Death of the Monster Polaroid

This past Sunday was Father’s Day, and I wanted to put up on Face Book some old pictures of my son and me. So I pulled out some old prints and scanned them into my computer. This is a very unsatisfactory experience.  What you wind up with is something pretty fuzzy and certainly not up to digital standards, I am coming to hate film. It is not that there is anything wrong or intrinsically unsharp about film photography. It is just that the way it was practiced was often mediocre, and the process of going from object to negative to print to scanner to computer is fraught with analog steps. Your picture is only as good as the camera lens, only as good as the enlarger lens, only as good as your scanner optics. So the digital life is good.

Still there are those that love film. And on Monday morning I read an article in the New York Times entitled “Champions of a Monster Polaroid Yield to the Digital World.”  Back in the 1970s Polaroid Corporation’s president Edwin H. Land had five behemoth Polaroid cameras built of wood. These cameras used gigantic 20” x 24” sheets of polaroid film. They sat upon hospital gurney wheels and weighed 200 lbs a piece. They were designed to demonstrate the quality of the company’s large-format film. But cameras were quickly adopted by artists like: Chuck Close and Robert Rauschenberg and photographers like William Wegman, David Levinthal and Mary Ellen Mark. They made instant images that had the size and presence of sculpture or of heroic oil paintings.  These, of course, harkened back to the days of very large format photography and at the time represented a great marriage between the high-tech and the antiquated.

In 2008, Polaroid filed for bankruptcy and stopped producing its instant film. However, former Polaroid engineer John Reuter put together an group of investors and bought up one of the original cameras and hundreds of cases of the original film. He formed  the 20×24 Studio. The plan was to reinvigorate the manufacture, but demand was not there and the materials have a finite lifetime. The company will close by the end of the year, and with it will fall yet another photographic art form.

I will not comment about whether this is only the first death kneel of film in photography. Chuck Close commented that “I haven’t given up… Here’s yet another medium that will be lost to history, and it just shouldn’t be allowed to happen. If it does, I don’t know what I’m going to do, to tell you the truth. It’s so integrated into everything I do. I can always imagine what making a painting from one of those pictures will look like.”

What is most interesting to me is that the forms to disappear irrevocably are the ones that require sophisticated manufacture or processing – the high tech ones. You can make your own dry plates, collodion plates, albumin paper, platinum palladium prints, even daguerreotypes. But when it comes to roll film, especially color with its complex demanding processing and really all bets are off. I think that it would be wonderful to create today autochrome, not digital mockeries but the bona fide thing. It might even be doable with a lot of dedication and hard work.

So it seemed as I struggled trying to make something appealing of mediocre prints worth reflecting on this transitional moment in the technology of photography. These Polaroid 20” x 24” prints are indeed a marvel to behold.  This is especially true for those of us who remember the Polaroid Instamatic, gooey chemicals, and piles of failed photographs a dollar a pop lying on the floor.

This entry was posted in Essays on Photography, History of Photography.