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.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE RECENT RESURGENCE OF INSTANT CAMERAS AND FILM IS NOT A REVOLUTION: it’s more like a symptom. I mean, eventually everything in the history of photography is a symptom of something larger in human development, innit? One year it’s a certain hot piece of gear, another it’s a trend in technique. The medium is a barometer of sorts on who we are and what we value. And now, for a while (again), it’s the stage for a kind of return to an imagined wonderful yesteryear.
It’s not hard to see how the youngest generation of shooters (the biggest demographic chunk of new instant pix users) has embraced a revisitation of the golden age of Polaroid. Making generally flawless images by the zillions in the digital age has, for some, sparked the question is any of this stuff designed to last? Are any of the thousands of pictures you squeezed off with your phone “keepers” as to memory, emotional resonance, uniqueness? And can an analog picture designed to be an unrepeatable original, tangibly printed out in the hand, promote the production of photos that are more special, more warmly personal? In short, is Polaroid Originals film (or Fuji/Instax film, for that matter) the next vinyl LP?
Scan through the most ecstatic raves about the instant photography experience and you’ll see lots of references to emotion, shared fun, even a kind of nostalgic pang for pictures that are, well, as crappy as most Polaroids were before the original company shuttered (sorry) in 2001. In fact, many of the most enthusiastic supporters of instanting readily admit to the technical clunkiness of their favorite cameras and the so-lousy-it’s-cool aesthetic of the prints, as if making technically inferior pictures is some badge of either spontaneity or authenticity. It should be noted that both the revival of plastic, Soviet-era toy cameras by the Lomography crowd a few years back and the re-emergence of Polaroid were spearheaded by European art school hipsters, both espousing how “real” random or uneven results are, as opposed to the bloodless precision of digital imaging. Here, however, as I see it, are the real constants of both the revived Polaroid brand and its (slightly) superior cousins at Fuji /Instax:
Most everybody’s instant film renders colors horribly.
Films formats like Instax mini (waay smaller than Polaroid) are virtually useless for complex compositions: the images are just too teeny.
All instant film is too damned expensive, making some prints cost out at $1.00 or more apiece.
Polaroid Originals (the new guardians of Polaroid’s old intellectual properties) brought back the emotional sensation of instant pix, but all of its problems as well…including crummy resolution, low contrast, and meh optics.
And, most importantly, there are, at this writing, almost no mid-line price instant cameras that afford a broad array of hands-on settings. This means almost no control at the low end (less than $75) and exorbitant prices on the high-end (over $700 in many cases). It also means you can either take cheap/bad pictures with no creative override whatsoever or sink a fortune into a camera with a huge learning curve that still may pump out technically inferior pictures. That cost a lot.
Certainly the “cool” value of instants is an emotional by-product of the digital age. Unlike the thousands of images residing on your phone, many of which may never be seen or shared even hours after they’re created, you can physically hold and pass around a Polaroid-esque print. And there may even be an ancillary benefit for serious photographers as well: since your resources are limited and expensive, you will likely spend more time planning shots, editing on the fly, even rejecting bad ideas before they’re even committed to film. Or, you could be chosen the winner on The Bachelor, in which the sky’s the limit. In a way, instants impose the same restraint on a shooter that all film does, the same thing that happens to digital shooters that are ten shots away from battery death, or stuck shooting everything with one mediocre lens on a given day. When you’re forced to slow down and plan, different pictures happen.
So…. Instant Photography, Part II, The Sequel presents a real challenge for its current avatars. Several standout models aside, Dr. Edwin Land, the inventor of Polaroid, did not bring great cameras to the masses, nor did he ever create a world-beating film or amazing optics. He did give a world bent on instant gratification a fun toy to serve that sensation up on demand (and at a premium price). But while his heirs may eventually succeed where he failed, generating both the tools and the medium for great photographic work, right now, instant photography feels like the first three Star Wars prequels. And if you think that’s a compliment, then I have a Jar-Jar Binks tee-shirt I’d like to sell you.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SINCE I FIRST WROTE, several months back, about using my cellphone as a “sketch pad” for the first versions of images I would later finalize on a more adjustable camera (SLR, mirrorless, etc.), I’ve seen quite a few photographers confess to the same practice. As I said before, it’s not as if the cell isn’t a “real” camera, but that working with it is less mentally formal, less hemmed in by strict rules, than the cameras many of us cut our teeth on. At present, cells promote a more spontaneous, improvisatory approach to picture-taking: we produce work very quickly, and even our bombs have a short learning curve. We then make a second pass at the most promising “sketches” with cameras that both promote and reward deliberation.
Now I’m enjoying yet another variation on this formula as I play with the first instant film camera I’ve owned in nearly forty years. Optically, my Fujifilm Instax 90 is less precise than my mobile phone, and miles behind a full-function SLR. However, the “feedback loop” from snap to physical print rivals the turnaround time of a cell, and I have used some of these medium-fi images as dress rehearsals for shots that only my more advanced cameras can properly finesse. The main difference here is working with film, which translates to how fast and how freely I shoot.
Cels are technically limited, but you can shoot endlessly for free, so it’s tempting to experiment without regard to anything except the moment: very intuitive. By comparison, film is finite. More importantly, your shots, both home runs and strikeouts alike, all cost money. If you’ve never shot film (ya young whippersnappers!) it’s really a trip learning to “budget” your shots, weighing all the stuff you want against the physical limit of shots you actually have to work with. Old guys like me had lots of reasons to desert film for digital, but being freed from the tyranny of the wallet was my personal Numero Uno.
So, if you follow this strange line of reasoning, here’s where we stand: an instant film camera gives you a fast result, but the low volume of output (just ten shots per pack of Fuji Instax Mini film) and the cost (nearly a dollar per shot) means that you will be shooting slower and more deliberately than with a cel. You’ll be actively planning your shots, editing your projects on the fly, and producing a smaller yield of “possibles” to refine with a higher-end camera. Or you might do such a bang-up job with your film sketch pad that you produce your ” keeper” right then and there. In the two cases shown here, the Instax shot shows me that the central idea (the punctured shrink wrap atop the carton of Coke) can be improved by including a spent bottle on the side and tightening up the frame, allowing my Lensbaby Velvet 56 to show the textural variances in surface tension, something the Instax isn’t precise enough to do. The Lensbaby can also deliver a wider range of tones and deliver sharper focus, albeit within a soft glow.
Will this tortured method ever become your own? Really doesn’t matter. Your results may vary, as the man says, because they are yours. There are many routes to the promised land. Take the expressway or slog along the old dirt road. Just get the shot.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE LOW–HANGING–FRUIT–EASY–LAY–UP STORIES in 2017 pop culture circles was the report that, after years of manufacturing its own version of the defunct Polaroid Corporation’s instant camera film, an appropriately named company known as the Impossible Project had acquired all of Polaroid’s remaining intellectual property. As a result, the IP, now re-born as Polaroid Originals, could now begin making it own brand-new Polaroid cameras.
The story had great appeal for the analog-was-better crowd, the LP-hugging CD haters who pegged the decline of civilization to the day mankind first embraced zeroes and ones. Writer after writer wiped aside a misty tear to rhapsodize about the OneStep2, the first new “Polaroid” camera in more than a decade, and to recount their own fond memories of the “unique” quality of each unreproducable shot, as well as the wonderfully unpredictable randomness of wondering if your next shot, or indeed the entire rest of the film pack, would yield anything in the way of an image that was worth wiping your nose on.
Which brings us to the Brutal Main Truth of the matter: Polaroids were never really good cameras. They were engineered to fulfill a need for uncomplicated and quick gratification, marketed to an audience of snapshooters and selfiemongers. Inventor Edward Land placed all of his emphasis on perfecting the spontaneous function of his film, and to simplifying the taking of pictures to the point that your goldfish could pretty much operate the cameras. That said, Polaroid film was unstable, balky, moody, mushy, and generally useless as an archival medium. Of course, the company tried to shape an alternate narrative: certain high-end, professional grade iterations of the camera appeared at the margins of the photo market, with Polaroid hiring Ansel Adams as a “consultant” on color (which is a little like hiring a childless person to head up a daycare), and the brand got a pass from culture vultures like Andy Warhol, who tried to legitimize the cool, what-the-hell factor of the cameras for a generation hooked on immediacy. But in the end, Polaroid photography delivered mere convenience and fun, seldom art.
In terms of its legacy, there are no classic Polaroid lenses, nor any other evidence that the company ever trusted its customers with taking pictures like grown-ups. Model after model refused to allow users to take even basic manual control of the process of photography, offering instead frozen focal lengths, a stingy array of shutter speeds, and cave-man-level focusing options. Finally, by the dawn of the digital age, Polaroid whimpered out as it had roared in, making the process ever easier, the gear ever cheaper, and the results ever worse.
Polaroid Originals is now poised to do something its namesake never did: make a real good camera for people who also like the tactile, hold-it-in-your-hand sensation of instant photography. But they’re off to a lame start, if the brainless, artless OneStep2 is any indication. Not only is this gob of plastic optically stunted, the film made by Polaroid Originals, who had to figure out the process without any blueprint or guidance from Polaroid, looks even worse than actual Polaroid film, which is a little like finding out that your mud pies don’t look as elegant as everyone else’s. And did we mention the cost, which works out to nearly two dollars per print?
And so, for analog hogs, everything old is really just old again. As we speak, Kodak is preparing to produce an all new Super-8 movie camera… for around $2,400. Surely we can’t be two far from a loving re-launch of the Ford Edsel. I hear they gots a cigarette lighter right in the dashboard…….
By MICHAEL PERKINS
OVER THE PAST FEW DECEMBERS, The Normal Eye has marked the holidays by recalling classic Christmas advertisements from the Eastman Kodak Company, the first corporation to merge consumers’ seasonal sentiment with the promotion of camera sales. We’ve had fun revisiting examples of the firm’s amazingly successful “Open Me First” campaign, which cheerfully asserted that, basically, it ain’t Christmas until someone puts a Kodak under the tree.
This year, however, seems to argue for a new wrinkle in our tradition, with the long-anticipated resurrection of the Polaroid corporation, or at least its Christmas ghost. The strange saga began in 2008 when Polaroid decided to discontinue the production of its iconic instant film, leaving a half-century’s worth of global users stranded. Enter the entrepreneurial trio of Florian Kaps, Andre Bosman, and Marwan Saba, who bought as much of the company’s factory hardware and film-making process that still remained after Polaroid had begun scrapping parts and burning files. Sadly, most of the sacred secret film recipe had already been destroyed, meaning that the team’s new company, dubbed The Impossible Project, had to painstakingly reverse-engineer the production process, eventually creating an instant film that was much closer to the quirky, low-fi look of Lomography cameras than the precise instruments Polaroid produced in its heyday.
For the next seven years, Impossible Project instant film shot off the shelves to feed the world’s aged inventory of SX-70’s and One-Steps, drawing praise for preserving the feel of film and drawing fire for what was actually pretty crappy color rendition and slooooow development time. Finally, in 2017, Impossible purchased the last remnants of Polaroid’s intellectual property, allowing it to begin manufacturing brand-new cameras for the first time in years and rebranding the company as Polaroid Originals. Christmas 2017 would herald the arrival of the Polaroid OneStep 2, a point-and-shoot quickie designed to compete with other mostly-toy cameras cashing in on the instant film fever. The Ghost Of Shaken Snaps Past walks amongst us once again.
And so, Polaroid is dead and long live Polaroid. The above 1967 Christmas pitch for the original company’s full product line (read the fine print) gives testimony to the incredible instruments that once bore the Polaroid name. You can’t go home again, truly. Not to live, anyway. However, an occasional 60-second visit can be fun.
Strange colors and all.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I REMEMBER, YEARS AGO, HEARING A COMMERCIAL FROM AN OLD RADIO SERIAL IN WHICH THE SPONSOR, Ovaltine, rhapsodized about the show’s latest mail-in “premium”, a genuine Captain Midnight Shake-Up Mug, which, according to the ad copy, was made of “exciting, new PLASTIC!!” It struck me, as a child of the ’50’s, that there actually had been a time when plastic was both exciting and new. The “latest thing” in an age which was bursting with latest things, an unparalleled era of innovation and miracle. Silly Putty. Rocket Ships. Television.
And your photographs….delivered in just one minute.
The introduction of the Polaroid Land Camera, Model 95, in 1948 was one of those “exciting, new plastic” moments. Developed by inventor Edward Land, the device was, amazingly, both camera and portable darkroom. Something mystical began to happen just after you snapped the shutter, an invisible, gremlins-in-the-machine process that accomplished the development of the image right in the camera. Open the back of the thing 60 seconds later, peel away the positive from the negative (a layer of developing gel lay in-between the them) and, sonofagun,you had a picture. Black and White only. Fragile, too, because you immediately had to dab it with a stick of smelly goo designed to keep the picture from browning and fading, a procedure which created the worldwide habit of fanning the picture back and forth to speed up the drying process (sing it with me: shake it like a Polaroid). And then you got ready for company. Lots of it.
When you brought a Model 95 (unofficially dubbed the “Speedliner”) to a party, you didn’t just walk in the door. You arrived, surrounded by an aura of fascination and wonder. You found yourself at the center of a curious throng who oohed and ahhed, asked endlessly how the damn thing worked, and remarked that boy, you must be rich. Your arrival was also obvious due to the sheer bulk of the thing. Weighing in at over a pound and measuring 10 x 5 x 8″, it featured a bellows system of focusing. Electronic shutters and compact plastic bodies would come later. The 95 was made of steel and leatherette, and was half the size of a Speed Graphic, the universal “press” cameras seen at news events. Convenient it wasn’t.
But if anything about those optimistic post-war boom years defined “community”, it was the Polaroid, with its ability to stun entire rooms of people to silent awe. The pictures that came out were, somehow, more “our” pictures. We were around for their “birth” like a roomful of attentive midwives. Today, over 75 years after its creation, the Polaroid corporation has been humbled by time, and yet still retains a powerful grip on the human heart. Unlike Kodak, which is now a hollowed out gourd of its former self, Polaroid in 2014 now makes a new line of instant cameras, pumping out pics for the hipsters who shop for irony on the shelves of Urban Outfitters. Eight photos’ worth of film will run you about $29.95 and someone besides Polaroid makes it, but it’s still a gas to gather around when the baby comes out.
So, a toast to all things “new” and “exciting”. But I’ll have to use a regular glass.
For some reason, I can’t seem to locate my Captain Midnight Shake-Up Mug.