It’s every artist’s nightmare. After years of using your tried and true materials, they suddenly disappear with no hope of recovery. Everything you know must change. The intricacies of your process are lost. Your work, quite frankly, will never be the same and you have no power to stop it. This dire dilemma is precisely the one faced by many photographers as they count down the days to the end of Polaroid.
The bleak news came on February 8, 2008. Polaroid Corporation announced that they would begin slowly phasing out production of the beloved instant film with the intention of completely cutting off production in the early months of 2009. No alternatives were offered. Polaroid only provided consumers with a simple table outlining the availability and final expiration dates of each of their instant film products. A year later, this table serves as a humbling countdown to the approaching final days of what many consider a novel and timeless instrument in photography.
“The thought of not being able to shoot anymore is really unsettling.” says Kim Bunce, an avid Polaroid user from Ames.
Kim is far from alone. Since Polaroid’s announcement, online Polaroid forums such as those on Flickr.com and Polaroid.com are abuzz with fans desperately seeking solutions. Many are scanning internet sites and store shelves to hoard as much of the film as possible, despite the film’s soaring cost.
The Limits of Storage
As of December 2008, a 20-pack of Polaroid’s color film cost about $29 for 20 photos. With prices at more than a dollar per photograph, die-hard fans are buying in bulk to ease the pain, dedicating entire shelves of their fridges to store the now precious film. Yet according to David Heffner, an Adjunct Professor of Photography at Coe College, this drastic action does little to delay the inevitable.
“It can only be stored for so long,” he says. “Most Polaroid films have a life of one year before they dry out. After that, you’re screwed.”
Immediacy and Unique Color
With nearly all expiration dates due in early 2009, Polaroid photographers are now forced to deal with a reality they’d known was coming. One such artist is Grant Hamilton. Over the last few years, the 39 year-old facial reconstruction surgeon has created an impressive collection of Polaroid photographs, landing him in art magazines and on gallery walls. Yet with his cache of refrigerated film dwindling, he’s nearly out of time.
“There’s really nothing I can do about it,” he says in a tone of defeat.
A casual photographer at the time, Grant decided to reintroduce himself to photography in 2004 when his daughter Jane was born. He bought a high-end DSLR camera to document her childhood but soon found himself discouraged.
“I really didn’t like the clean and perfect style of the digital photos,” he says. “It lacked a personal element to me, so I started searching out other mediums like traditional film.”
However, it wasn’t until rediscovering Polaroid that Grant had truly found his niche. “There are a lot of things completely unique to their film,” he says. “You get color tones unique to Polaroid and, best of all, it’s instant gratification.”
A Pioneering Technology
It is this element of immediacy that Polaroid is known for and one which completely revolutionized the world of photography. Upon its unveiling in 1948, Polaroid’s instant-film technology offered both professional and consumer photographers completely new ways of working in photography. According to UNI photography professor Richard Colburn, Polaroid brought about a new definition of photographer: “an artist who uses photography,” as opposed to a more traditionally trained photographer. In additional to elevating the artistic status of photographers, the ease of Polaroid’s process facilitated non-photographers in the use of photography in their art. Examples of this still exist today. Thanks to its immediacy, painters and illustrators as well as photographers often use Polaroids to check their light conditions before moving on towards their final projects.
However, the popularity of Polaroid was not limited to art. Consumers quickly caught on, enticed by the instant gratification, a welcome change from the 35mm films then on the market.
“Polaroid is one of the most innovative companies in history,” says Iowa City’s University Camera owner, Roger Christian. “So by the early ’50s, everyone was getting one.”
By Polaroid’s own estimates, the company had produced over two million packs of film and distributed through 4,000 U.S. dealers in 1950. Put into perspective, that’s more than 200 packs of film sold every hour. Not bad for a two-year-old company.
Years of Improvements
Throughout the following decades, Polaroid continued to refine its brand, epitomized in the SX-70 model camera used by Grant Hamilton. This model is significantly different from the black box versions from the ’80s, which Grant simply describes as “cheap.” Yet his enthusiasm for the SX-70 is undeniable as he begins to rattle off its praises.
“This lens is actual glass; most of those ’80s cameras only have plastic,” he says. “This whole thing was modified to fit the 600 speed film I work with. Plus this thing will last forever . . . . If they only just made the film, people could keep going for another 30 years.”
By the 1990s Polaroid had become fully integrated into the wide scope of American culture. Polaroid’s popularity was undeniable with television ads starring a wide range of celebrities such as James Garner, the Spice Girls, and Kermit the Frog. Polaroid was, and still is, being used in an array of fields. The walls of modeling agencies are plastered with Polaroid photos of fresh-faced models, hospitals use the instant film to quickly document and pass on cases, and an entire niche of photographers exists that is entirely dedicated to the medium.
Despite the public’s reaction, Polaroid’s retirement from instant film is just a small part of a larger transition taking place. Digital technology is steadily conquering terrain once dominated by traditional chemical process films, and film companies are forced to make drastic changes to accommodate a remarkably changed market.
The Rise of Digital
The first concrete sign of this dramatic shift took place in 2005. Kodak, the pioneer of photographic film, stopped producing film cameras in the U.S., Canada, and Western Europe. Today, the only remaining Kodak cameras using traditional film are single-use disposable cameras. This drastic decision was made by Kodak to focus on the burgeoning demand for digital cameras and has had a significant effect on photographers.
“For years serious art photographers have benefited from the fact that amateur photographers used the same materials as they did,” says Richard Colburn. “The materials were readily available. Now that many amateurs have switched to digital, traditional materials are less available.”
During the onset of the digital transition, companies such as Kodak responded quickly, refocusing their efforts on the digital market. Polaroid, however, is another story. The PDC 2000, Polaroid’s first digital camera was unveiled in 1996 and met with high praises. Yet quality aside, Polaroid was incredibly late in producing a digital product. In fact, Kodak’s first digital camera, the DCS 200, was rolled out four years earlier, in 1992.
In the following year, Polaroid managed to get back in step with technology, with its digital PhotoMAX cameras enjoying wild success in the U.S. in 1998. However, Polaroid refused to stray from its roots and continued to produce new lines of instant film cameras and films, including the first instant digital camera, the Camedia C-211Z. However, progress fell off in 2001 and Polaroid filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, blaming a weak instant-film market among other aspects. In the following four years, Polaroid seemed to completely forget about digital technology. They introduced just one new digital product amongst dozens of new instant film cameras, until becoming a subsidiary to Petters Group Worldwide in 2005, with a renewed interest in the digital market. The newly restructured company ended production of Polaroid cameras in 2007 and the instant film famously follows suit in 2009.
“Digital is forcing its way into our lives,” says Kim. “I’ve realized I have no choice but to accept the reality that within a few years all film will become obsolete.”
However, instant photography is not dead yet. As Polaroid fades away, alternatives such as Fujifilm’s Instax may soothe those finding it hard to come to terms with life sans Polaroid.
When asked if there is still demand for instant film at his Iowa City store, Roger Christian responds with a resounding “Hell, yes! . . . No one is going forget about Polaroid.” Roger quickly jumps into a story. Soon after he quit selling Polaroid film, Cedar Rapids photographer Howard Horan called in an order. Upon hearing the news of its demise, Howard summed up the feelings of all Polaroid photographers caught in the digital take-over. “Digital photography is instant,” he said. “but it’s not as instant as Polaroid.
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