THE INSTANT IT DOESN’T CLICK
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE POLAROID COMPANY’S DEATH/RESURRECTION SAGA OF THE 2010’s is the kind of Cinderella story that warms the heart and quickens the emotions among photographers of all ages. Culturally iconic but financially destitute camera company bellies up after 60 years! Plucky, artsy underdogs rescue legendary brand! Instant cameras are back! Admittedly, the return of the rainbow-banded square film in the white box has all the elements of a classic fairy tale.
Minus the happy ending.
Instead, the success of the reborn Polaroid, including its Life-Saver-Flavored cameras and its muy espensivo film, is more like the tale of what might have been, but isn’t, yet. The new Polaroid film is nowhere near the equal of the original formula, even though the New Owners get an A for effort for having to reverse-engineer it from scratch, after Old Polaroid dismantled the machinery and ate the recipe used for making it. They also deserve credit for at least partially reviving interest in older, better Polaroid cameras (the SX-70, as one example) by doing nuts-up restorations of them in order to stoke interest for the revived film.
Them wuz the daze: Edwin Land’s first-ever Polaroid, the Model 95 (1948)
Over ten years into their quest, the re-booted Polaroid has yet to produce a camera that is much better than a glorified point-and-shoot, opting instead to merely celebrate the fond experience of producing an in-hand print quickly. As but one example, the marketing emphasis on their various “Duochrome” films (Red-and-white, Blue-and-White, even Green-and-White monochrome emulsions) is on the unexpected, the random. It’s basically the Lomography philospophy of “hey, this is so loose and free, ‘cuz we don’t know what will come out, if anything!”, an outlook which is novel for those who want their picture-taking to be an explosion of pure spontaneity rather than something that can be deliberately planned or predictably delivered. In their original incarnation, Polaroids were the stuff of serious art installations, a la the Andy Warhols of the world. Now they are soft, murky souvenirs of the last boho rave or teen sleepover you attended. It ain’t the same.
To be fair, other instant camera makers have produced units with features that give the shooter finer control over the results (including even baseline cameras from Instax.Fujifilm), and there is even a smaaaaalllll market for things like the 3d printing of instant camera backs which can be fitted onto high-end camera fronts, like that of the Mamiya RZ67. But the main highway of the instant pic market moves on the twin tracks of novelty and nostalgia, something Edwin Land never targeted directly during Polaroid’s original golden era.
Instant cameras are a blast. I like playing with them. But that play is ultimately frustrating and expensive. In its second life, the new Polaroid corporation has a long way to come before it earns the name it purports to honor. And if Mark Twain were alive today to compare the two instant eras, he might repeat his old phrase that they constitute “the difference between lightning…and the lightning bug”.