Dec. 30 2008 05:41 PM

Purists cope with the impending loss of Polaroid film


For the last two years, Tim Mantoani has been putting together Behind the Photographs, a book of legendary photographers posing alongside their iconic images: Steve McCurry and his National Geographic shot of an Afghan girl with piercing green eyes, Neil Leifer's Muhammad Ali vs. Sonny Liston knockout, Jeff Widener's Tank Man, Nick Ut with his image of a girl being burned by napalm in Vietnam and William Wegman's Weimaraner pics, just to name a few. Mantoani's equipment? A 5-foot-tall, 235-pound, nearly extinct, 20-by-24-inch Polaroid camera. Only six exist worldwide, two of which are in the United States.

Mantoani, a self-described “sucker for nostalgia,” vividly remembers dabbling with his grandmother's SX-70, Polaroid's legendary '70s-era camera, as a kid. “Watching the image appear was like magic. It's like a photo booth—something about it just makes you smile,” he said.

Before One-Hour Photo Mart and long before the LCD screen, Edwin Land's instant camera revolutionized the market. Andy Warhol exhaustively photographed members of his coterie in the 1970s with his Polaroid Big Shot. During the '80s, a Polaroid TV commercial depicted two groupies sneaking backstage at a Richard Marx concert to snap a pic with their idol. “There's only one camera system you can buy that lets you hold the picture in your hand while you still hold the feeling in your heart,” the announcer's deep voice said as the girls were whisked away by burly security guards.

The 1990s introduced the limited-edition Spice Girls SpiceCam but also brought the advent of the digital camera. In early 2008, the instant-picture giant announced that it would stop production of its signature film. Polaroid will continue to ship analog instant film into the first quarter of 2009. In a statement to CityBeat, Polaroid spokesperson Lorrie Parent attributed the decision to “significant growth in the digital photography category at the expense of silver halide photography.” She goes on to say that “in 2009, we plan to announce additional new digital instant photography products”—products like PoGo, an instant mobile printer.

For the forlorn instant-film buff, however, this is the end of the road.

“It is always regrettable when a major photographic process dies,” said Carol McCusker, curator of photography at San Diego's Museum of Photographic Arts. “We hope the technological recipe isn't lost as well, in case the future generations may want it.”

That sentiment is shared by Mantoani, who refers to the loss as “the end of an era—not only of photographers but recording mediums.” He says his book “is a kind of tribute to the people that helped define photography and culture during this point in history.”

Mantoani's efforts have come at a hefty price. Studio rental for spaces where the camera is available runs $1,500 a day, and what started at $75 per exposure has now climbed to $200 a shot, thanks to the imminent short supply. But amid this labor of love, even the busiest of subjects have enthusiastically agreed to participate in his book.“It was a unique way of getting their attention,” Mantoani said. “Pete Turner, who is a legendary colorist and photographer, asked me why I was working in this format, to which I replied, ‘Would you have come in if I was shooting you in 35[-mm] digital?'” He hopes to finish his book by next year with 150 featured artists.

Of course, this is hardly the end of Polaroid. Before you could say, “Look, Ma, no developing!” a cyber outcry emerged and artists far and wide rediscovered the analog snapshot—people like Carmel Valley's Susan Yee, professional photographer and member of the Save Polaroid group on the photographic website Flickr. The first picture taken of Yee as a newborn baby was shot with her dad's One Button. Since then, all her best childhood memories are the instant kind.

“The beauty of Polaroid is that it can interpret things differently than how people see them,” she said.

Yee, who's been working as a photographer for five years, grabbed her father's camera a while back on a trip home from college, and after snapping a shot of some power lines in her family's backyard, a new interest was born.

“I was feeling gloomy, and I didn't know how to channel that mood,” she said, “so I picked up the camera and took a picture. Everything I felt I could see in that photo. I hold it dearly; it's a graphically simple image, but it put everything I felt into perspective.”

Since then, Yee's participated in art shows such as last September's Camera Ephemera at L.A.'s Found Gallery and has even managed to incorporate Polaroids into her clients' wedding albums.

“You always have to look behind the main counter,” she said as she searched for vintage cameras in a North Park Salvation Army store. “That's where they keep all the good stuff.” Three thrift stores, two pawn shops and one specialty store later, the excursion had been unsuccessful. A quick snap of some stacked newspapers outside a newsstand proved to be quite a draw for passers-by. “Now that's a camera!” a man said of her vintage SX-70, which Yee altered to take pictures using 600-series film.

“I love taking pictures of ordinary things,” she said as she waited for the image to appear. (Incidentally, one shouldn't shake the photo as it develops; rather, the freshly ejected picture should simply rest for a minute or two.)

“I sometimes take pictures of my breakfast,” Yee said. “There's something attractive about the mundane, the every-day stuff that makes our life. There's beauty in all the little things that sometimes we're just too busy to take a good look at.” When she heard news of the end of Polaroid, she took to her blog and tapped out a post titled, “So long Polaroid, you were a good friend.”

Fuji makes similar self-developing film that works on some Polaroid models, but the 27-year-old Yee remains a purist. “There's just something about Polaroid. It's more than a brand; it's a state of mind and a piece of Americana.”

Having given up her quest for vintage cameras that day, an unplanned stop at Pop! Boutique revealed quite a treasure trove. There, atop a wooden table, surrounded by funky clothing, an array of Polaroid cameras awaited. Yee's face lit up. “That's beautiful,” she exclaimed.

Even in this über-instant digital-camera age, Yee edits her high-resolution shots to look more like film. “There's something organic and natural in grittiness that you don't get with a shiny, pretty and perfectly focused picture,” she said. “Film in itself is a dying medium; it's not used as much any more, so people now see it as a novelty. It's funny how everything old is new again.”   


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