The Polaroid project: Goodbye

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Readers tell stories about their Polaroids.

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In my hand is a photograph.

It’s cardboard stiff and shiny and saturated with the colors of sepia-toned Popsicles. In it, a pretty-enough girl squints into the lens of a Polaroid camera. Her left hand moves, as if she’s abandoned shading her eyes from the North Florida sun. A slight breeze lifts her blonde hair.

You can’t tell it’s a hot summer afternoon or that she is 13 going on 45 or that people are everywhere, tourists wandering a cordoned off main street of some small town. You can’t tell that she is wearing a bikini top for the first time ever. You can’t tell it is the first time a handsome boy had given her a second look. You can’t tell she is happy.

In my hand is a memory. My memory.

Readers sent in nearly 100 images — all with stories, some short and some long. Pedestrian to outsiders, but placeholders in time for the photographer.

That’s what photographs are for most of us. Not art, but stand-ins for moments we make eternal by pointing a camera at them. Your dad’s new color television. A car you restored. A trip to the Statue of Liberty. Breakfast. Bath time. Birthdays. Parties. Your granddaughter on Christmas morning. Your cat.

By the end of the year, one of the most potent and revolutionary tools for capturing these little instant histories will be rendered obsolete: In February, Polaroid announced that it would pretty much stop making its instant film. The cameras, both consumer and commercial, had disappeared to little notice over the last two years.

Polaroid had a good run, though.

A pioneer and largely self-taught physicist, Edwin H. Land was inspired to create the process, which borrowed from his early discoveries in polarized lenses, to satisfy his 3-year-old daughter’s wish to see a photograph instantly. He released his first camera in 1948, a rolled film unit called the Polaroid Land Camera. It was sold in Boston at Jordan Marsh stores for $89.95. Sales for that first year alone exceeded $5 million, according to Polaroid.

There were more cameras, of course, a dizzying array of models with kicky names. The Swinger. The Big Shot. The Memory Maker. The SX-70. The OneStep. The Spectra. The i-Zone. And others.

Buying one made you feel smart, an experimenter who was a little hip, like that guy who can quote Updike off the cuff at parties. It was "the simplest camera in the world," the bantering James Garner and Mariette Hartley assured you in now emblematic TV ads of the ’70s and ’80s. You were the life of the party now.

Like the snapshot cameras Kodak introduced in 1888, Polaroid’s in-about-a-minute promise offered users the power to document their own lives, but now, doing it in real time. No painters, no sculptors, no professional portrait photographers or drugstore technicians would intervene between you and your life, your imagination or alternately, your naked body.

No, it was just you, a camera, some film and your muse. A happy brand for happy people. And in the years that followed, instant photography became a fixture of American life, used not just by consumers but by police departments, hospitals, the fashion industry, movie makers and artists like William Wegman and Lucas Samaras.

Every image wasn’t a keeper. But some of Polaroid’s power was in the uncertainty; the excitement of distractedly fanning the undeveloped image (which people still do even though the film no longer requires it) before peeling back the gooky negative side to reveal what a push of a button captured for more or less forever.

Most didn’t seem to make it onto the tops of grand pianos. Their odd shape didn’t fit most frames. Instead, they were put someplace on their way to somewhere else. Pinned onto bulletin boards or taped to refrigerators before being tossed into the bottoms of drawers, where we all got a little jolt of memory when we ran across them in our search for the stamps. Forgotten but still holding onto to that giddy second in time.

Digital photography’s immediacy holds a similar charm and delivers it much more cheaply than Polaroid. Now we label our memories cryptically (What is "Mom24," you wonder) and warehouse them in computers instead of bedside tables. Digital, of course, was largely what forced Polaroid to file Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2001 (it was then purchased by another Massachusetts company) and finally closed the door to the longtime brand this year.

The company struggles to maintain the brand with digital cameras. It also makes DVD players, televisions and mobile digital printers. But that’s not Polaroid. Not to me anyway.

No more of the odd color and fairy light that only Polaroid could muster. No grinding of motorized rollers churning out my photograph. No pops and pings and clicks. No magic. No wonder. No more one-of-a-kind images. Just easily changeable reality in on a digital card. Not forever truth, just malleable fact.

In my hand is a photograph.

I have a digital camera, which I use now and then. It’s fun, efficient and doesn’t cost nearly as much as a two pack of Spectra film.

In my hand is a memory.

But I’ll miss Polaroid like I miss the certainty of that summer day when everything was ahead of me, when I was golden and it all could be captured, in about a minute, in the palm of my hand.

© 2008 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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