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”.
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.
STORM WITHIN A SURGE
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.
(RE)SHAKE IT LIKE A POLAROID
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.
WHEN AND HOW
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I photograph late in the day, the time Rembrandt favored for painting, so that the subtlest tones surface. ———Marie Cosindas
ONE OF THE GREATEST SIDE EFFECTS OF MY HAVING LIVED IN THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST over the past eighteen years has been its impact on how I harness light in my photography. The word harness conjures the act of getting a bit and bridle on a wild stallion, and so is extremely apt in reference to how you have to manage and predict illumination here in the land of So Much Damn Sun. It’s not enough here to decide what or how to shoot. You must factor in the When as well.
To see this idea in stark terms, study the work of photogs who have shot all day long from a stationary position along the rim of the Grand Canyon. The hourly, and sometimes minute-to-minute shift of shadows and tones illustrates what variety you can achieve in the outcome of a picture, if you consciously factor in the time of day. After a while, you can glance at a subject or site and predict pretty accurately how light will paint it at different times, meaning that many a session can produce a wild variance in results.
The late photographer Marie Cosindas, whose miraculous early-1960’s work with the then-new Polacolor film helped change the world’s attitude toward color imaging, didn’t just load her film into a standard Polaroid instant camera. She shot it in her large format Linhof, experimenting with exposure times, filters and development techniques, and, above all, with the careful selection of natural light. She didn’t just wait for her subject; she waited on the exact light that would make it, and all its colors, sing. As a result, the art world began to rethink its opinion about color just being for advertising, or as somehow less “real” than black & white.
In my own work, I take the time, whenever feasible, to “case” locations a while before I shoot them, taking note over days, even weeks, to see what light does to them at specific times of day. As I mentioned, the West suffers from an overabundance of light, mostly the harsh, tone-bleaching kind that is the enemy of warm tone. In the above image, I scouted the location in the early morning, when the eastern sun was drenching the front end of the court, but waited about eight hours to return and get the precise projection of shadow grids that only occurred once the sun was in its western descent, about two hours before dusk. My test shots from the morning told me that the picture I wanted would simply not exist until ’round about suppertime. And that’s when I stole my moment.
There are three legs to the basic photographic tripod: What, How, and When. Over the years, paying greatest attention to that third leg has often given me one to stand on.
60 SECONDS TO HAPPINESS
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.
EVERYTHING OLD IS….OLD AGAIN
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…….
April 1, 2018 | Categories: Americana, Commentary, History, Intellectual Property | Tags: Instant Photography, Polaroid | Leave a comment