Photo finish

As Polaroid's instant films and cameras go the way of the darkroom, enthusiasm for them isn't fading

August 10, 2008|By Mary Hartney | Mary Hartney,Sun reporter

The subtle chirps of digital cameras may now be the norm when it comes to photography, but there are still a devoted few who champion the click-whirr of a Polaroid camera.

They savor the unpredictability of development and delight in not just the nostalgia, but in the artistry and creativity of instant film.

Although the writing has been on the wall for a while that Polaroid would stop making its instant films and cameras, the death of the iconic film has sparked life, inspiration and creativity.

FOR THE RECORD - An article about Polaroid usage in Sunday's Arts & Life Today section misidentified Los Angeles filmmaker Lydia Marcus.
The Sun regrets the errors.

"It's not just a photo; it becomes an artifact," says Jim Lucio, a Baltimore artist who writes a blog, Last Days of Polaroid. "It's like a ticket stub; it's a remnant of something you did that you have proof of."

Many were moved to memorialize the Polaroid's instant film, and younger photographers are still picking up the medium, even as film becomes harder to find. Polaroid's ability to immediately memorialize a moment is part of what is still drawing many to the film.

Lucio, who has been shooting with Polaroid since he was a teenager, has bought all the film he could get his hands on.

He typically shoots candid portraits and is drawn to the instamatic beauty of Polaroid photos, a look he describes as "hyper-realness." He shoots friends from unusual angles and people who catch his eye, and his photos exhibit a dynamic, pop art quality.

"People are interesting; everybody's different," he says. "You can see somebody clearly in a Polaroid - there's just no hiding who they are."

In his Lauraville home office, filled with meticulously arranged boxes of Polaroids, Lucio flips through albums and stacks of photos, commenting on the characters. "I see this guy in Mount Vernon all the time. ... She just had a baby. ... She was visiting from New Orleans."

It's almost like a window," Lucio says. "You're looking through a frame into this other world."

For its part, Polaroid hopes it can sell consumers on the idea that its digital products maintain the sense of spontaneity that instant film embodies. Kyle McDonald, a vice president with Polaroid, says it has always been complicated to produce instant films.

"Polaroid has always had these amazing customers who enjoy our film, which makes us feel good," she says. "My hope is that existing customers and a new generation of customers find new ways to act as creatively."

Yet it's the analog nature of instant film that connects with fans. Polaroid users focus on the joy of watching photos develop and in the trademark Polaroid aesthetic, imbued with green and yellow hues.

Lydia Marcos, a Los Angeles filmmaker, has carefully planned for a future without Polaroid. She cashed out part of a mutual fund to stock up and dedicated a separate fridge in her backyard to keep her film cool. At last count, she had about 200 boxes - that's 2,000 shots - of film. But Marcos won't simply switch to digital photography when her collection runs out; she's already testing out cameras and film from Fuji, which still makes instant products.

Marcos, who writes a blog called Fotonomous, is an active member of several Polaroid groups on flickr.com, a photo-sharing Web site, and has noticed an uptick in interest in Polaroid lately, including more gallery shows and magazine competitions.

"You kind of wonder if any of this would have made any difference earlier on," she says.

One Baltimore gallery show this spring featured Polaroids from around the country - and inspired another future show.

Evan LaLonde and Nancy Froehlich, both photographers and teachers, run Gallery 2219 out of their home and featured about 450 Polaroids, from party shots to minimalist abstractions. That they received so many photos from around the U.S. and even some from Britain is a testament to the vibrant Polaroid community online, where they advertised the exhibition.

LaLonde noted that a new generation of Polaroid photographers were part of the show, including high school students. The ubiquity of Polaroid cameras and photos particularly appealed to LaLonde.

"It didn't highlight how the film should be used, but how it could be used," LaLonde said.

Froehlich says the exhibition sparked the theme for their next art show: instant.

"People were excited about the term," she says. The show, which is still in conceptual stages, would be open to all mediums - not just photography - to create work based on the word.

The death of Polaroid was also an inspiration for Mike Nourse, a visual artist from Chicago who runs a studio art program for underserved kids. Nourse was moved to create two Polaroid projects when he learned of the film's demise. The first, the Polaroid Years, documents the years of Polaroid's existence, from 1937 to 2008, and was created from images he shot of address numbers in Chicago and New York. He says it was a no-brainer.

"It seemed to sort of memorialize Polaroid in some way, and I like the idea of doing something iconic," he says.

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