Unhappy development: the death of Polaroid

Polaroid instant film,the little white-bordered photo shards of our lives for half a century,ceased production last month,according to the company.

Published: February 8, 2009 10:59 am

Polaroid instant film,the little white-bordered photo shards of our lives for half a century,ceased production last month,according to the company. The fabled 10-packs of film already on shelves might take six months,perhaps a year,to sell out. Then,it’s the way of the dodo bird.

Sigh. You woke up one day and Polaroids were just there,like they had been waiting for some doofus to get around to inventing them—like television,like Google. In 1948 Polaroid unveiled its Model 95 camera and Type 40 film. For the first time in history,you could take a picture and have it in your hand a minute later. More than a million packs of film were on the shelves in the first two years; more than a million cameras in six years.

By 1963 there were 5 million cameras and who knows how much film. There were a gazillion variations of both. The Model 80 Highlander,the Winklight 250,the Model 900m,the Automatic 100,101,102 and the Swinger.

The Polaroid—the camera manufacturer and its instant film were synonymous—became part of the fabric of every family gathering,holiday,vacation. But it’s the childhood moments that became universal. A late summer afternoon,cooling,the shadows coming on; tanned,you feel the heat emanating from your body—a good feeling,safe,happy. Your dad comes over,puts that boxy camera to his face,the soft ringed rubber over the extended body,and he presses the red button and the film emerges. The white plastic cardlike thing in the hand,kind of wet,you shake it,peel it apart and see an image of your goofy face emerge from the blackness.

Sure,the colours were off as often as not. Sure,there were streaks. That was the beauty of the thing. It produced an instant artifact. By the early 1970s,the Polaroid was ubiquitous. “It’s just iconic,” says Dave Bias,a graphic designer in New York who co-founded SavePolaroid.com early last year when the company announced it was going to phase out instant film. The site has registered more than 250,000 unique visitors. More than 500 people have taken Polaroid pictures of themselves and sent in stories of why they love the film.

Artists still use Polaroid photos. “You cannot digitally alter it later. You really have to learn to compose,” says Los Angeles photographer Tod Brilliant,who works almost solely with the medium.

Fuji is still making some instant film. And Polaroid has a new gizmo,the PoGo,that can instantly print pictures from a cellphone. And yes,digital cameras show a picture the instant you take it. But you can’t hold that photo. You don’t watch it develop right before your eyes,a bit of chemical magic.

Polaroid’s instant film was not the photographic equivalent of the eight-track,or vinyl records,or the Hula Hoop,for that matter. It was not technology that got outdated. It was part of who we were in the second half of the 20th century,something we had that got left behind. Something to be missed.
_Neely Tucker,LATWP

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