Will We Ever Shake The Polaroid Picture?

Today, most of us carry supercomputers in our pockets that happen to also take instantly-viewable pictures.This is something that even the dumbest phones do, meaning that we can reasonably draw the conclusion that photographic capability has become a basic feature of everyday carry, a necessity of 21st century life.

Despite the unwashed masses of just-plain-bad photographs clouding the digital landscape, photography itself remains as important as ever so we can retain and disseminate information as history unfolds. In a sense, the more instant, the better — unless it comes at the cost of image quality. The invention of photography is on par with the printing press or with language itself in that all three allow us to communicate within our own time as well as preserve The Way Things Were in frozen silence. And no invention made vivid preservation more convenient than the instant camera.

The original Polaroid SX-70 Land camera. Image via New Atlas

Instant Memories

Peter Gabriel’s eponymous 1980 release. Image via Wikipedia

This year, the iconic Polaroid SX-70 turns 50 years old. This was the first truly instant SLR camera, an engineering marvel containing over 300 transistors. Every film pack had a battery inside, so in theory, no moment would go uncaptured.

Polaroid began producing instant-film cameras in 1948, but for the first 25 years or so, the developing process was quite involved. With the advent of the SX-70 in 1972, one could freeze a moment in time and hold it in their hands a minute or so later. And miraculously, the device itself folded down into a 1″ slab that would just barely fit in the jacket pocket of your leisure suit.

Things got easier for the user from there, until all you had to do was pull the picture out of the front of the camera and lay it flat to dry (because you really shouldn’t shake them). But if you wanted to mess with the outcome, it was fairly easy to manipulate the still-wet developing chemicals to great impressionistic wavy effect. Way more fun than a filter, no? If you can get your hands on one of these originals, check out the Open SX-70 Project.

Impossible Resurrection

The i-zone instant camera. Image via Wikipedia

Polaroid began to decline in the 1980s alongside the rise of cheap 35mm cameras and one-hour photo labs, but to this 80s kid, instant cameras were still half novelty, half luxury, and completely awesome. The company emmitted a last gasp in the form of 1999’s i-zone camera, a small instant that produced tiny pictures on decorated film strips. I have two of them; they were great. More fun than a Fun Saver, and probably more expensive, too.

Try as they might, Polaroid just wouldn’t go away. They went bankrupt twice between 2001 and 2008, were sold three times, and one parent company got caught up in a Ponzi scheme. But the iconic brand was both saved and renewed by aficionados under the name the Impossible Project. They scooped up the last factory and spent years reformulating the original developing chemicals until they got it right. Eventually, they unified the brand with Polaroid and started selling new instant cameras that pay homage to the past. Here’s a look inside the factory:

Tangible But Frangible

Whether physical photographs are developed instantly, in one hour, or over the course of a few days, one thing binds them all, and that is tangibility. You can write on the back, send it off in a letter, use one as a bookmark, or carry a few around in your wallet. Physical photographs are dual time capsules — they freeze an otherwise-lost moment, and then the picture itself becomes a time capsule of its own, counting down until the medium disintegrates.

The only copy of this old picture of me and my buddy.

Instant-gratification photography is one thing, but add in tangibility and you have something special. Of course, digital files also age, but we can’t sense this passage of time the way we can use physical clues to date aged photographs. In digital form, pictures become files that just get corrupted and/or can’t be opened. It’s still in your hands, yet gone forever.

Of course with physical photographs, it’s much easier to lose the only print in existence. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve bought a used book and found a photograph inside. I always hope that it wasn’t someone’s only copy.

We monkeys marvel at our digital devices that can take a single image and proliferate it into an unstoppable force that can never be erased from the digital walls of the Internet. But the instant camera in particular gave us something else: privacy without the need for a darkroom. Suddenly, you could take a picture of anything without worrying about what someone else would think. Making duplicates negatives, and as long as you hold those (or they don’t exist), you’re blackmail-proof no one is getting any unauthorized copies. Was this development ultimately good or bad for society? Well, that’s another rant altogether. But surely there’s nothing inherently bad about privacy, right?

Thanks for the tip, [Ostracus].

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