I have been putting off writing a post about Polaroids for a long time because I am not entirely certain that I will be able to adequately tame my emotions surrounding these objects of enchantment, in order to think clearly enough to channel writings that make any kind of sense. My hope is that after you have read this post, you will, at the very least, feel a greater appreciation for and understanding of Polaroids and the preciousness of their nature.
For most of my life, I never thought very much about Polaroids. I thought, as everyone does, that Polaroids were cool, and pretty much left it at that. I went to The University of the Arts (1998-2002) in Philadelphia to study photography (this was just around the time that digital photography began to emerge, and I was educated for the most part in the art of analog photography, using traditional film and darkroom techniques), and I recall during many of our studio classes, we used Polaroids to aid in the exacting of our film shoots.
When you are shooting photographs in a studio setting, there is always a lot of coordination and apparatus, and studio photography is not exactly candid or loose. It is quite a production in fact, and taking a Polaroid beforehand is necessary in order to gauge the lighting and every other aspect of the composition of the shot, so you don’t waste your actual film on getting all of those fine details correct.
We would have a ginormous 4” x 5” camera set up (this means that the actual negative that was produced from this camera was 4” x 5”, which is pretty damn big), and this camera was massive and heavy and cumbersome and crazy. The large 4” x 5” negative film sheets (4” x 5” film does not come in a roll like 35mm film, but in individual 4” x 5” sheets that must be loaded by hand) were rather expensive. So, we would shoot a Polaroid first and if the Polaroid looked perfect, we would then go ahead and shoot with actual film. Since I found studio photography tedious and un-inspirational in general, I linked Polaroids with just one of the many aspects of a very boring and time-consuming creative process.
The 4” x 5” sheets of film go behind that rectangular gridded area and this is essentially the frame of the shot. Image obtained from here.
This is a 4” x 5” film holder and only two sheets of 4” x 5” film go in here, one on each side. PS, you have to load this film blind in a pitch-black room so you don’t expose the film.
This is an exposed and developed 4” x 5” negative, ready to be enlarged and printed in the darkroom. These are also great for making contact prints, which means that you don’t enlarge the image, you print the image at the actual size of the negative. In general, when you enlarge something, you gradually lose quality the bigger you go. But when you make a contact print, the quality is 1:1, so contact prints are incredibly crisp and delightful.
The only time I enjoyed using Polaroids was when the department head would get a new camera and would want to test it out and play with it, and we would all mess around in the studio, taking fun Polaroids of each other. In many ways, this messing around with a camera reflects one of the fundamental natures of a Polaroid—FUN—and the studio photographic process seemed to take all of the fun out of something that was so potentially dreamy. An instant photograph is truly dreamy when you really break it down, and even though I didn’t care for the exactness of studio photography, it is important to note the versatility of this amazing product; up until digital photography took over, a studio photographer literally could not do his or her job without the assistance of Polaroids.
Playtime in the studio with Polaroids
Worktime in the studio with Polaroids…I hated this shoot and felt 100% uninspired…
Taking a break outside the studio, probably on my way to get pizza. PS I loved that coat…
As I gained greater exposure (pun not intended, but accidentally awesome) to the Polaroid and its many uses, I began warming to this phenomenal invention, and really started to become rather attached to having “The Polaroid” in my life, feeling an exquisite lack if I went too long without utilizing some form of Polaroid-ic process in my creative work. Also around this time in college, Polaroid released a fun-as-hell plastic camera called an i-Zone (1999). The camera was small and lightweight and the Polaroids it produced were preciously miniature. The image itself was only about 1” x 1 ½” and it spit out of the camera in the form of a brightly colored strip of paper with the image in the center. This camera was perfect to take with you to a bar or a party and just snap away, capturing the evening of magic and madness.
So now that we have smart phones and Instagram to capture images of fun times with friends, and massive digital cameras to take care of perfecting studio photography, what now is so great about a Polaroid picture, and why is it so precious?
For one thing, Polaroids are currently quite rare and in order to obtain a Polaroid camera, you can’t go into any old store and buy it like you could in the 80s. You have to order it online, bid for a used one on eBay, or maybe if you are lucky, you can find one in your parents’ attic (if you are of a certain age). Even if and when you do get your hands on a Polaroid camera, you still have to purchase the expensive film. One pack of Polaroid film is $16.99 on Amazon and you only get EIGHT Polaroid pictures out of that! I actually ordered a Polaroid camera (not an original, but a newer version) online a few years ago and it sucks. It actually doesn’t even work now and I can’t figure out how to make it work. It was over $100. And the images I did take with it looked terrible. They were washed out and whitish and just not the same as original Polaroids. Even the worst looking Polaroid back in the day was still beautiful in terms of quality.
In general, the nature of rarity implies preciousness. If you don’t have something anymore and you want it back (one version of rare), this object of desire becomes that much more precious to you, as you long for its return. If you have finally obtained something that you have wanted for a long time and have worked very hard to get (another version of rare), you don’t want to lose it, and that thing feels extraordinarily precious to the point of desperate clinging. I personally feel both versions of pain when it comes to Polaroids.
The operative word in the above definition for “precious” is “object,” and in my opinion, the object-like nature of a Polaroid is what sets it apart from all other forms of photography, with the exception of the Daguerreotype, the most precious photographic object of all [if you are curious, click here to read my post about The Incredible Daguerreotype].
Photography in general is quite an elusive medium. It is essentially the process of capturing little particles of light and holding them in a box, then regurgitating those particles of light in whatever way the photographer chooses. This is fundamentally a process of removal (within the process of creating something new), and with each step of the process, more and more of reality is subtracted. By the time we have our finished product, it is only a whisper of actuality, which is what truly makes photography so fantastical. However, we give up a token of concrete reality in place of the slippery image we have created, and that token is part of what makes something precious. No one wants a picture of a baby when they can hold the actual baby in their arms and feel it breathing. No one wants a picture of a sunset when they can be on a beach and feel the warm light dancing across their face. The preciousness of reality, that token of tangibility, like a gem in the palm of our hands (as opposed to just an image of said gem), is removed during the photographic process, and a Polaroid is one of the few comforting antidotes to that loss.
[Keep in mind, the Polaroid doesn’t pretend be the messenger of any image-based factual reality, but it does offer us something compact that we can literally grasp and actually feel.]
A Polaroid combines the dream-like nuances of everything fleeting about the photographic process, with something you can still hold in your hand, like a jewel-encrusted locket. Of course, we can hold in our hands a 4” x 6” snapshot or a digital printout of an image as well, but it doesn’t have the same effect. The amazing part about a Polaroid, and my favorite aspect, is its encasement. The Polaroid represents the product of what is literally a portable darkroom, showcased within a sharp white frame. The Polaroid camera itself is a box that handles the shooting, the developing, the printing, and the framing, all in one machine, and the Polaroid picture is the prize for such efficiency. For the most part, I don’t even really care how the image of a Polaroid picture looks. The object-ness of the thing wins me over every time.
The misleading aspect of Polaroid pictures is the image quality. In general, the images produced from a Polaroid camera are pretty lousy. Many of us take one look at a Polaroid and feel a speck of frustration from the lack of information that a Polaroid provides. We inspect the image and have a little fun with the fact that it only took about 60 seconds to produce, and we literally toss them aside. Polaroids are the quintessential tossable photographic images. And it is true, the quality is always off, always fuzzy, nothing crisp, with color shifts and glitchy spots. There is very little a person can actually control with a Polaroid picture, and this tends to piss people off, or at the very least, bum them out. However, I take the opposite stance, and believe that once that surrender of control is embraced, so much beauty emerges, if you just take the time to observe.
A cropped portion of one of my Polaroids. Look how dreamy and beautiful this image is. The various shades of green deliver me to a blurred and magical forest, dripping with life and vegetation; and that strip of golden goop lining the bottom edge is a wonderful accident that just happened. The image is reminiscent of an actual dream.
Close up on the goop. This is evidence of the portable darkroom aspect of Polaroid picture production. In short, when the image is captured within the camera, a light sensitive chemical process takes place inside the box, and when the image is spit out, the chemicals are smeared across the image. This is why you always have to wait a minute or so for a Polaroid to complete its developing process, because the goop that smears across the image is still working. This golden strip is just a bit of that beautiful goop that accidentally hopped outside of the frame, and it’s my favorite part. If you want to geek out on the process, this article explains it pretty well.
In order to understand the precious nature of a Polaroid, I think it’s important to inspect the back of a Polaroid as well as the front. I happen to LOVE the backs of Polaroids. The square inside the frame is matte and silky and decadent, like black chocolate truffles.
One of my Polaroids from 2004 (this is the full version of the goop-lined close-up example from above). I am an abstract photographer by nature, so I’ve never been interested in capturing reality in a photograph, but rather creating another reality entirely.
I swear I’m not the only one who thinks Polaroids are incredible, and even though I’m not an art historian, I think I would be missing something if I didn’t mention Gerhard Richter in a post about Polaroids.
Gerhard Richter (don’t quote me on this, but I’m pretty sure I’m not far off) was one of the first, if not the only, contemporary artists to put Polaroids on the map in terms of “high art” and “fine art,” and Polaroids are often an integral part of his body of work. He uses Polaroids in sketches and collages, often paints in the style of a Polaroid (blurry and hazy with washed out colors), and also paints over photographs and Polaroids. If you don’t know who Gerhard Richter is, in 2016, he was listed as one of the top 10 highest paid artists with a net worth of $40M. In 2013, one of his paintings sold for $37M at Sotheby’s. Not that money should be the deciding factor when it comes to art (unfortunately, money tends to be the deciding factor when it comes to many, many things), but Richter is influential in the contemporary art world, so if he is saying that Polaroids kick ass, people in the art world listen.
One of my favorite creations by Gerhard Richter. He combined two things I love the most in art—Polaroids and collage. Image obtained here.
I can’t find an image credit for this one and I don’t know if this is using a Polaroid or not, but this is to give you a general idea of how he plays with imagery, mixing photographic images with paint and creating an alternate reality within this clashing of opposing worlds.
If you can obtain some old Polaroids of your own (attics and basements in the homes of family members is a good place to start), I’m envious of, but also happy for you. I only have a handful of Polaroids left from 2004 and I am working on converting them to a series. They had been sitting in an envelope for 15 years and when I finally took a closer look at them, I couldn’t believe how beautiful they were/are. I hope I did the Polaroid at least a little bit of justice, and I hope the next time you come across one, if ever, you will take the time to hold it in your hands, turn it over and feel that silky black surface, and enjoy for a moment, the wonder of this precious object.
The beginnings of my series of Abstract Polaroids ca. 2004