Revisiting an old friend: Part 1

Recently, I’ve been going through old stuff — boxes from my late mother’s house, boxes of stuff from childhood I’ve moved from place to place over the years. You reach an age where you start to think, “It’s time to thin this pile of **** down a bit,” and that’s where I’m at.

Part of the old stuff is photographs. Lots and lots and lots of photographs. And lots of cameras, some of which took some of those many photographs. It got me thinking: When was the last time I actually shot a photograph on… (gasp)… film?

This is where this post has to split into two parts, and I’ll save the other (about a Kodak Duaflex II camera) for later. For this post, my curiosity went down the path of Polaroid.

When I was about 14 or 15, I bought a Polaroid camera at a garage sale. It was a simple thing, and used Polaroid 88 pack film, what’s known often as “peel apart.” You take a picture, you pull a paper tab, which pulls out a black tab, and you slowly pull that out, you wait a pre-defined period of time, and you peel a finished photograph off from a big strip of (now) waste paper that’s coated with caustic chemicals that burn your skin if you touch it. It was marvelous. Or something.

Polaroid pictures were notoriously poor quality. There were streaks, uneven colors, areas where the chemistry didn’t coat properly, spots, and other issues. Ambient temperature affected the results. The packs were expensive. You needed a ton of light to get a good exposure or good results. The cameras were pretty cheap, with plastic lenses that didn’t do much to make the most of the underlying technology and chemistry. Then there was all the waste. But well… Polaroid! It was a thing back in the day, as hard as it is to imagine it in the era of smartphones that take pictures quickly, easily, with good quality, good color, and that don’t cause a chemical burn on your skin.

I also found a Polaroid OneStep camera from the mid-1990s. The later Polaroids used a different system, one that wasn’t “peel apart,” but a so-called “integral” system — one that originated with the Polaroid SX-70 system, and carried on with the Polaroid 600 and later Spectra film packs.

Finding the Polaroids reminded me that the company filed for bankruptcy in 2001, and eventually stopped making Polaroid film packs entirely in 2008 after filing for bankruptcy a second time — a victim of changing technology, and changing consumer tastes.

In reality, in my opinion, their failure was one of management; the influence of Wall Street and the entire structure of our economy is one based solely on the assumption of continuous, never-ending growth. When a company’s market shrinks, rather than growing, companies are brutally punished by investors; we’re just not set-up (as an economy) to deal with that. Even if there’s a perfectly good (if smaller) business out there to be had, once-large companies have tremendous difficulty scaling down to calibrate output with decreasing demand, and instead tend to abandon old markets while trying to enter new ones; in other words, find a new way to grow again. Like a lot of companies, Polaroid tried (and tried) to change its fortunes.

Today, under its current ownership, Polaroid is nothing more than an intellectual property (IP) holding company. It does not itself make anything; it licenses the name to various makers of televisions, smartphone accessories, and assorted other gadgets who want to capitalize on the fact that “Polaroid” still holds a special place in the hearts of many of a certain age range, at least those naive enough not to see through the reality of who’s making what.

One of those companies licensing the brand is Impossible BV, the Dutch company also known as The Impossible Project, which now operates as Polaroid Originals after the company’s largest shareholder also purchased the Polaroid IP holding company. (What goes around, comes around?) Impossible was founded by a trio of guys in the Netherlands who, in 2008, purchased the last remaining factory for Polaroid integral pack film in Enschede, Netherlands. (Peel apart films were not part of the transaction.)

The project was so-named, because while Impossible bought the equipment, the underlying technology and chemistry “recipes” were not part of the deal. The company quite literally had to figure-out the techniques and the chemistry all over again from scratch, retracing the footsteps the original Polaroid company made decades ago. From what I’ve read, some of the original chemicals were no longer in production due to environmental concerns and the like, so even if they had Polaroid’s original recipes, it would have been difficult to follow them.

It wasn’t easy, and it did not happen fast; early versions of the company’s film packs didn’t perform that well, and even today, unlike the original Polaroid materials, color images can take 30 to 40 minutes to fully form. But in the intervening years, they’ve made it work well enough, and instant photography is a thing again — keeping a reported 200+ million old Polaroid cameras from being  made useless. (Yes, some companies, notably Fuji and Lomography, still made instant photography products, but not compatible with Polaroid’s gear.)

Polaroid Originals’ OneStep 2+ camera

The company is also marketing modern cameras, the OneStep 2, and OneStep 2+. What surprised me the most was finding the cameras and the film packs in-stock at my local Target store. That suggests this isn’t just my nostalgia bubbling over, but that — perhaps — “the little engine that could” over in The Netherlands is onto something.

I picked-up a pack of 600, and put it into my old Polaroid OneStep. This afternoon, I took my first photo with it. Compositionally, it sort of stinks; Polaroid, and indeed any snapshot camera, just isn’t great for long shots of landscapes. But this was a test shot, just to prove the camera works.

The first shot from my Polaroid OneStep in roughly 20 years

But the shot also shows what is either the downside or the creative upside of Polaroids, depending on on your point-of-view… The shot’s a little fuzzy and lacking detail (back to the importance of shooting things up close). The colors are there but sort of muted and shifted. You can see a vertical line or two, despite cleaning the rollers in my camera before I put the film pack in. And there are some spots along the bottom that reflect uneven and incomplete distribution of the chemistry.

It’s an aesthetic that can be jarring in the era of crisp, high-megapixel digital cameras with their exquisite detail and zoom lenses and exposure correction and brilliant colors and everything else. And yet, there’s still something inviting and interesting and unique about the photo that I genuinely like — although I’ll like the effect better with better composed shots. It looks dated in a way, vintage if you will, but for me, anyway, it prompts me to study the image more carefully.

One observation in looking at this and other vintage photos on Flickr, etc. lately is level of detail. For years, before the advent of digital photography and before photography gear became more affordable, I took pictures with simple snapshot cameras. Zoom lenses were something professionals might have. I and most people using such cameras would look at lovely landscapes, take a picture, and what we could see with our eyes was completely lost in the wide angle image that resulted. (The Polaroid sample shot above is a great example of that.)

In the digital era, I’ve wanted very high resolution, very big images. I love taking panoramas with my iPhone and DJI Osmo 2 for that reason; you can assemble enormous images that capture both a lot of horizontal and vertical range, and tremendous detail. The result is you can look at an image, and crop or zoom on any interesting part, long after taking the shot. But it makes for laziness; if you don’t have to actually think about composing the shot, or the limitations of your gear, or anything else, is that even truly being a photographer? Is there any real skill involved?

Modern photographic gear is amazing. Beyond the iPhone and Osmo, I have a terrific Canon EOS with a range of lenses from conventional to wide angle to extraordinarily long telephoto. If I can see it, I can shoot it — easily. But it ends-up taking some of the skill out of the equation. You no longer have to think like an artist; you just see something you want to record, and you record it.

I don’t know what I’m going to shoot with the other seven shots in the pack of Polaroid film. Having to think about it, having to think about subjects and composition and lighting and all the things I’ve not had to think about for years with photography feels daunting and overwhelming to me.

Will I get more Polaroid film after these seven additional shots are gone? Perhaps. Regardless, it makes me happy to see a group of people making a business out of something that was very nearly gone for good.

To close, a brief overview of Polaroid Originals (still named Impossible when this was made).