The end of Polaroid?
The last Polaroid film is about to pass its use-by date. Amid talk of a revival, Michael Bywater looks back at the snaps that captured our hearts
Wednesday 23 September 2009
On 30 September, the last batches of Polaroid film pass their expiry date and that, in theory, is that. I say "in theory" because we have all had the experience of loading up an expired film, eating an expired yoghurt or taking an expired medicine, and finding everything goes fine. ("Bloody racket," we say to ourselves; "just a trick to get us to buy new ones".) But theoretically, the jig's up. Game over, man. The end of an era.
Of course it's always the end of an era. Woolworth's going down the pipe was the end of an era. The end of lead in petrol was the end of an era. Dunn & Co going bust was the end of an era. In most cases, the end of the era is not a moment too soon. But Polaroid is different.
It's not just that Polaroid – or to give it its proper name, Land Instant Photography – was perhaps the most visible (apart from Polaroid sunglasses) and certainly the most charming of the many inventions of Edwin Land (1909-1991). Land was a genius who never took his degree; who put the Polaroid Corporation in the vanguard of "affirmative action"; who got himself on Richard Nixon's hate-list; who did an experiment every day and who said: "Do not undertake a project unless it is manifestly important and nearly impossible."
More significantly, though less obviously, it's the end of an era because Polaroid photography was the last technology of irreproducibility. In the digital age we expect – we assume – that every data-based artefact is infinitely reproducible. A piece of recorded music can be ripped, burned, stretched, transposed, copied, compressed and shared to our heart's content. The same goes for video. In writing, there are no longer manuscripts, only versions of files which can be edited, printed, saved (as .doc, RTF, plain text, PDF or XML, all representing the same piece of work). Photography developed rapidly into something similar, and did it first: as soon as the photographic negative arrived on the scene, photography incorporated the idea of the "original" which could be used to make multiple copies. But only the first copy, the print made from the original negative, was of the highest grade. Every generation of copy thereafter deteriorated; information was lost every time a new copy was made. Nor was any copy, any print, definitive. Anyone who has worked in a darkroom knows you can make 20 prints from one negative and every one will be slightly different, depending on the enlarger, the exposure, the manipulation, the developer, the paper, the temperature.
Digital is different. In digital, the copy is identical to the original and the original ceases to be meaningful. I edit my photographs using Apple's Aperture application and the notion of the "original" is so deprecated that you can nominate any version to take that role.
In the extraordinary technological advance of near-instant gratification, Edwin Land also propelled photography back to its roots. The Polaroid photograph is the nearest thing to a daguerreotype in existence. It is a one-off. You cannot duplicate a Polaroid, only copy it with some effort.
This lends an emotional value to the Polaroid. The thing you hold – after the requisite minute's pause and the quite unnecessary flapping in the air or tucking under the armpit – is the thing itself: an artefact made by the action of the photons emitted by the subject upon the chemicals in the film. A Polaroid has a guarantee of authenticity digital can never achieve. Unlike digital, unlike negatives, a Polaroid is vouched for. It is not just an image but a record; not a souvenir, but evidence.
Edwin Land came up with the idea (he said) to amuse his daughter, who was bored waiting for pictures to come back from the chemist. Travelling in the less-technologically-spoiled regions of the world, I have found Polaroids have an enchantment a 5x4 print, sent weeks or months later, cannot match. Seeing the picture emerge like a fortune from the mist, then being able to carry it around; this, to people unused to photography, is a charming and almost talismanic delight. A young man I met at a British university a few years ago produced from his pocket a battered Polaroid of a group of kids at a school near Masvingo in Zimbabwe. "This one's me," he said, pointing. "You took that 10 years ago and now I'm a student here!"
More than any other photographic medium, the Polaroid is real. What comes out of the slot with its pretty whirrr is a thing. You can pass it from hand to hand instantly. You can write on it. As a physical artefact, the Polaroid has an inherent texture which is slowly leaking away in the digital world: infinite reproducibility, but always on-screen. How many of your photographs do you print? Me neither. They go into the computer; I post them on the web or email them to publishers; that's it. They aren't real: just strings of binary data which require other strings of binary data to eventually produce an image on screen. One day technology will move on and they'll not be on the screen any more. Where will they be? Nowhere. There is no digital equivalent of the shoebox.
The Polaroid is the perfect shoebox medium. Not only do you only get the original, but you can't not get it. It delivers it into your hand; something that isn't true even of negatives. I have hundreds of pictures taken on a Widelux panoramic camera. Unless I find a Widelux film holder and print them, they are condemned to negative status forever. No trip to the chemist for them.
Which was, of course, another driving force behind Polaroid: no trip down to the chemist. As one commenter on The New York Times Lede blog wrote: "I bought a Polaroid circa 1986, the day I got a short note from my corner drugstore, 'Dear customer, We are returning your negatives. We regret the inconvenience, but Walgreens does not print photos from negatives of that nature.'" How many marriages did the discreet Polaroid save? How many did it undo? How many secret passions did the unmistakable clunky click WHIRRRRR document? In Britain we weren't allowed to buy the radio remote control "because of RF interference", but I suspected it was the same thinking that undid Oscar Wilde: people should under no circumstances be allowed to do what they like in their bedrooms. Phoo to that. I brought a remote control back from New York and you probably did too.
Those ones, of course, never got into the journals I kept for many years, rows of A4 day-per-page diaries with Polaroids (captioned and dated with a Pentel marker) gummed in and annotated in whatever pen I had available. Now it's digital images in MacJournal; the texture has gone. I can't pass them round. They don't betray their provenance with wine-glass stains or creases or odd chemical lacunae where Woman G has, post facto, cut out Woman C's face. (Easier with Photoshop but not as cathartic.) From my first Polaroid Swinger (it said "YES" when you twisted the little knob to the right exposure, and you had to seal the picture with a little sponge drenched in fixer whose odd isopropyl alcohol smell I can still conjure up now), to my SX-70 – surely one of the most enchanting cameras ever made – to my 1200i and my Vision, much of my life was spent in the company of my (relatively) cheap Polaroids when my fancy Leicas and Nikons and Rolleiflexes lay on the shelf. Nothing like Jamie Livingstone, who took a Polaroid a day from 1979 to 1997, when he died (they can be seen, a poignant and incontrovertible record of a life, on photooftheday.hughcrawford.com) but it was a memory game and when I see my daughter, aged six, in a Polaroid, it has a reality and an emotional connection ordinary film never achieved. As for digital ... I like my Nikons but feel nothing for the photographs. There is something flat, affectless, something – never mind technical limitations – lacking.
I said the age of the Polaroid is theoretically over and so it is, celebrated on sites like polanoid.net and mylastpolaroid.com. But two entrepreneurs have bought the machinery from Polaroid's film factory and, documented at the-impossible-project.com, are planning to bring a new instant film to market next year, accompanied by a high-quality, manual-focusing instant camera. Perhaps Land Instant Photography will be perpetuated, not as a mass medium, but as an arthouse speciality, like steam trains, harpsichords and bespoke perfumery. If it works out, I shall take my place in the queue for a sort of authenticity fast disappearing from our terribly convenient, efficient digital world.
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