Friday, July 5, 2019

The Polaroid SX-70

“I have a few more cameras for you, one of them is a Polaroid.”

Like the majority of my film cameras, this one also came from my grandfather. Prior to this, my only experience with any Polaroid product was a mid-90s model shown to me by my cousin. I remember being super impressed with it, how the camera immediately spit out an image. She showed my six, seven, or eight-year-old self how you had to take that photograph and “shake” it. In a few minutes, there it was: the scene captured, exposed, and in physical form. So, I just always assumed that’s how all Polaroid instant models worked. Why wouldn’t it be that way? Polaroid cameras are cultural icons and the operation described in the previous sentences was how they always seemed to be in movies, tv shows, and in time spent talking to cousins. However, as I’d come to find out, The SX-70 works a bit differently.

Polaroid had become a consumer photography powerhouse with the introduction of the Model 95 in 1947. For decades, “instant” photographs had required chemicals and complicated processes that necessitated delicate attention to detail. The SX-70 changed that upon its 1972 debut. As soon as the trigger was pressed and the shutter clicked, photographs would automatically eject from the front of the camera and start developing. No chemicals needed. Just point, click, catch, and wait. To make the SX-70 even more unique, the camera was collapsible. In its rested state, it looks totally unlike any other image producing machine—a satchel when worn around the neck, a book when sitting on a surface.

When a user was ready to make a photograph, the thing could rise up and click into place in seconds like some Connery-era spy gizmo. The original silver and brown models were incredibly popular not just for their ability to instantly produce results, but the fact that they could be easily carried.

Pushing things even further, a 1978 variant of the SX-70 (known as the Sonar OneStep) was among the first cameras to introduce an autofocus system. That’s the model seen here in this post, one that uses the round feature at the top to emit ultrasonic sound waves. By measuring the reflective delay, the Sonar OneStep calculates distance and focal length with some accuracy. SX-70s dominated the market for years, not really falling out of favor until the company began producing cheaper, newer models that improved on their renown instant photography concept. 

Kodak also tried to cut into the instant camera market but “The Handle” just landed them a loss in court at the hands of Polaroid. I’ve got one of those sitting in storage somewhere. Putting this here as a reminder to dig that out one day.

My Grandfather wasn’t sure if his old Sonar OneStep still worked. It had been out of sight for decades, tucked away in a dusty leather camera bag. He, my Dad, and I snapped it into place, lined up the viewfinder, and fired. To the surprise of all of us, the battery still worked after all this time. While the power supply was still healthy, the film was not. The camera immediately pushed out the classic, square shape of a Polaroid picture, but there was no development process to be witnessed. The image was a simple and consistent shade of brown, nothing that would be unexpected or uncommon for cheap film hiding in some attic for decades after its expiration date. To truly test the camera, we’d need some fresh ammunition. 

The original Polaroid corporation went bankrupt in 2001, a fate that sent its various patents, brand names, and assets rolling off down different paths. In 2008, though, the Impossible Project began manufacturing film for Polaroid cameras as analog photography enthusiasts rejoiced. In September 2017, Impossible acquired the rights to use the Polaroid name and debuted a logo that borders on fresh & familiar. Now known as Polaroid Originals, the company manufacturers its own cameras, reproductions/updated versions of classic Polaroid models, and Polaroid film. Specifically, they manufacture SX-70 film (both the camera and film type share a name for easy recognition). While it’s not found in stores alongside other new-age Polaroid novelties, it is on Amazon and quickly delivered. 

Embracing 35mm this past year has been an exercise in calmness, a nice step back from the immediate gratification of digital photography and its workflows. I’ve gotten used to sending my film out to a lab in California and waiting several days for it to be processed and developed. Still, I don’t want to wait too long—so I pay for the benefit of having my exposures scanned and uploaded to the internet for quick-as-possible viewing. My grandfather’s Polaroid offered a happy medium. I could still experiment with film, but wouldn’t have to spend money on processing or wait a week. I was also anxious to explore the visual style, the distinct look of this brand’s products. If it weren’t for Papa’s Polaroid, I don’t think I would’ve sought this particular genre out. I was pretty excited. 

• • • • •

The film arrived during a string of days when Cincinnati’s weather was imitating some Seattle stereotypes, raining buckets of Cobains and Novoselics. Instant photography delivers quick results, but there’s quite a drop in quality compared to 35mm and traditional film. Generally, bright sunlight or flash bulbs produce the best image. Constant precipitation and dark skies, not so much. But the day that the film arrived, there was a brief break. It wasn’t gorgeous out (still overcast with another round of storms looming on the horizon) but it seemed light enough out. I could’ve been patient and waited for a better day (and maybe that would’ve been smart when each pack of film technically breaks down to $2.54 per exposure), but I really wanted to give the SX-70 a go. 

I popped in the film pack as thunder rumbled in the distance. With the SX-70, the battery is actually located within the film container. The camera sprung to life and I mounted it to a tripod. From the city’s most interesting parking garage, I lined up a shot of Downtown in the distance. The sonar autofocus is interesting, but I didn’t quite trust it, opting instead for manual control. Rain started to slowly eek out of the clouds as I pushed the button, heard the camera whine and then watched it exhale.

I had read that “shaking” a Polaroid picture actually has no real effect, so I didn’t bother with that. I just glanced at the picture and packed up my things. Supposedly, this new generation of Polaroid film completes its exposure cycle in about ten minutes, so I set the image down and went to grab a cup of coffee. 

After 15 minutes, the image looked like a pale blue blob. 

30 minutes: a pale white. 

45 minutes: I could see some of the composition, but something clearly wasn’t right. 
Was the camera broken? Was the film no good?

Nope, I just didn’t stop to read the manual long enough (or anything at all really aside from some online forums). A friend on social media (thanks, Taylor) wrote in that her mom used to use one of these cameras, that she’d throw her exposures in a book for 45 minutes to protect them from light. Another friend also chimed in (thanks, Justin) and reiterated that process, stating that the cameras originally came with a box to house photographs in a dark place as they cured. I had naively assumed that my cousin’s demonstration of 25 years ago was accurate, that the pictures just popped out and were good to go. Apparently not the case with the SX-70.

No worries, I could try again. Except now it was pouring and dark. I was bummed. Impatient and really, really bummed. As a kid, whenever I got new Legos—I’d study the instructions and build things properly. With this camera, I was just too excited to get it going. I just needed a pick-me-up on this day, a fresh burst of creativity that I felt this thing offered.

So I improvised, grabbing every light I could find and arranging a still life of my main digital camera and one of my notebooks on a desk. This time I’d make the image and toss the photo somewhere dark to develop.

Round 2: the camera clicks, the photo ejects, I throw it in box and tuck that box into a desk drawer. Then I walk away for an hour. More coffee.
This one went way better, but my born-out-of-impatience lighting setup wasn’t quite bright enough. The SX-70’s film speed is around 160 ASA/ISO (meaning: it wants A LOT of light). Even with photo lights, room lights, and computer lights, it wasn’t getting the exposure quite right. But, at least the camera worked. I surrendered for the day, content to believe that everything seemed well mechanically.

The next day, the weather was still an emotional drag and physical hindrance, but it let up enough around mid-day to try again. So I did.
Better. Still gray and ugly out, but now I had some confidence in using this thing.

After a few more days, it was summer again—hot, muggy, and wonderfully bright. I hopped a streetcar to Findlay Market and lined up this shot:
45 minutes later and I tepidly took the photo out of my notebook. I love the way it turned out—how dark the blacks are, the bright pop of yellow found in that woman’s t-shirt, and the distinct Polaroid style (achieved naturally, not through some bogus Instagram filter). I couldn’t resist making one more and found myself once again at that interesting parking garage—the one that also looks like early 90’s theming from the Batman rides at Six Flags parks.
I was happy.

• • • • •

No matter how a shot is composed with this camera, there’s still some unknowns in trying to guess how exactly the end product will turn out. There’s only so much light/dark exposure compensation you can do, the colors are a bit whacky, but that’s what makes it fascinating and gives the images a distinct vibe.

• • • • •

A few days later, another beautiful day, once more at that parking garage—the side with the faces on it:

Originally, packs of SX-70 film came with ten exposures. There’s even a counter on the back of the camera that goes backwards from ten. Polaroid Original’s new version of the film, though, comes in eight exposures. I had two frames left to make on this first test pack.

While wandering around Over-The-Rhine one evening (when all that wonderful light comes rushing in just above, down, and through the alleyways), I ran into my friend Andy and convinced him to pose.

Andy is one of the funniest people in Cincinnati. 
This one I was super happy with—the way the colors showed up, how they skew in the warm evening light, the brightness of the neon sign, the darkness of the sunglasses—yeah, yeah, yeah!

• • • • •

With Polaroids, there’s another factor that can somewhat alter their visual appearance and that’s how they’re scanned (hence why some of these have dust on them). I don’t own a scanner, but there’s a few different ones I’ve been able to use around town. Still trying to figure out a proper way to scan these. For now, they’re close enough to the physical image.

• • • • •

I wanted to save the last exposure in order to make a photograph of Laura and our dog. One of the things I’ve loved about getting back to film photography this past year has been how it forces me to slow down and take a more balanced approach. I have to think about what I’m composing, what I’m making. Digital has its benefits, one of them being the ability to instantly see, compensate, adjust, and try again, but film—film requires some more technical skill, an ability to trust, to let go, to get back to what you first learned. All those sentiments expressed by every other person doing the same as me: purchasing Kodak Portra and various other analog formats from the internet.

With this last exposure I had it all planned out: the setting, the time of day for the best light, the background, the pose. We got it all set and I raised the camera, subtly adjusting the focus ring and hoping I could see well enough through the wonky viewfinder to make a crisp shot. This was the last of the pack, a good and proper way to end it. Laura waited patiently while Belle wondered what the hell was going on.

I pressed the big red button and… nothing.

No response, no clicks, no whine, just silence.

I tried again.

Once more.

Now I was a little annoyed. I tried to do some troubleshooting and attempted to shoot several more times, but nothing would happen. I removed the film pack, pushed it back in, and tried again.

Without prompting: click, whine, exhale.

Pure white. Ruined. End of game.
I love using these old cameras because of the connection between my grandfather and I. I love that they were objects and tools he once used, things he felt comfortable giving to me because he understands my interest and passion for them, how they can be used to document things that I feel are important. I also love experimenting with film and finding a way to still, after all these years, re-set my expectations with photography and creativity. Now, though, I don’t know if this camera is still working. I was really disappointed that the last shot didn’t turn out. I was disappointed that I was all out of film and that when I buy another pack, there’s no guarantee that it’ll work.

I have no idea what caused the issue...

...if there is an issue, or... to resolve it if one does exist.

I’m fairly happy with the few shots that did turn out, but anxious about how another round of exposures might go.

And when I do get around to testing it again: what do I photograph? When it comes to Polaroids, people seem far more interesting than objects.

In any event, I always carry a digital camera anyways:

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