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Instant karma

Before Polaroid fades into history, let's remember how influential -- and cool -- the art of the snapshot, and the cameras themselves, could be

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / March 16, 2008

It's not as if "instant photography" died in an instant. Once digital cameras became affordable, its days were numbered. And technically (if not technologically), it's not even dead. Fuji still makes instant film. Even so, the announcement last month that Polaroid would stop producing instant film is a landmark in the history of photography.

Cambridge photographer Elsa Dorfman exclusively uses Polaroid film in her celebrated large-format portraits. Her response to the news was no less heartfelt for being so theatrical. "Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!" she wailed in a telephone interview.

"I do love that film," Dorfman said once she'd composed herself. "It is just fabulous film: creamy, wonderful, fabulous film. And digital looks so different."

Of course digital looks different. Everything looks different from Polaroid. Polaroids are thick, tactile, slightly unreal. If Polaroids were a movie, they'd be "The Truman Show." If they were novels, Philip K. Dick would have written them. How much you want to bet all the pictures in R. Buckminster Fuller's family albums are Polaroids? They're obsolete and futuristic at the same time, which is a hard trick to pull off, but the glory - and downfall - of Polaroid was managing to do it.

Dorfman is not alone in her dismay over the demise of Polaroid film. On the Web, savepolaroid.com was created to protest the decision. Another website, polanoid.net, is seeking to build the "biggest Polaroid-picture-collection [on] the planet to celebrate the magic of instant photography." So far more than 136,000 images have been uploaded there. Newton-based photographer Michael Blanchard has assembled a touching six-minute audio slideshow, "Polaroid: An Icon of a Company," consisting of interviews with employees at corporate headquarters in Waltham. The presentation is done so expertly a casual viewer might mistake it for a video. You can view it at Blanchard's website, michaelblanchard.com.

Polaroid has had a long, daunting decline since its glory days in the '60s and '70s. Yet even now, seven years after declaring bankruptcy, there are those who remember when it was the Apple of its day: feisty, ubiquitous, pioneering. The Polaroid Land Camera was like the Mac, with all other consumer cameras PCs. There was the same sense of engineering superiority and cultural cachet. "They were so interested in design, just like Apple," Dorfman said. "Not just their products, but the cafeteria, the lobbies, everything."

The then-Cambridge-based Polaroid uniquely stood at the intersection of science, business, and art. Its founder, Edwin Land, held 533 patents, second only to Thomas Alva Edison in US history. The Polaroid Land Camera was named after its inventor. But somehow implicit in its name was the suggestion that the device was so good it claimed all earth-based photography, too. Might there one day be a Polaroid Sea Camera? A Polaroid Air Camera? The mightiness of Polaroid being what it was, it seemed plausible. And for much of the early '70s the company's stock price held steady at just under $150 a share.

Polaroid was a cash machine (for a while, anyway). It was also talisman of a lifestyle. So far as the great mass of middle-class Americans were concerned, the embodiments of '60s affluence and liberation - note that the two went hand in hand - weren't bongs or bell-bottoms or even birth control. They were the Ford Mustang and the Polaroid Swinger (that name!).

Hey! Meet the Swinger, the Polaroid Swinger

It's more than a camera, it's almost alive

It's only 19 dollars and 95!

The TV ad featured a then-unknown Ali MacGraw. It was, you might say, her first appearance in "Love Story" - only the stars in this version weren't named Jenny and Oliver but Polaroid and the hip-seeking American consumer. How could Land not have been a '60s icon? "Anything worth doing is worth doing to excess," he liked to say. Of course, he was referring to technology - but still.

The company had a knack for innovative marketing. Sir Laurence Olivier was signed up to introduce its SX-70 camera. A series of 300 ads in the late '70s and early '80s that featured James Garner and Mariette Hartley was in everything but name the best sitcom on network television between the end of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and the arrival of "Seinfeld." Polaroid's advertising was so prescient it even had a very young Hugh Laurie in one of its British TV ads (you can watch it on YouTube, youtube.com/watch?v=M5BA9rrrcrs). It may not be "House" as instant photographer, but the absence of any bedside manner is clearly evident.

If Polaroid made selling its products something like an art form, it made those products with art in mind. "The purpose of inventing instant photography was essentially aesthetic," Land said in 1947, announcing the process's invention. That sounds like ex post facto PR. But the Polaroid (note how the image requires a definite article as does neither company nor camera) soon enough gave rise to its own aesthetic: flat, flip, now, uninflected, casual, throwaway.

The Polaroid user, professional as well as amateur, was eager for the unexpected, ever ready to move on to the next thing. The quintessential Polaroid of the Polaroid aesthetic might be Madonna lying on the floor taking her own picture in "Desperately Seeking Susan": a budding queen of consumer culture seeking, and getting, instant gratification visually. The scene perfectly conveys the Polaroid sensibility, at once self-involved and far removed. And the sensibility wasn't just visual. Maybe the easiest way to understand the school of "dirty realism" fiction in the '80s is as so many stacks of verbal Polaroids. The shiny happy minimalism of Douglas Coupland is instant-film prose at its shrewdest. In fact, the title of his 1996 essay collection is "Polaroids from the Dead." And Found magazine is, in effect, the Polaroid as publication.

Since the Kodak Brownie came along more than a century ago, the camera has been growing ever more user friendly. That's a wonderful thing, except to the extent that it has allowed us to forget that a camera, no less than a clock, is a machine. (The French critic Roland Barthes once called cameras "clocks for seeing.") One of the beauties of the Land camera was that every time it was used the user was reminded of its existence as a piece of machinery. A physical thing emerged from inside, like a two-dimensional package of sight from a handheld assembly line.

The offhand whirr-whirr-whirr of Polaroids - push, click, eject; push, click, eject - ideally suited them to be parts of greater photographic wholes: rectangular tessellations in many-eyed mosaics. Think of the gridded album cover for Talking Heads' "More Songs About Buildings and Food"; Andy Warhol's innumerable on-the-fly, smile-for-the-camera snapshots from his Interview period; or, best of all, David Hockney's perspective-defying Cubist constructions, what he calls "joiners," such as "Pearblossom Highway #2" or "Billy Wilder lighting his cigar."

In his book "Camera Lucida," Barthes writes, "Polaroid? Fun, but disappointing, except when a great photographer is involved." It was one more mark of Land's genius as entrepreneur as well as engineer that he addressed that concern almost from the beginning. Ansel Adams was hired as a Polaroid consultant in 1949, and the company's legendary photography collection contains some 23,000 images. The company further burnished its artistic reputation by making six large-format 20-by-24-inch cameras that stand 5 feet tall and weigh 235 pounds. The gorgeously detailed images they produce are comparably imposing. They are, if you will, the ultimate examples of instant photography, as well as an altogether different version of the Polaroid aesthetic. Among the best-known users of the cameras are Timothy Greenfield-Sanders and Dorfman.

Dorfman, who said she saw the film decision coming, has laid in as large a supply as she can. "I've hoarded enough for a year," she said. Beyond that, though, she's stuck. After 12 months, she explained, "The pods that transfer the negative to the positive oxidize. That's why you can't buy Polaroid film at a yard sale." Before her supply runs out, Dorfman said, she'll look into Fuji, though she added with a sigh that she assumes she'll eventually have to go the digital route.

Polaroid's decision to stop making film holds at least one consolation for Dorfman and other fine art photographers who've relied on it. "I guess it'll just make my pictures more valuable," she said.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

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