Wednesday, December 10, 2008

RIP Polaroid Film

Polaroid film will no longer be produced. This CNN article found yesterday made me sad. While digital photography is wonderfully immediate, that was also what made Polaroid film so great. Instant, well nearly instant, gratification. There is a Polaroid camera in a box behind me as I write this. I guess I'll decorate it in Mardi Gras beads and turn it into sculpture. It will soon be useless as anything other than an old time curiousity.

I remember being a kid before the faboo Polaroid 600 came out. The Polaroid was shot and out would shoot this kind of black paper thing. We'd all stand around peeing our pants with anticipation as the adult holding the paper counted off the time. Finally, FINALLY, the developed photo could be peeled from its backing revealing the picture. It was miraculous. I even remember that it had a very recognizable, almost sweet smell.

As Polaroid progressed, we learned the shoot and shake method. No one was ever really sure that shaking the ejected photo would develop it faster, but we were convinced that it might not develop if we didn't shake it. Besides, shaking it seemed to shorten the wait time as our impatience got lost in the action and giggles of shaking the thing.

Years later I decided to get a degree in photography (never got it, math requirements got in my way). I learned about things like ASA and F Stops. I absolutely loved the sensuousness of the darkroom. Black, dank, the sound of running water, the sloshing of the trays full of chemicals, even the smell of the chemicals---the whole thing was a creative womb.

With great care the film would be extracted from the camera then the cannister, hands hidden in a lightproof bag, always with a bit of paranoia---was there light leaking in anywhere? Would the little slice of life made by light briefly, ever so briefly, flicked onto the film be forever destroyed by the very light that made it? Phew! Did it. The end of the film cannister fell to the floor and the film pulled out. Now I could put it perfectly on the developing reel. I knew how to use the old metal ones, but really liked the plastic ones in the 70's that kind of ratcheted the film onto the reel. Less chance of bending it, I thought, until of course I did bend one roll. From then on I wasn't quite so cavalier. Now to develop the film itself. Chemicals, lid, agitate, let it sit, watch the clock, agitate again, let it sit watch the clock, listen to the timer clicking off the minutes, wait! What kind of film is in there? 400 or 250? Oh yeah, 400, cool, it's cool. Agitate, zen, rinse. Now I had negatives. The negatives made me happy in their reversal. Looking at them as I hung them to dry was like looking at a parallel universe.

Once dry, one frame was chosen for printing. Not always the right one, but I'd figure that out as I went along. Line it up just right on the enlarger, don't scratch it, any dust on it? No? Make sure. Okay. It's good. Flip the switch on the enlarger, play with it. Make it HUUUUUUUUUUGE, no don't like that, make it tiny, no don't like that much either. Get out your box of filters. OOOOOOOOO, loving that red filter, nah, maybe mess with the contrast a bit. Choose my paper stock. Damn, look at that lower left corner. How did that guy's hand get in there? Shit. Well, no problem, dodge it out, gently, gently now. The timing had to be perfect.

Now to put that piece of paper into a tray. Grab the tongs, I hope these aren't the old ones with the crack in it that scratched that last print. Slosh, slosh, slosh. Magic, magic, magic. An image formed, slowly like something coming out of the ethers in a dream. ENOUGH. Into the next chemical to stop the developer. Made it. Slosh, slosh, slosh, RINSE. Okay, it'll be there a while. Don't want that glorious black and white to yellow cuz I was too impatient to rinse all the chemicals out. Go have a cigarette and come back.

Hang the final product up, I was now looking at it in the light, safely. The silver glowed, the blacks were inky, not a spot on it that I didn't mean to be on it. Wow. A miracle. That face smiling back at me. That leaf caught just as the wind hit it and at just the right angle to see all the veining under it. The guy trying to bash another guy's head in at a Ku Klux Klan rally in San Francisco. Harvey Milk in a parade! Mayor Moscone there too. Those cool old doors on that building they've torn down now. The cops in riot gear with big shields coming down Market Street in San Francisco during the riots after the Dan White verdict.

Photography. Love it. All of it. Don't do enough of it anymore.

Digital photographers have tried to explain that my computer is now my darkroom. Besides, I no longer have a darkroom in my house (although in years past, I'd been known to use my bathtub for developing film.) I get it. I really do. I still prefer Black and White 400 ASA film shot with just the right exposure to give it a great grain without clicking a button to turn my color photo into a b/w, then pushing another button to give it grain in standardized increments. The silver just isn't there. The zen just isn't there. The miracle isn't there.

As for the miracle of Polaroid film, it will no longer be made. That is really a damn shame.

Of all the photos yearned for in the nostalgia piece above, Hurricane Katrina only spared a few. Those few were Polaroids. Something in that film allowed it to survive the chemical stew of the floodwaters on Tulane. Polaroid photos survived Katrina. That's a good enough reason to mourn its passing.

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