Sun. Feb 10, 2008
The Death Of Emulsion and Redefining of Instant
Not that terribly long ago, to complete an advertising photography shoot, you required vendors for specific supplies and support. Typically, you might buy some Kodak EPR film stock in a large format (120mm, 4×5, 8×10), along with a similarly large format of Polaroid (Type 669, Type 55, Type 59), to allow for “instant” viewing on the set.
Locally, we often got these items at what was the flagship 14th Street store of Wolf Camera. After the film was exposed, we took it to one of the two professional E-6 labs in town, and two hours later, we had our final image.
Today, Kodak no longer makes EPR, the 14th Street location of Wolf Camera has been demolished, and the two pro E-6 labs in town both have “For Sale” signs on their buildings. As for Polaroid…
Polaroid Corp., the Massachusetts company that gave the world instant film photography, is shutting down its film manufacturing lines in the state and abandoning the technology that made the company famous.
“The Norwood plant is shutting down, and we will soon be winding down activities at the Waltham facility as well,” said Kyle MacDonald, senior vice president of Polaroid’s instant photography business segment.
The Norwood and Waltham plants make large-format films used by professional photographers and artists. Polaroid also makes professional-grade films in Mexico, and its consumer film packs come from a factory in the Netherlands. All these plants are slated for closure this year. Polaroid chief operating officer Tom Beaudoin said the company is interested in licensing its technology to an outside firm that could manufacture film for faithful Polaroid customers. If that doesn’t happen, Polaroid users would have to find an alternative photo technology, as the company plans to make only enough film to last into next year.The Boston Globe: Polaroid shutting 2 Mass. facilities, laying off 150
I don’t know what the generational cutoff point might be, but a “Polaroid” used to represent a certain form of magic for many. Photojournalists often used to pack one along, especially overseas, as they could be used to entice kids and others to allow themselves to be photographed. A surefire way to get a kid to stand still for 60 seconds is to give them a freshly exposed Polaroid, and watch them marvel as the milky whiteness resolves into a murky image that then brightens and fills with color. It also allowed the photographer to offer a “tit-for-tat” ... I take your picture, but I leave you with a picture.
But it wasn’t just the SX70 end of things that had an impact (like SX70 manipulation), large format Polaroid was also used in “unintended ways,” like Polaroid transfers. People also would shoot a Type 55 black & white Polaroid, not for the print, but for the negative, which could be (if handled with care) printed or scanned like any other large format negative.
Need examples of this influence? Look at the very top of this page, that tab-like rough edged background for the text, “PHOTODUDE.COM”? That was meant to mimic a the top edge of a Polaroid transfer. Then look at the footer in the photo section. That’s meant to mimic the look of a Type 55 negative.
And that’s all we can do now, is mimic. Because soon, The Real Thing will be no more.
It was a case of technological advances redefining the terms of the marketplace. You might not recall, but at one time Polaroid sued Kodak over an “instant” photo process Kodak tried to market … and Polaroid won big. They owned the concept of “instant photography,” lock, stock, and little black barrel of fixer (remember that unique smell?)
But they’d always been able to define that on their own terms, and in relation to the old “drop it at the drug store and come back in a week.” Compared to that, well, 60 seconds isn’t a minute, it’s instant!
Unless you’re shooting twenty of them in an effort to nudge one final twig into place on your set, in a spot everyone agrees is just perfect. Until someone says, “I don’t know, can we rotate it clockwise five degrees and look at it again?” So you do, and shoot another ‘Roid, as we called them (Type 59 4×5 color Polaroids cost about $3 a pop). And wait another 60 seconds. Which can soon feel like a very long time.
So when Polaroid came out with a New & Improved professional Polaroid film that took 90 seconds to process, oh, you should have heard the whining! 90 seconds! That’s half an eternity more! In my experience, it was rarely used. Whatever benefit it provided, it wasn’t worth the extra 30 seconds. In fact, we’d often shoot a Type 55 B&W after rotating that twig 5 degrees, because it only took 25 seconds to process.
“Instant” becomes a very relative term. A year or so ago, I was talking to a local photographer, and he complained about a new camera not using Firewire. Why? Because he said USB made him wait a whole six or seven seconds for the image to transfer and render on the 24 inch monitor of his tethered computer.
I reminded him that was about one tenth of the time he used to whine about waiting for Polaroids (when I used to assist him, he was always pacing and looking over my shoulder at about 45 seconds, certain I could not be timing it right … “isn’t it done yet?”). He said that was entirely different. That was a three dollar Polaroid, and he’d paid thousands of dollars for all this gear…
But it’s not just the adults who want to see it now. My niece Caroli will be three this month, and the only kind of camera she’s ever known will “instantly” (in the truest childlike sense of that word) show her the picture that her Mom or Dad or I just took of her. Until she encountered Grandma’s camera. Grandma shoots film, and Caroli clearly seems vexed that she can’t see the picture like on our camera. And she’ll never know a Polaroid.
But even Grandma is having problems finding film cameras. She’s started using the disposable ones. The market for film, and Polaroid, has gotten so slim that it simply is no longer profitable to manufacture and distribute. Not even for pros. They barely accommodate Grandma.
We’ve learned that “instant” has a whole new meaning. And, sadly, it’s a lot faster than Polaroid could run.