land’s words, “manifestly impossible”. Photography at that time meant shooting a roll of film, and developing it after, say, 36 frames, a process that can take days. What he set out to do was to create a new way of photographing, and a new way of thinking about photography. Instant photography was to be every bit as good as the conventional type, but faster. Part of Land’s genius is in making instant photography look so simple, when in fact the chemistry and physics behind it is truly mind-boggling. To even proceed from black and white to color instant photography took more than a decade, yet we all take it for granted now. He was also very in tune with the needs of the end user, refining the process from the roll film (which required the user to tear the film off a roll), to pack film (individual sheets of film, but still required the users to deal with trash coated in caustic goop) to the integral film formats (completely integrated film development pods, with no waste material).
Dedicated to Quality
Despite its latter reputation as the format for poor quality, throw-away images, the result of cost-cutting measures that paired the superlative films with truly awful plastic-lensed cameras, Land intended for the film to be used by professionals. This fact was most clearly borne out by his employment of Ansel Adams as technical adviser to the film development effort. Adams reciprocated the support with meticulous notes on how to improve the films, facts that were gratefully received by those at Polaroid, in particular Land. He also created a collection of great photography that was sadly auctioned off as part of the bankruptcy proceedings (a development that did not sit well with the artists who contributed the pieces, with the understanding that the collection would remain as a whole in perpetuity). There were also fewer than ten 20×24 inch Polaroid cameras constructed that were truly works of art in themselves, which showcased the beauty and power of an instant, life-sized portrait. The efforts of Land did not go unnoticed, as portraitists flocked to Polaroid to use its films in their own work. So essential were these films, that practically every self-respecting camera maker released a film back that could be used with the peel-apart packfilm format. And so these remained Polaroid’s best and most loyal customers until digital came around and offered an alternative to what we now call “chimping” – the act of post-viewing a shot to decide if the lighting, set-up etc is appropriate to the artists’ vision.
Personal Experience and Conclusion
Even as the company spiraled out of control, I started to look into instant photography. My first encounter was through a packfilm camera called The Reporter. At that time, there was so much confusion over what film would fit into which camera that it took me weeks to sort out what’s what. One website was instrumental in this endeavor, namely The Land List. I’ve since gone on to procure a bunch of Polaroid 600 cameras (integral film plastic cameras that many, sadly, associate with the Polaroid name), a bunch of SX-70s (aka Dr. Land’s Magic Camera), lots of film backs for Hasselblad, Bronicas, 4×5 cameras, etc, and also a Polaroid Model 150 (roll film camera). While integral films can still be purchased from The Impossible Project, they tend to be experimental, and I sold practically all of them before moving back to Singapore. I do have some 4×5 sheet films (specialty films for large format cameras) and Fujifilm packfilms (FP-100C, FP-3000B, FP-100B) that still work great. I’m just glad that I was able to shoot with some of the last films ever made by Polaroid Corp, before its ultimate demise. The spirit of Land now lives, ironically, in the Instax line by Fujifilm which was allowed to sell their films because Polaroid had little interest in selling in Asia (Kodak wasn’t nearly as lucky). May it live long and prosper!