Polaroids, film, and The Impossible Project

My highlight of the day: Buying a Polaroid camera for 50 cents at the local farmer’s market. The farmer’s market might seem like an odd place to pick up old cameras, but because the produce season hasn’t really picked up, many of the sellers are either selling things grown out-of-season in Mexico (as noted on tiny stickers on the produce, and in the shriveled quality of the cucumbers) or thrift-store items — anything from huge wrenches and rusted hammers to a whole set of pocket knives with the images of the presidents engraved on them. Finding a Polaroid camera was serendipitous, sold on a plastic table in the middle of one of the sheds by a plaid-wearing, disaffected-looking, middle-aged man.

The Polaroid camera is “The Button” edition that came out in 1981. It’s made of two-tone gray plastic, and totes a very large italicized and Helvetica’d “The Button” logo on it. The 50-cent cost of the camera also covered a flash attachment that snaps on the top and looks a bit like a squarish spelunker’s helmet, with a large flash lightbulb on the helm.

The main problem with owning a Polaroid camera is the film, which stopped being officially produced a while ago, in 2008 — I remember this because in early college my Polaroid-enthusiast friends would go on Polaroid film sprees and pick up as much of the instant-film blocks they could find before everything went out of production and stock. Other friends went to eBay to duke it out with other hipster Polaroid desperados. I found out today, though, after doing some research (i.e., hearty Googling), that Polaroid film is still being produced by an independent group called The Impossible Project, which started in 2008. Reading the About statement as posted on The Impossible Project website is like reading the statement of a Save the Whales group: “The Impossible prevents more than 300,000,000 perfectly functioning Polaroid cameras from becoming obsolete.”

The number is mind-bogglingly high. In it is an odd realization of mass-obsolescence due to something as vital, and as simple, as the lack of film. The camera itself is just a dark box with a hole in it, as my professor, Mike Hannum, used to say when I was in his holography class, where we made holograms using a process similar to photography, except instead of light, there are lasers, and instead of celluloid, there is glass. I took one of the last holography classes offered by Mike at the Residential College because Kodak stopped producing holography plates, or glass plates with a certain mixture of silver and chemicals painted on one side — the holography film. In holography, our dark boxes were rooms filled with machinery and mirrors. With Polaroids, we have plasticine, handheld, mass-produced boxes. 300,000,000 of them.

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It’s weird to own a camera and not have the film for it. It’s like having the non-functional symbol of something, a figurehead of an object, lying around — like a delicious-looking plastic sandwich. It looks useful, but it’s not. The camera could double as a paperweight, or an elaborate, unnecessarily huge necklace (mine came with a neck-strap) or a stylish but not-nearly-heavy-enough bookend. It’s the film that makes the camera useful in the way it was intended, and it’s the film, that unseen guts of the camera, that gives the box its purpose. This is probably the reason why the film costs about 4000% more than what I paid for it.

I’m paying for the analog experience, I guess. All of this money goes toward, as The Impossible Project puts, keeping the “variety, tangibility, and analogue creativity and possibilities alive.” The notion that when you press that button, what pops out is a real, hold-able, not-digital photo and the only one of its kind that will ever exist. Or something. The other day I tweeted about post-Easter rabbits made of chocolate, only to be tweeted back a URL that connected me to an image of a Polaroid of myself taken three years ago. There I sat on a black futon, with a bad haircut, in an old plaid shirt, holding a foot-tall chocolate bunny named “The Professor,” as you could see brightly printed on the foot-tall box lying between my crossed legs. The Professor’s head was gnawed off, and the stump of a neck that was left behind was being gnawed off by my teeth. My face looks bewildered at the size of the bunny, at the fact that someone is taking a picture of this.

I suppose these “analog possibilities” include digitization. I find it funny that in a period of time where we revere the analog, we resurrect old film and chemical processes through The Impossible Project while at the same time we use iPhone apps like Hipstamatic and Instagram that re-create that muddy, sandy feel of old Polaroid photos in digital, phone-taken pics. I also find it funny that a Polaroid photo can follow me around on the internet, and I love that it has been able to take steps to reach me from my friend’s physical Polaroid Wall so many states away, where many photos are taped together in a grid of moments in which I am often wearing odd plaid shirts.

One of my most vivid memories of Polaroids is the exciting realization that the end of a paper clip could etch the stars and planets into the dark, hazy backgrounds of the images spat out from the mouth of my mother’s camera. I also remember my parents telling me, soon after, to stop scratching, You Are Ruining the Picture. My Polaroid camera, though, is sitting on the coffee table next to a clementine orange I have yet to eat. I’m probably going to order some film from The Impossible Project and see if my camera works the way it should, spitting out hazy, sandy-colored, easily scratched images, the guts of these million-and-more empty, dark boxes.

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