If you went to Andy Warhol’s factory hangout during the height of seventies glamour and said to him “In forty years time, vinyl will be almost obsolete, cameras will fit in to your pocket and Christmas 2008 will be your last with your beloved Polaroid”, I have a feeling he’d erupt in to a fit of chuckles and say “Gee, you are such a Joker”. Too bad he isn’t here now to see how the digital age really has claimed so much of our much loved past. So long analogue TV, farewell VHS and now we must bid adieu to the Polaroid camera; a loss many of us will mourn for many Christmases to come.
In this digital era, where trends must be pragmatic to thrive and where the real money making is in the latest technologies, the Polaroid camera is a breath of fresh air. Polaroid means simplicity, it means rawness, it means nostalgia and as a wistful generation, you’re not alone in your quest to keep the past alive. Picture yourself as a freckle-nosed youngster, your parents at family functions capturing precious moments with the Polaroid camera you now call your own. “Cheese” mum would say and with that very instinctive whir, the machine would spit out a print and excitedly you would wait until the memory came into focus. Because that is the beauty of Polaroid; mystery clings to the impending image.
Today my mother, like most, has converted to a digital. The colours are sharp and it excuses our mistake all too easily- the blurry shot of father in front of the Christmas tree where his face seems to be lost amongst the baubles or the pictures of you and the cousins in front of the fire where your hair takes over half of the screen- delete, and they’re gone. My mother says digital doesn’t retain the magic or the satisfying click a Polaroid encompasses, just like the love/hate inconvenience of changing LP’s. “With Polaroid you have one chance to capture your composition and with your sleek image showcased in its ready-made white frame, you know it’s a one-off, a completely individual photograph. Digital is more convenient but with most heart-over-mind matters, logic doesn’t matter. Polaroid, like childhood rollerskates will be missed.”
Polaroid magic spread in 1948, when the company’s founder Edwin land put the first instant-camera on the shelves. The Model 95 camera costing the equivalent of £560 today made photography geeks worldwide excitable, but it wasn’t until the late 1960s that the Polaroid really excited the snappy happy. Iconic Polaroid user Warhol frequented the voguish hangouts in Manhattan and captured social events on his Minox 35mm camera but later dabbled with Polaroid, snapping famous faces at hipster hub Studio 54. He would ask visitors at his factory to photograph their genitals and Warhol said ‘It’s incredible what people will do if you ask them.’ For Warhol the Polaroid camera combined two of his obsessions- the disposable nature of modern consumerism and the photograph as ready-made and his Polaroids along with other film prints have provided a valuable insight into the creative process of the artist behind the camera .
A book titled ‘Exposures’ published in 1985 is a collection of Warhol’s best photos, both achieved with his Minox and Polaroid. He is known to have said, “My idea of a good picture is one of a famous person doing something unfamous. It’s about being in the right place at the wrong time.” The rich art-school kids followed pursuit and plastered their bedroom walls with their instantly captured delights from their every day lives and more recently skinny-jeans wearing east-enders seem to get all nostalgic by trading there souped-up super-lensed SLRs for more quirky Polaroids and began experimenting with turntables as opposed to sticking with MP3s.
The popularisation of Polaroid in the seventies coincided with society’s rebellion against fine media and the arrival of the sx-70 colour Polaroid in1972 was deemed ‘One of the great new cameras’ and the ‘Boswell of American life’ in Time magazine. Conceptual artists liked photographs that were as unartistic, unpretentious and close to the ordinary snapshot (or even photo-booth portrait) as possible. They adored Polaroid. With photographers preferring the real, raw image as opposed to previous over flamboyant artistic vision, a new type of photography was born- Straight Ups. King of straight ups, was and ultimately still is, Paul Hartnett. Hartnett first started using a Polaroid camera at the age of nine back in 1969. He documented Leigh Bowery's legendary club Taboo using a Polaroid, as well as other formats, and was sponsored by Polaroid UK Ltd for over fifteen years, snapping clubland characters, as can be seen on www.paulhartnett.com. Even today he keeps Polaroid close to heart. “Polaroid photographs were cheap, instant, trashy. But, kind of a fabulous one off too, rather like a Daguerreotype. Now there is the alternative of the low-res digital images that end up on the popular social networking sites, images that will not last, unlike the wonderfully framed images that people shook when they did not actually need to be dried.”
Since Polaroids hey-day of the seventies, it has been a stable medium for many. Police once used it to capture mug shots, doctors used it to monitor patient’s skin conditions, casting directors used it to photograph models and artists and photographers used it to create majestical art many of which have become iconic images of the past. David Hockney, Chuck Close, Helmut Newton and Juergen Teller have all been successful with their idiosyncratic friend and since the announcement in February of Polaroid closing down its film production on the Eve of 2009, photographers such as Rankin and Jenn Howe have celebrated their time spent with the 60-second machine with special projects. Rankin decided it was important to “Do one more project before it finishe[d]”.Fashion photographer Jenn Howe is one "Polaroidoholic" who has been working solely with Polaroid film for 11 years. Her obsession began with curiosity coupled with the ‘cute aesthetic’ of her camera and the photographs themselves. “As soon as I started shooting, I was obsessed. I took Polaroids of everything. It's something about the sense of urgency and the immediacy that Polaroid pictures inexplicably possess. People argue that digital cameras provide the same instant gratification - but digital photos seem dead to me. They don't seem to have the same magic or energy that a Polaroid does.” Unlike the conceptual artists of the seventies Jenn’s theory about Polaroid is different. “My theory is that these simple, Lo-Fi machines actually challenge you. Any person can take a great shot using some high-tech wonder of a camera -it does all the work for you” and that is how Jenna YA you can distinguish between the okay photographers and the truly great ones. “With such a simple camera, there are so many limitations. You only have so much flash available, no zoom capabilities, no focus (on the simpler models), limited depth of field... you are working within very tight confines. To take a great photo such strict limitations is truly a test of skills. You must be hughly creative with the positioning of your subjects, framing and the available lighting.”
The news of the Polaroid going the way of the dodo bird has caused Jenn to stock up on Polaroid film, like a squirrel gathering nuts for the winter months. “I'm desperate for film. It’s like, "Hmmmm....can I sell some of my plasma this week? My eggs? A kidney? Anything so I can afford some more Polaroid film!”The rest of the fashion industry is also mourning the loss too. Publicists, modelling agencies, casting directors and designers use the film daily and it has become synonymous with the look of the fashion world. Model cards, fashion editorials, campaigns, catwalk cues are all Polaroid-ed, so how will the industry cope? A spokeswoman from FM Models said “Polaroid cameras will be missed, that is a certainty, but we must adapt to the change and look to the future instead of the past. It is easy to become devoted to something, even if it’s limited in its function. I can guarantee Polaroid will still be around for some time in fashion, and when it finally disappears, many will be interested in paying homage to its creamy, dreamy aesthetic.”Despite industries choosing pragmatic living over yesterday’s out-of-date practices, , I for one am a huge offender of being a notoriously nostalgic being. Despising the sieve of life where separation feelings, thoughts, people and objects are diverted from Memory Lane to Amnesia Avenue, it is important to sit back now and again, dust off your Smiths vinyl and remember Christmas ’ gone by, by sifting through a shoebox of yellowing Polaroids.
LH For 3E News