The Cult of Pola

March 24, 2007

Alongside the Kodak Brownie, Polaroid and its ground-breaking instant film became household names by the second half of the 20th century. Most American families in the 1970s had one, even if it was hiding at the top of a closet or somewhat of a novelty sidekick to the fast-becoming-antiquated Brownie or quickly-emerging 110 format pocket cameras. So how is it that a camera so common has turned itself into the darling of art photography?

While widespread consumer interest withered away quickly by the ‘80s, Polaroid film and backs continued as staples for professional photographers. And the unique 20x24 Polaroid camera weighing in at 235 pounds remains the behemoth artists’ tool in a studio setting, popularized by the work of William Wegman with his Weimaraners along with John Reuter, a lifelong Polaroid artist who is the director of Polaroid’s 20x24 studio.

When the Polaroid SX-70 was introduced in 1972, the idea of the camera as an integrative art tool was initiated. It implemented the first instant film that allowed manipulation or transfer of the Time-Zero film emulsion. The distinctions between photography, illustration, and even painting became less clear. The camera and film were only a starting point, and the variations of creation differed from what the typical darkroom offered.

Polaroid image-making conveniently fits well into the digital shift. Photographers who want an alternative to digital image capture, and are reluctant to return to the darkroom have a format which yields almost the same immediacy in acquisition, but adds the appeal of seeing a developing photograph. Scanning and spotting give the photographer additional time to feel connected to the image.

The Polaroid company filed for bankruptcy protection in 2001. Despite the flourish of newer Polaroid camera users by way of eBay and the demand of instant film, some popular film-types have recently been discontinued. It’s unthinkable that the SX-70 Time-Zero film has been sentenced to an untimely demise in 2006. But there is an alternative to use 600 or 779 film—albeit with different results—with a do-it-at-home modification to the SX-70.

The Spectra system, another option, which I've chosen for my dive into Polaroid, uses film (now out of production) which is slightly wider in length than the SX-70 format. The cameras by comparison are also more affordable on the used market than a vintage SX-70.

Still another method is to take a $20 Holga and stick on a customized Polaroid back and you’ve got a Holgaroid. You can shoot a variety of Type 80 square format film, but the backs also take the wider-format 100 films. Type 85 is particularly desirable for yielding not only the positive print but also a good negative image. (These films are now all out of  production).

Plenty of fine work by Polaroid photographers from all over the world are exhibited at the most dedicated site created to date: The spirit of the Polanoid endeavor is summed up in these excerpts from their website:

"POLANOID was invented because [of] the magic of Polaroid pictures, the thrilling Edwin Land story and the charm and touch of Polaroid cameras hit us like a sledgehammer.

"Hungry for real analog, good smelling pictures in a digital world, we decided to swim against the stream and to reset our focus and start the biggest, best and most instant online photo community ever. Stuffed with millions of Polaroids, collected and uploaded by Polaroid addicts all over the planet."

On a Polaroid shooting excursion, March 24, 2007, Spectra in hand, I walked over the Hannah Street Bridge to an area called Bay Street Landing, a remote enclave of condos and vacant piers on Staten Island’s northern-most tip.

The sun had already gone down; it was getting cold and windy. I was counting on a post-sunset aura. Down by the water I found a concrete pier. At thirty feet wide and ten times as long, it juts out way into the New York Harbor where ferry boats dock just to the right.

A few remnants of bait were strewn at the far end of the otherwise desolate platform. Planes took off out of Newark Airport every five minutes heading northwest high above the harbor by a crescent moon. The magic hour was in session but wasn’t particularly inviting. Bright flood lamps helped light up a few spots and cast long shadows. 

The Spectra's default setting allows an open shutter for about six seconds while a flash fires and creates a slow-synch exposure. The combination of using expired film and cold developing yields hues of blue. As a departure or complement to a digital camera, shooting Polaroids brings an added joy to making pictures.