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critic's notebook

Point, shoot, and print clicks with him

By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / May 20, 2010

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I used to love taking photographs with my SLR — loading film, snapping away, and, after a week or two, dropping the film off at my local camera store. It was an overpriced place with a stirring chemical smell owned by a bearded, overweight Frenchman with a changing cast of serenely ironic women in their 30s behind the counter. These people took their photography seriously. I’m sure I was imagining it, but those ironic expressions always made me feel they were keeping a solicitous eye on the quality of their customers’ photographs. So it was at once disconcerting and thrilling to return to pick up the developed pictures. .

Undoubtedly, the whole exercise was expensive. But expenditure and a modicum of risk were part of the experience. You felt them in your index finger every time you closed one eye and prepared to press the button.

Now, like many people, my family photos are digital. I leave almost all of them on our home computer, and I never seem to get around to sifting the good from the bad — let alone making prints. In fact, I’ve all but stopped taking photographs. Basically, it bores me.

But with these two new and very different Polaroid cameras, I had a blast. One in particular — the more traditional Polaroid 300, which actually develops the pictures inside the camera — made me realize that the resurgent popularity of Polaroid is about much more than woozy nostalgia. And it’s about more than the basic excitement of getting an instant image in your hand — an actual thing that magically materializes before your eyes, and which you can hand over to your friends.

It’s about the return of risk.

Part of what makes photography in the digital age so different from photography in the fast-receding age of negatives, darkrooms, chemicals, and prints is that, with digital cameras, there is nothing at stake. You can click away incessantly, and know that you will never feel depleted.

And yet some kind of law of diminishing returns seems to be at work, because you never quite feel satisfied, either.

Polaroid film isn’t cheap ($10 buys you a pack that produces 10 instant pictures, about the size of business cards), and after shooting that set number of prints you have to go through the laborious process of reloading. But what this means is that each photo you take matters — in a way that photos taken with a digital camera don’t.

Tooling around the house on a gray day with my new toys, I found myself thinking much harder about light, about framing, and about color than I ever do with our Sony digital camera. The results don’t show it (that’s called “lack of talent’’) but, for the first time in years, I felt genuinely engaged with a camera in my hand.

Walker Evans, regarded by many as America’s greatest photographer, took up a Polaroid camera in 1973. He had just turned 70. His second marriage had ended, he was childless, and he was recovering from near-fatal stomach surgery.

“It makes things awfully easy to have that thing pop out,’’ he said, referring to the print that instantly ejects. “It reduces everything to your brains and taste.’’ Since brains and taste, he felt, came with experience, he believed that “nobody should touch a Polaroid until he’s over 60.’’

Evans was teaching at Yale and elsewhere in those days, and he would bring the results of his work back to his classes to shuffle around and show, sometimes even giving them away.

But the ones he kept were published posthumously, and they reveal that he took his Polaroid photographs as seriously as his earlier efforts. “The damn thing will do anything you point it at,’’ he said. “[But] you have to really know something before you dare point it at anywhere.’’

“Dare’’ is not a word that applies to digital photography. That’s why, when you use the new generation of Polaroid camera, the PoGo, that has a built-in color printer that prints out your digital photos, there’s not quite the same sense of excitement as with the 300.

Sure, it’s fun to be able to produce a tangible image on the spot — and from the same device that took the photo. But the fact that you can store the photos digitally, delete them, and print out only the ones you want means that the device insulates you from the possibility of truly mucking up.

Most people, being risk averse, will find it a more sensible option. But for me, the roll-of-the dice feeling that you get with the old-fashioned Polaroid is a thrill that never gets old.

Sebastian Smee is the Globe’s art critic. He can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.