Sunday, May 11, 2008

Polaroid Films to Fade into History & Why Film is Still Relevant in the Digital Age

King Kong's Polaroid Film & Puny Digital Cameras
The king of all photographic film had to be the 20 x 24 Polaroid Color film made for their monster sized studio camera. Can you imagine using a 20 x 24 inch camera that weighs in at a bruising 230 pounds? You'd need King Kong to set it up for you, and forget about any pretty sunset shots. This is a studio beast. You don't just pick this camera up and start shooting. If old Kong's off at the Empire State building, think fork lift. Ha! We laugh openly at your little digital cameras and lenses. If this film were scanned it would be in the tetrabytes, so don't give me any crap about your 'big' medium format digital cameras that are 40 megabytes. As someone's who's used to leading the pack, I can't pull out little prints with grungy detail. I've got prints that exude a distinct feel, and those puny little digital cameras still can't get what I need most of the time.

Ok, I'm just kidding. Kind of. I have my own array of digital cameras, and some of them are downright astounding with the feel of their images. Good stuff. Not only that, I've been teaching digital photography since uh... 1993? I've been one of the biggest advocates for going digital with photography, so don't get me wrong, I like digital photography.

My good friend Patrick Nagatani used the 20 x 24 camera for a couple of his projects, including the book, Patrick Nagatani/Andree Tracey: Polaroid 20X24 photographs : 1983-1986. A number of other photographers have used this rarefied camera and I'm a bit jealous. What the heck, I'm happy with the Polaroid film that I currently use. Only Polaroid pulled 'a quick one' this spring.

Polaroid Discontinues Instant Film
Back in February Polaroid announced it was discontinuing instant film. Me being the lightning fast blogger that I am, was right on the spot with the breaking news. Oh man, this was sad. Not just because of the nostalgic bygone era of instant photography, but some of the Polaroid film was really high end stuff that is still better than what most high end digital SLR's are able to cough out. For a lot of us photographers, this had nothing to do with nostalgia; this was the here and now, and one of our critical tools was being zapped. My Polaroid film of choice was the ever venerable Type 55 instant negative film. Wow! This stuff kicked butt. This is a technical scientific photographic description by the way.

The Polaroid 4x5 Type 55 film is an instant black & white panchromatic (sensitive to all wavelengths of visible light) negative film, which has an extremely fine grained resolution and has a spectacular dynamic range, which is why it is a film of choice for me and many other photographers who make a living from their photographs. Not only that, you don't have to process it in a darkroom, because it is instant! How cool is that? Its the best of both worlds because you can scan the negative into a computer and get the most beautiful prints that are huge, with intricate detail. Last year I made some negatives that I knew I wanted to make large, some 3x4 feet and larger. From past experience, I knew that this automatically bumped digital cameras out of the running; they simply aren't good enough for prints this large yet, especially if you want nuanced information everywhere in the photograph. What is really cool about this instant b&w Polaroid negative film is that you just bring a little bucket with sodium sulfite to fix the image, wash & dry it at home, and there you are with a great negative to scan. This is a part of my summer art-making plans, to have fun playing with the last of this b&w Polaroid negative film. We've got to break out the Tequila for the last box of film though, don't you think? You know, the classy exit thing?

As soon as the news broke of the discontinued Polaroid film, a lot of pros started loading up on the remaining stocks. I sure did. None of my regular suppliers had any anywhere. Zip. I went to my old standbys at B&H in NYC, or Calumet in LA, and both posted cryptic notes about being out of stock and to come back soon. Heck. I thought I was screwed and I must admit I wasn't thinking very charitable thoughts of my fellow photographers. 'Why you f#$%ers' I muttered to myself as I scrambled around the Net. In a moment of clear thought, I went to the Polaroid site (duh) and there it was. Yay. They had over 700 boxes left. At over $75.00 a box of film, I did some quick math and pitted it against the thought of never having this film anymore. I ended up just getting three boxes to add to my other three. It was a good thing I went to the Polaroid site, because the other places never did restock, and the eBay pirates were getting over $150.00 per box within days. The Polaroid site was devoid of Type 55 in a matter of days. Hmm. Maybe a party is in order for the last few shots. May as well go out the right way, I always say. An exit is just as important as an entrance, right?

Ok, the Retro stuff
My first memory of Polaroids was when I was 10, back in 1965 and my mom had a Polaroid Swinger, a cool little camera that made instant snapshots, right there. It mostly meant that we could see how goofy we looked in family snapshots right on the spot instead of waiting for the film to be processed at a lab. Their commercials were these peppy, hip things that made it sound like you were a deviant outcast if you didn't have one. How could you not be a 'Swinger?' Holy crap. We had to coat the little prints with this stinky sticky stuff that had a briny smell like pickled pigs feet. Yum. As I recall, you squeezed the shutter release, which was this tubular thing and the viewfinder said 'yes' when the exposure was correct. How weird is that? We won't even go there, man.

Why Photographers & Artists Loved Polaroid Film
Polaroid made an entire spectrum of films with various emulsions that each had a very unique visual aesthetic, which is a huge reason why so many artists and photographers found it so appealing. An example is their SX-70 film that had a rich, yet subtle color palette that also had a depth to it. It was like a packet of vivid colors that transformed itself before your eyes. As a matter of fact, that is really what it was, because a lot of photographers liked to manipulate the dyes as they were developing in order to get very unique looks that you couldn't get any other way. It also had a very subtle metallic flake feel to the prints that is hard to describe. You could do funky things like transfer the color print emulsion of some of the other films to something else, sort of like the fake tattoos that you transfer to skin. Lots of photographers have used the instant negative film for decades for the reasons stated above. Here is a selection really cool books that show what Polaroid film can do in the hands of some very creative photographers:
The Polaroid Book
The Works With Polaroid 20 x 24: 1983-1986
Polaroid Land Photography, Ansel Adams
Andy Warhol Polaroids, 1971-1986
Polaroid Transfers, A Complete Visual Guide
Andre Kertesz: The Polaroids
Manuel Alvarez Bravo: Polaroids
Polaroid Manipulations: A Complete Visual Guide...

The bottom line is that Polaroid film represented a notable part of the history of photography and its demise is not only a loss to photography, but the creative process from artists using a unique media. It was way more fun than digital photography and the handmade element threw the element of chance into the creative process. It was like the photography gods sometimes intervened and threw down something that was kind of poetic if the wind was right and the moon was in a power phase or something. You tell me, I'm still trying to figure that part out.

Film is Definitely Still Relevant
Last year Kodak commissioned a survey about film usage among professional photographers, which was published in the LA Times on September 20, 2007, titled, "Film Still Clicks With Professional Photographers." Kodak surveyed 9,000 professional photographers and a full 75% of them said that they would continue to use film even as they embrace digital photography. Sixty eight percent said they preferred film over digital for lots of stuff, and many went out of their way to point out that large format film is still very clearly superior to digital media. A lot of the photographers weren't too hot on the idea of sitting at a computer doing digital photography tasks for hours on end.

In my opinion, there is a huge difference between film and digital photography. Digital cameras have a filter in front of the image sensor to reduce moiré patterns, and it makes for a photograph that lacks the critical sharpness that large format film has to offer. For small prints, the reduction in sharpness is negligible and really quite indiscernible. However, once you enlarge the print to anything larger than 8x10, eagle eyed photographers can start to tell the difference in sharpness. The dynamic range of a typical DSLR (digital single lens reflex) camera is also less that what you can pull out of film, which simply means that a skilled photographer can get a wider range of tones from a professionally scanned sheet of large format film. This is why Kodak got the results they did from their survey of professional photographers; the photographers don't need any lessons on high end photography and stick with the tried and true techniques that still get them the best results: FILM. However, many said that for the majority of their work, digital photographs worked out just fine. I am sure that many pros have gone entirely digital.

I suspect that film's relevance will continue, at least for the time being. It appears that the masses may be abandoning it, but certainly not photographers who make a living from their photography, for the reasons mentioned above. However, the writing is on the proverbial wall, especially with the demise of this high-end Polaroid film. When the dynamic range and sharpness from DSLR's matches what film has to offer, film's days may in fact finally be numbered, but I hope not. Luckily, digital cameras still have a way to go to catch up with the best of what film has to offer. I still really love film. For many of us, film is an essential part of the ritual of what defines photography, and the alchemy of silver halide is what makes a part of photography very magical. You really can 'see' into the film and silver halide print. They both have a thin emulsion that has a physical depth to it, which does give it an extra dimension that digital photography lacks. I still feel like a kid when I see a perfectly exposed Kodachrome slide and look at it through a magnifying glass on a light table. You can easily see the layers of emulsion, and the slide does look almost three dimensional. Black & white darkroom prints have an element of this too, because of the photographic emulsion that you can see into if you look closely. This is the primary difference between a black & white inkjet print and a darkroom print. If you put them both behind glass, it is nearly impossible to tell the difference between them though, which is cool if you're a digital photographer.

My own favorite films are Kodak Tri-X and Kodachrome. Kodachrome is a fine grained color slide film, and is also an endangered species with dwindling numbers. These very cool films deserve their own entry at a future date.

Today's Version of Instant Photography
I think that the epitome of instant photographs are our camera phones now. With my iPhone, I can take a quick snapshot and email it anywhere in the world, all in less than a minute. I don't need anything else, just the phone. All of the below photos were made with the iPhone camera and emailed to myself. The iPhone photos are 640 x 480 pixels, which makes for a pretty small photo. It's really only good for email and online usage. However, I was a bit surprised at the image quality. They're sharp, with above average detail for a camera phone and the exposures were fairly accurate (click on the below image to see it in its actual size). I get the sneaking suspicion that we're going to end up with high end digital cameras that have all the functions of the iPhone, and then some. Right now at the start of the 21st Century with general photography there is a clear shift from photographic prints to simply seeing photographs electronically either on cell phones or via some online mode, like email or a photo sharing site. I get the sense that most amateurs with digital cameras don't even bother with prints anymore, they just email or share their photos online. If this is true, it means that this chase for ever bigger and bigger mexapixel cameras is kind of silly because one doesn't need anything more than 2 megapixels for online viewing. The only real reason to have larger megapixel cameras is if you make prints larger than 8x10 inches, which clearly is not being done by the vast majority of family snapshot and vacation users. Kodak has found that even when the average photographer does make prints, it is only 4x6 inches.

If I had my way, point & shoot camera manufacturers would improve their sensors rather than increase the megapixel size. All point & shoot cameras suffer this same shortcoming. Their sensors are too small to get really excellent prints. There are some pretty nice images to be made from current digital point & shoots, but not nearly as good as they could be. Just about all point & shoot cameras are limited to ISO 100 or slower. This means that the sensor is less sensitive to light and if you make photos in either tricky or low light, your photo looks kind of junky. It starts to pick up digital noise and the image degrades.

So what is the answer for future photographers? Who knows. Just get the heck out of the way when you see Kong rumbling around with his big camera.

Essay Copyright Larry McNeil, 2008, All Rights Reserved. Please get permission from McNeil to use any portion of the essay. Or I'll send Kong your way.

1 comment:

Kimowan said...

I have six boxes of Time-Zero for the XLR. It's weird to think I only have 60 presses of the button left.