By MICHAEL PERKINS
I HATE THE DISMISSIVE SNOBBISHNESS THAT CONDEMNS THIS OR THAT PHOTOGRAPHIC DEVICE as “not a serious camera.” I truly believe that almost any LightStealerBox, modest or fully tricked out, has at least the potential to deliver wondrous pictures, and I can’t think of anything that renders a camera more “serious” than that. But the recent resurgence of the old Polaroid name(along with the films and cameras that have been marketed under that legendary brand) has got me scratching my head.
Since rising from the ashes of the company built by the inventor Edward Land in the 1940’s, the “new” Polaroid has pumped out bright, simplistic photo toys bearing the old name and promising the return of the unpredictable, random fun of creating photos on the spot. However, apart from the admittedly giddy experience of generating shareables and momentoes, I see no sign that the current keepers of the Polaroid flame have taken a single step toward what was, under Land, a constantly evolving forward march toward innovation and technical improvement. Which is to ask, how can photographers take a camera seriously that is not regarded as such by its producers?
Land took the cumbersome development process of his first Polaroid films and eliminated the mess and bother to create a medium that was fairly responsive, pairing them with better and better cameras that were at once stylish and convenient. In the 1970’s, with the creation of Polaroid’s only true SLR, the SX-70, the company moved further beyond its innate novelty to actual artistic control, introducing custom settings, electronic exposure and quality lenses in a sleek package that won design awards and helped the company enter the premium market. Unfortunately, after that, the product line moved toward models that were easier to operate but admitting of less and less user input, and, by the end of its first life in the early 20th-century, Polaroid, embracing cheaper components and flashier packaging, was squeezing out glorified point-and-shoots that produced pictures that, well, looked like Polaroids, which is to say soft, low-contrast mush that just happened to develop quickly.
Cut to the present day, years after the digital revolution and several seasons since a passel of European art students reverse-engineered the defunct company’s system for film production (Polaroid had destroyed all its files on the subject before going bankrupt) and began marketing all-new cameras that took up where the firm’s last “One Step” models left off. Today, the re-introduced film remains a pale imitation of its namesake, which doesn’t really matter since their cameras are essentially playthings. And so, whereas it was difficult for photographers to create their best work even with the best of the original Polaroids, now it is fairly impossible to get even consistent results with the gizmos that bear that once proud name.
Some of this could have been predicted. Polaroid’s rebirth coincided with the 21st-century “Lomography” analog film craze and its love of technically defective “fun” cameras….the “shoot-any-old-way-and-see-what-happens, randomness-and-failure-are-arty-and- cool” school of thought. Polaroid 2.0 is also a reaction to Fujifilm’s Instax cameras, which produce instant images so small as to be good for little else than selfies (which seems to be the market for the things), the blearier and mushier the better.
Why do I care, enough to risk being written off as the creaky troll I probably am? Because Polaroid, at one time, held out the hope of combining instantaneous feedback (a key advantage of digital) with the artistic control of cameras that took themselves seriously and offered a true alternate path to higher-end photographic expression. Seeing the name now used to market murky party favors (at nearly $20 for eight exposures) saddens me, as does the proliferation of any camera that requires its users to leap-frog across endless work-arounds just to get a usable image. When a camera becomes an obstacle between a shooter and a good result, that camera is a bad camera.