Polaroid is going to stop making film for its once-ubiquitous instant cameras later this year, and in doing so close the last shutter on the way we used to see our past.
The original device, called the Model 95 camera, was introduced in 1972 at a 2008-adjusted retail price of a whopping $850. But that investment gave people something they'd never before possessed: a tool for capturing the moment within the moment, and then sharing it.
It was the first imagery do-loop, in a time when still and moving pictures had to be professionally developed over a span of days.
But times have changed, and digital photography has displaced the mechanical and chemical processes that powered the Polaroid phenomenon. We don’t just shoot a picture and then gather around to see what emerges on the film a few minutes later; we shoot incessantly, share endlessly, and save infinitely, as the experience of capturing is effectively free of expense in cost or time.
I think it has changed our relationship with the past has changed, too, in at least two fundamental ways:
- First, the Polaroid photo was a true snapshot of reality; you didn't shoot it as much as it shot you, and you were captive to the time and number of prints you could afford. They were also unchangeable once developed, so imperfections couldn't be touched-up or deleted. Reality couldn't be photoshopped. This meant that a lot of those pictures people took were not ideal, nor in all ways right.
But they were assuredly real.
- Second, because the technology was clumsy, it meant that folks had to accept, at least implicitly, that we can't preserve the past. People blinked. Made stupid expressions. Entire shots were blurry. And then, after the passage of time, all of the Polaroids began to fade. The product of the instant camera was impermanent.
Contrast that with the endless number of photos we can take with digital tech; it almost overwhelms any definition or understanding of what a "snapshot" represents. Infinite moments lessen the meaning of any one event, changing even our experience itself into the experience of taking an infinite number of photos. Digital technology becomes part of the memory (as in "I shot all these great pictures," and those Facebook pages after pages of kids all making the same pouts and hand gestures therefore).
Nobody looks surprised in a picture anymore, because pictures are part of our everyday experience.
I'm sure I'm just being a grumpy old dim bulb, what with the new year begun and another birthday approaching. And I can't stand it when one of my fellow old codgers gripes about how much better times were when things were worse. There's no inherent value in activities being harder, longer, tougher, or less than perfect.
But our relationship with the past used to be different. And the passing of the Polaroid as a tool for articulating that relationship is a milestone.