Monday, November 07, 2016

I'm not a hipster, at least I don't think I am, yet for some reason I bought a Polaroid instant camera on eBay, and I love it.

I've owned and used Polaroids before, around 30 years ago when everybody had one. It was magic back then, and to some degree it's still magic in this age of instant digital gratification.

The model I purchased was the iconic SX-70. Mine has the sonar autofocus on board which impacts the compact nature of the camera over the original model. The inclusion of the add on is a reminder of the innovation and engineering needed to accomplish something we take for granted today.

I was lucky to receive a working SX-70 in good condition. Don't let the silver case fool you - it's really just metalised plastic with a high quality finish. To complete the up-market image, the SX-70 is finished with leather inserts.

The story behind the SX70 can be found in an excellent article by writer and Polaroid enthusiast Harry McCracken. Simplified, Edwin Land, one of the co-founders of the Polaroid company, undertook to engineer an instant camera that could 'pop-up' from flat and still retain the advantages of instant film while also introducing the classic eject mechanism that personifies Polaroid instant cameras. More images of the camera can be found its Wikipedia entry.

Indeed, the origami nature of the camera reveals itself when you first expand it from flat. With the film inserted, the next frame to be exposed sits facing upwards. Inside the rear of the bellows is a mirror that projects the scene taken in from the lens onto the plane of the film. The frame is then ejected out the front of the camera, forcing it through a pair of rollers that distribute the developing chemicals over the surface of the exposed photo.
It's an enticing ballet of electronics, motors and chemicals to get the finished result, so much more involving than reeling of photos at 10fps on your iPhone.

Instant film production at Polaroid was an early casualty of digital photography, quickly making the cameras themselves obsolete. Recent efforts by a company called the Impossible Project have been largely successful at re-engineering the format and offering enthusiasts the opportunity to resurrect some vintage hardware.

This comes at a cost however. Polaroid film was always expensive, but the later cameras became more inexpensive) and Impossible film is no exception today costing 17GBP for just 8 exposures.

The upshot of this expense is that each and every shot has to be considered carefully. No pictures of the cat, a dinner plate or a cloud. That said, catching a photo with an instant camera somehow exemplifies the freezing of time that a photo represents, more so than a snap on a phone camera. It's a record of maybe the special lengths one might go to to capture a scene as opposed to the often random and off the cuff images taken digitally.

In this respect, armed with an instant camera, there is a tendency to seek the perfect moment, knowing that down the line, that photo can be remembered for what it is, a snapshot in time created by the analogue stuff of optics, motors and chemicals, and is all the more remarkable for that.