Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Polaroid back from the dead?

In the movie “Sleeper,” Woody Allen plays a man who awakens from suspended animation 200 years after going to St. Vincent’s Hospital in “Green-wich” Village in New York City for an operation.

He’s stunned to find out that the year is 2173, all his friends are dead (despite eating organic rice) and that he’s on the 10 most wanted list.

But still, relaxing after a steak dinner with a cigarette, he notes that “I bought Polaroid at seven. It’s probably up millions by now.”

Well, it’s 2009, Polaroid as we know it is gone, and “Miles Monroe” hasn’t had a hit movie in years. The wonder of “instant photography” has been replaced by digital cameras and film is becoming a quaint notion; the big thing is getting a bigger-capacity SmartCard for your digital camera.

The end of producing prints has caused chaos in the photo industry, with companies like Kodak that got rich on film and developing prints plunging close to death. Polaroid appears to be returning from the dead, though, according to a story from the Associated Press.

Back when I was a child, it was fun to explore my parents’ closets; fun for me, I mean. I remember one time discovering this wondrous device in a case: it was a Polaroid camera.

This was the Instamatic age, when Kodak’s little cameras used cartridges (110s and 126s) and you had to spend money and mail them to photo labs after taking your photos, and then wait for a few weeks for the prints to come back.

But Polaroid made cameras that could develop photos right there, in front of you. The camera I found had all these controls, and imprinted on it was a long list of instructions. Instant wasn’t as instant as you might think.

I guess it was a pain, too. I do remember on a family vacation seeing another parent using a Polaroid and doing lots of gyrations just for one photo. I guess the truly dedicated eventually mastered the complexities, but most folks seemed content to fire away on Kodaks and those strange 35mm cameras from Japan, and send the film off to be developed.

I remember when the SX-70 made its debut, and how amazing it all seemed. To see an SX-70 in action, see the bus scene in the film “Almost Famous.” I never owned one, but the TV ads demonstrated an instant camera that required no multi-step process; just point, shoot and the camera ejected a print that “developed” before your eyes.

When I was in the Marines, I had bought the Kodak instant camera, which acted similarly. (Too much so, it turned out; Polaroid sued and won, and Kodak had to stop making the cameras and film.) I still have those old prints in a photo album in the garage.

On my voyage on the USS Tarawa, I bought a movie camera and shot lots of cartridges of movie film of flight operations. Sadly, the one that was the most interesting was me flying in a CH-46 helicopter to our base in Okinawa. I guess if I hadn’t filmed that SR-71 taking off I would have gotten that film back.

Upon my return after the deployment, I bought a Minolta 35mm camera, and used it until the early 2000s, when I bought my first digital camera. Likewise, I bought a VHS video camera in the late 1980s and said farewell to movie film forever.

When I started working at the Boca Raton News, they still used film cameras to print negatives, which were then scanned into the computer system. A few years later, the film developer sat unused in a corner and all the photographers had to get digital cameras. Today, I doubt if any news media outlets use film; the digital cameras allow everything to be done faster and cheaper, though I guess a few papers still scan reader-submitted prints.

There may still be a future for prints, though, and I’ve seen but never used the kiosks in stores where you can insert a camera card, and pay to get back hard copies.

It’s hard to imagine photography without paper prints, though, because the complete loss of your photo album could be just a hard drive crash away.


January 19, 2009 - Posted by | Living in the modern age | , , , , , , ,

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