16 October 2008

The Last Polaroid

Photographers today like to call their pictures "images". But when I was a kid, photographs weren't "images". "Images", to quote Abraham, are formless and void. When I was a kid, photographs had very specific forms. When I was a kid, photographs were things.

School photos came in little blue cardboard frames. Slides came in much smaller frames; Kodachromes were the best slides, and they came in tiny, square paper frames with rounded corners and a Kodak logo on the front, with the frame number and date stamped in ink on each one. And Polaroids - ah, Polaroids.

Polaroids came with a gray backing, a white frame, and a slight curl. And they came right away.

You pulled them out of the camera, watched your second hand count to 45, peeled the picture off the backing paper (dont't touch that! It's coated with caustic goo!), smeared the slimy (and slightly mysterious) pink wand across the picture, and there you were - a fully developed photograph in less than a minute. Later - when I was about 10 - Polaroid invented integral film; it didn't even need to be peeled apart, and you could watch the picture emerge like a magic trick from a plain white rectangle of plastic. And it still took less than a minute!

A minute seems like forever to kids who grew up using digital cameras, but to us a minute was a miracle.

Here's what we were used to: buy a roll of film. Shoot for about a week (really! It took us a week to find 24 things worth photographing! Today's DSLR users shoot that many pictures in six seconds!). Unload the film and put it in a mailing envelope addressed to Kodak in Rochester, New York. Drop the envelope in a mailbox. Spend another week checking mail every day to see if the pictures are back yet. Finally!!! Rip open the red-and-yellow return envelope and take out our twenty-four little things.

The weeks of suspense died with Polaroid - but not the excitement. The excitement of Polaroid - for my generation anyway - has never died. But Polaroid itself is dying now.

Polaroid instant film was introduced in the late 50s, and integral Polaroid film (no peeling apart) came on the scene in the early 70s. All Polaroid instant film production is being discontinued this year (though Polaroid will continue to market a very limited selection of instant films produced by Fuji, at least for a while).

My generation's relationship with Polaroid instant film is unique; we were the kids in the Polaroid pictures; when you see a Polaroid of a child, it's one of us. Not coincidentally, I think we may also be the last generation for whom photographs are things and not just "images".

I went back to see my generation this summer at my 30th high school reunion. I heard the news that Polaroid was going to stop making instant film as I was planning my trip. It occurred to me that I had a decent supply of 4x5 Polaroid Type 56 film in my closet waiting for a project, so I cleaned up my 4x5 camera and put it in the car before I hit the road and headed for Bryan High School.

I told my classmates at the beginning of the reunion dinner that Polaroid was going away, and that I'd be happy to give each of them the last Polaroid they were likely to have of themselves.

A lot of people took me up on the offer. I took 70 pictures in about two and a half hours; each one took about a minute to shoot and develop, and I rephotographed each one with a digital camera on a copystand. It was a great experience; I probably talked to more of my classmates than anyone else at the reunion, and the classmates I photographed seemed to be having a great time with the process. A lot of them liked the pictures, and I did too.

For me, one of the most interesting parts of the experience was that people really did get unique, one-of-a-kind things. My digital copies are different from the originals for several reasons; the copystand legs cast shadows on the pictures because I used room lighting instead of copy lighting. I had to use a glass plate to hold the curly polaroids flat, and over the course of the evening the plate developed a film of crud from the surfaces of the pictures, and from my fingerprints.

It's a great irony that digital technology, with its ability to generate perfect copies, left me with imperfect shadows of the unique, original artifacts my subjects took home with them. I love that.

I loved the process too, and the subjects. The Bryan High School class of 1978 are the people I grew up with, and who, to a large extent, made me who I am. It was wonderful to see them again, and to be able to give them something unique as a memento of our getting together in 2008. I'd like to think you can see a little bit of what makes them so special in the pictures. I call the project "The Last Polaroid"; you can see the digital copies of the Polaroid originals here.


Blogger Giulio Cesare Solaroli said...

this in not like taking a picture with a real Polaroid, but it is a quite funny surrogate: http://www.poladroid.net/

October 25, 2008 5:03 PM  
Blogger Jerry Sullivan said...

What a great idea Bob.
I sure wish I had done that at Rosemary's HS reunion a few weeks ago, as it is I'll have to settle for some digital snapshots.

November 12, 2008 11:07 AM  

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