Feature Story

The Black and White of it

Nicole Noir
Ghost of you
Bright lights
paper plateroid

I remember how my addiction started. I was working at a camera shop in the film and darkroom department. Behind the counter was a large box of expired polaroid film. I was told to sell it if I could, at half price. My bosses suggested I try some of the film to see if it was still useable. That was the beginning of the end for me.

Never before had I seen black and white instant film. Like many, I was raised on seeing and taking color polaroids. Suddenly this became the coolest thing I had ever seen. I had my first taste of black and white instant film in a converted Land 110a camera the shop had laying around. It had an f90 pinhole lens cap! Needless to say, not much of the expired film made its way into the bags of customers. Unfortunately, when I left that job, they were not willing to part with the camera.

My next job, in the rental department of another camera store, led to a broadening of my polaroid abilities. All of a sudden I had a ton of different cameras at my disposal that had instant film backs. Within reach were old passport cameras, a 600SE, a Konica instant press, and every major medium format camera system. It was around this time that I bought one of Polaroid's "Big Shot" cameras, made specifically for portraits. It was rumored to be one of Warhol's cameras of choice. Being a fan of his, I knew if it was good enough for him, that I ought to give it a try. I loved having a camera constrained to one type of shot. A one-trick pony sure, but boy did it create great pictures. I started to learn about the artsy side of Polaroid - the emulsion transfers, the "good bad" aesthetic, and especially the multifaceted positive negative film.

I found myself enamored with it - the little white specks that could form on photos from static electricity as you peeled the two sides apart, the inconsistent / false colors, the scratches and fading that uncoated pos/neg prints were prone to. These were ills that many photographers would dread. That's part of the reason I'd come to love it.

With positive negative films, you have to coat the prints after development; otherwise their surfaces tend to progressively bleach themselves out...most of the time. Sometimes I'd coat prints immediately - I'd like what was there and wanted to save it. Other times I'd underexpose a shot, or found some other way to botch it. Those never got thrown away. No, those are hidden gifts that reveal themselves slowly. Sometimes I'd throw them on the dashboard of my car, hoping the sun's harsh light will exacerbate the bleaching process. Sometimes they wouldn't change, and into the circular file they'd go. It's fun to see...details of photographs, of people's skin, disappearing over the course of a few days. Until you say stop in the form of print coater.

I dabbled in various sorts of transfers, something I still would like to get around to doing more of. To me it's a beautiful alternative to creating something cool in camera. It's definitely a way to breathe new life into an old picture. One of my favorite attempts at transferring an image came under less than perfect circumstances. I was on a film set, and witnessed a crew member walking by a beam of light from a skylight. It struck me as very unique and I had to grab it. Luckily they weren't filming at the time, because my jaunt across the studio to grab this shot made some noise. After shooting it, I goofed and peeled the film apart too fast, leaving me with a sub-par picture. I thought the shot had potential though, and realized I had yet to throw the negative side away. I rushed to grab a paper plate from a nearby table, and placed the negative on it. With a roll of gaffer's tape as my brayer, I pressed the remaining dyes into the plate hoping for the best. I've included that shot in my collection here for you to see. I think it turned out rather nice.

This was all possible because I finally had enough dough to purchase and convert my own 110a. It was a proud moment for me indeed, despite the large bite the conversion took out of my bank account. It was well worth it though, as it has provided me with many amazing shots I would not have been able to capture otherwise. Well, I would have been able to photograph them, but it just wouldn't have had the same look that a polaroid picture provides. When purchasing the camera, I assumed I'd be getting at least a decade of use out of it. Never once did I think that film for it would start to disappear.

It was a bittersweet day when I saw one of Polaroid's new passport cameras. It's a digital camera system, with a built in thermal printer. A cool little bundle of technology I thought, but also a departure from their film-based passport cameras. This, of course, was a grim sign of things to come.

I noticed a decrease in new instant film cameras, and an increase in Polaroid-branded digital point n shoots. Sure there was the new pinhole camera, which was very cool, but a bit awkward in usage, and who could forget the Holgaroid; based on their somewhat new 80 series of film. To my dismay, I don't believe either of these cameras took off like Polaroid had hoped.

More recently came announcements that after stock was depleted, certain instant films would no longer be produced. Of course Sx-70 had already been gone for a few years, so this was not a shock. Alas this time around, Polaroid was starting to discontinue sheet films, starting with the big guns, the 8 x 10 sized film. This had no effect on me, as that size instant film had always been out of my reach price-wise. No harm, no foul. Then the trickle down to 4x5 instant film began. Medium format pack film has now begun as well.

Of all the different kinds of film that the digital era has endangered, I never thought my beloved instant film would be the first to go. Agfa and other various 35mm film brands have ceased or slowed production, but there are still plenty of other options in the world of regular film. Aside from the two or three instant film offerings from Fuji, Polaroid is the sole manufacturer of instant film. When they go, a whole genre of photography will go with them.

Can you imagine a printer or imaging system these days that produced different results every time? How about one that created odd patterns or spots at will? Inaccurate color?

With 1's and 0's defining the outcome of images and prints in this current world of digital perfection, it appears that we'll have to say goodbye to the quirkiness, the unknown that Polaroid has raised us on.

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