Craackwhirrcrunchspit! My very basic, very plastic Polaroid Spirit 600 responds to the shutter release with a peculiar, distinctive sound as it ejects a milky white sheet of film. There is a moment of suspense, then faint shadowy shapes start to appear, slowly darkening and acquiring colours as the image emerges. Very soon there is a photograph, complete with a neat white border and space for a handwritten caption below the image. Straight from the camera to the family album – what a treat! The process is strangely satisfying, even in this digital age. It captures that magical darkroom moment when the image takes shape on the paper without the attendant fuss with chemicals and timers. And the end product is an actual photo in your hand, not a set of numbers on a memory card or a hard disk.
I remember instant “peel apart” film from my childhood. You had to time it carefully, counting off the seconds before separating the layers, then rub the image surface with a gel stick, presumably a fixer. Even so, the process was definitely “instant” compared to finishing a roll of film, then waiting to have it developed and printed. It made a great party piece for the children, who loved to see their image pretty much as soon as it was taken. In fact, the whole idea of instant film started when an inventor named Edwin Land photographed his three year old daughter and then had to explain why she couldn’t see her photo straight away. Land started thinking about how to develop film as a one-step, on the spot process and within five years, in November 1948, the first PolaroidLandcamera and film went on sale in aBostondepartment store. The Model 95 camera and Type 40 roll film met an enthusiastic response – instant gratification is a wonderful selling point – and the Polaroid Corporation embarked on a 60 year career as the major name in instant photography.
Despite some spirited competition from Kodak and, later,Fuji, the Polaroid name remains synonymous with instant photography to this day. The applications were many and varied, ranging from the consumer market’s endless appetite for happy snaps to large format cameras for scientific, medical and industrial use, via the Polaroid backs professional photographers used to check their lighting before committing their image to conventional film. No wonder a 1983 book on instant photography lists so many possible applications: family journal, self-expression, self-image, diversion, entertainment, interior design, decoration, correspondence, note-taking, insurance, commercial photography, fine art, industry, small companies, science and medicine, education and therapy.
Today, of course, we just pick up a digital camera whenever we need an instant image – it will generally be sharper, with truer colours, and we don’t end up with a shoe box of photos to sort out and store (cluttered hard drives are easier to ignore, somehow). Old style Polaroids look downright quaint, by comparison, with their odd, muted colours and soft focus look. Still, I like the effect. And there is an active community of Polaroid and other instant film aficionados out there, as I discovered last year when I started exploring photo blogs and other photography-related websites. For example, Susannah Conway and Alicia Bock do lovely work with Polaroid film, while a quick search of Flickr turned up nearly 5,000 groups called “Polaroid”.
Then I found a really neat book, “The Magic of Instant Photography”, in my favourite second-hand bookshop and decided I should try this. Better late than never! I discovered that Polaroid had already discontinued production of instant film and cameras, but some film was still available at camera stores. Cameras could be found on E-Bay, but caution was needed – the cult status of certain models tended to inflate the price, while some required film that simply wasn’t available any more. I was looking for a camera that used Polaroid 600 film (still available at camera stores) when the serendipity effect cut in: PhotoAccess auctioned its small collection of Polaroid cameras and I joyfully traded two Sunday afternoons minding the Huw Davies Gallery for my 600 Spirit. It was meant to be!
As cameras go, this one is definitely in the low fidelity, plastic category. Apart from a silicone photodiode meter (I presume), all its technology is in the film cartridge, along with the battery. The only user controls are the shutter and a “lighter/darker” switch which seems to give maybe half a stop in exposure compensation. Focus is fixed and I’m guessing things are supposed to be sharp from about 4 feet out. “Sharp” is a pretty approximate term in this case, but the soft focus effect can look agreeably painterly on the right image. I also like the soft, slightly “off” colours the film gives in good natural light (though I do correct bad colour casts when I scan the image). This ISO 600 film has a narrow dynamic range – worse for burnt out highlights than a compact digicam – and the Spirit’s lens delivers some very obvious chromatic aberrations around high contrast edges. Why do I bother with it? I like that special Polaroid look and I enjoy seeing what I can do with such a basic, technically challenged camera – it’s a great way to get me “thinking differently” about my photography and exploring new subject matter.
Of course there is a downside. The film is not cheap and it has taken much frustrating (and wasteful) trial and error to begin getting some results I like. Then the successful images have to be scanned and colour corrected to match the original prints. That also takes practice. I think it’s worth the effort – experimenting and trying new things is part of the fun of photography, after all.
If you would like to try Polaroid photography, don’t spend too much on E-Bay! Borrow a camera or check out the op-shops first. Make sure you can get the right film for the camera. Polaroid 600 and one or two other 6xxx types are still in the shops, but the warehouse stocks must be getting low by now. Some hopeful entrepreneurs have bought the Polaroid factory in the Netherlands with a view to producing new films for vintage Polaroid cameras, but it’s still early days for The Impossible Project. Meanwhile, I will enjoy playing with my 600 Spirit as long as I can get the film.
Andrée Lawrey | August 2010