How To

The Dead Zone

We are the goon squad
Jack A. Lope
Oh let the sun beat down upon my face
Life is so strange

I have a morgue in my fridge.

Encased in a cardboard shoe box, behind the go-gurt and eggs, are the remains of 36 packs of unexposed Polaroid SX-70 Time Zero film. The toe tag on the last pack to expire has the stamp of 01/07. Polaroid stopped production this film early last year.

Polaroid SX-70 Time Zero film has the unique ability to be manipulated after exposure without the use of a computer. The manipulated images tend to have a "painterly" feel.

I first stumbled across the technique as an art student in college. Photographic Magazine had an article about Michael Going's images of the 1986 US Tennis Open. I was amazed by his work. I showed the article to one of my professors, only to find out that he was a fan of the technique. The next class he brought his SX-70 camera into class for the students and gave a demo. He let each of us take a photo and manipulate the image. I was hooked.

The Tools:

Get to know your friend e-bay or sharpen your yard sale skills because the cameras and film are not available at your local drugstore or supercenter. Polaroid stopped making the SX-70 camera a couple of decades ago and the film last year.

1. Any Polaroid camera that is SX-70 time zero compatible.

There are several plastic Polaroid models available (OneStep,Pronto!) but I recommend the original SX-70 Land Camera folding SLR camera. The glass is sharp and the manual focusing allows the photographer control that the plastic cameras can't. Plus it has a "coolness" factor that is off the chart. Whip this puppy out in a crowd and watch the attention it brings. If only Polaroid would make a digital/instant film hybrid version of the folding SX-70 ...sorry, I digress...

2. SX-70 Time Zero film.

This is where you have your work cut out. After the Polaroid corporation let the news out that production was ending, there was a run on the film so much that the price of the film has at least doubled or tripled in price. I know of only one on-line store that is currently selling the film, I have purchased several packs from them and been happy with the professionalism of the company. Or you can roll the dice on e-bay...

3. A tool to push the emulsion.

Basically, anything with a point that won't bend when pressure is applied. I've heard of people using the top of a pen, a nail, dental instruments...almost anything. My current tool is an ice pick / hole punch type tool that is curved on the end. I don't remember where it came from, but I like it. I used to use a wooden cuticle stick that I picked up from a local drugstore that worked pretty well also.

The Process:

1. Take a picture and let the image develop completely.

And what I mean by completely depends on the expiration date of the film (step 3 will explain). Right before Polaroid stopped production of the SX-70 time zero film, they changed the formula.

2. Keep the photo warm.

This is very important. The image is easier to move when the chemicals are warm. During the summer, I usually let the photo develop on the dashboard of my car in full sun. Otherwise, I stick it in my back pocket or tuck it under my arm while it develops.

3. Manipulate the photo.

On a hard surface, take the tool of choice and gently apply pressure to the photo. I start with light broad strokes with the flat part of the tool to loosen a wide area and then I move the detail with the tip of the tool. If you put too much pressure on the tool, the black back of the photo will show through. Note: In order to manipulate film that has an expiration date between 11/06 and 1/07 you wait at least a couple of hours attempting manipulation. With the older film, you would start manipulation in about 10 minutes. With either film, if you try to manipulate too early, the chemicals under the plastic tend to break-up...which might not be a bad thing, if that's the look you want (kinda "heavy brush" "we are the goon squad" photo is an example).

So, that's manipulation without the processors and hard drive.

Maybe I was wrong about the morgue. Maybe I should think of it as a cryonic chamber. Like Disney and Ted Williams...not dead, just frozen and waiting for the future to save them.

Ritchard Ton

a.k.a sx70manipulator on flickr and jpg

also admin for the "Polaroid SX-70 Manipulation" group on flickr (note the 't')

6 responses

  • Alexandru Iedu

    Alexandru Iedu gave props (25 Feb 2009):


  • ashton gosnell

    ashton gosnell gave props (8 Jul 2009):

    awesome story!.. my grandma has a polaroid. i can't wait to try it out!!

  • Haakon Sheffield

    Haakon Sheffield (Deleted) gave props (1 Feb 2010):


  • Erin Woodgate

    Erin Woodgate gave props (13 Oct 2010):

    love this story! Is it ok to link to it from my blog?

  • Epin Hervin

    Epin Hervin gave props (1 Feb 2011):

    so sad, nowaday the precious polaroid can easily found at a lot of iphone application. It's no longer precious and become digitally mass

  • Michele Wambaugh

    Michele Wambaugh (Deleted) said (10 Mar 2012):

    Gorgeous results.

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