Photo Finished

Courtesy of Polaroid Collections

Long a favorite of artists’, beloved by millions for its undeniable magic, the iconic Polaroid is gone in an instant.

Already it’s too late. In February Polaroid announced it would no longer make film. Its U.S. plant closed in March and others around the world will shut down by the end of the year. The instant photo is going the way of the tintype, the daguerreotype, and, eventually, all types of film, pushed out by the even more immediate gratification of digital. Photographers who love the stuff—from well-known artists such as Lucas Samaras, Chuck Close, David Levinthal, and Paolo Roversi to the many thousands who’ve posted their pictures on Polanoid.net—have snapped up as much as they can, but the clock is ticking. The film, properly stored, has a shelf life of about a year and a half maximum; after that the developing chemicals start to break down.

A few hard-core fans will still use Polaroid film well past its expiration date, embracing the random color variations, ghostly blurs, and floaty artifacts that crop up as the film ages. Florian Kaps, whose company, Unsaleable.com, sells expired Polaroid film (along with the classic SX-70 cameras), says there’s “a good two or three years before we really begin to panic.” Nonetheless, some of the last Polaroid photographs are being shot as you read this.

It’s a tragedy that goes beyond the extinction of just another storied brand. An instant Polaroid is unique, whether color or black and white, whether the 3 1/4-by-4 1/4-inch size with the distinctive border or the larger formats favored by some artists. On one hand, a Polaroid is more real than other types of pictures; crime scene photographers still use them in part because juries trust they haven’t been faked. On the other hand, they’re more unreal: The film is subject to strange accidents of color and tonal shifts, while some of the cameras seem to follow their own whims with framing, focus, and composition. The colors and surface are simultaneously gritty and gauzy, frozen and alive. Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, who has used both 8-by-10 and 20-by-24 Polaroids since the eighties (“The company gave me the first few shots for free, like a heroin dealer, and then I was hooked,” he jokes), describes the images as “a kind of beautiful cross between realism and glamour.”

It’s a look that is pretty much impossible to get any other way—no hardware or software can re-create it. On occasion users have posted fakes on Polanoid.net and, according to Kaps, “within ten minutes people were writing in, saying, Hey, that’s not real.” The word devotees use most often to describe Polaroids is “magic.” Part of that is the way the film works, with the image slowly emerging inside its paper frame—how thrilling those 90 seconds once seemed—and being revealed when the protective cover is peeled back. But it’s also about the uniqueness of the images, which can be both haunted and haunting.

Appropriately, the man who founded Polaroid, Edwin H. Land, was no ordinary scientist but a kind of mad genius. After dropping out of Harvard at the end of his freshman year, he studied light polarization, doing research at the New York Public Library by day and breaking into a Columbia University lab at night to conduct experiments. In 1932 he cofounded Land-Wheelwright Laboratories, which became Polaroid five years later. Land would focus so intensely that he sometimes forgot to eat and sleep. Once he purportedly wore the same suit for 18 days while trying to solve a production problem with instant film. By the time Land died in 1991, he held 533 patents, for everything from night-vision goggles to bomber optics to, of course, Polaroid film—more than any inventor since Edison.

The result of all that attention to detail was a company that’s been described as the Apple Computer of its time, a meeting of style and cutting-edge engineering that captured the mood of the moment. Freedom, fun, and gratification converged in Polaroid’s ever-evolving products—from the original Model 95 to the supercheap plastic Swinger (only $19.95!) to the SX-70, whose seductive design overcame its steep $180 price tag. And the market responded: Polaroid stock traded as high as $150 in the seventies, a Google-crushing $780 per share in 2008 dollars. No wonder Andy Warhol was a huge fan.

From its initial days of production, Polaroid cultivated relationships with artists. Ansel Adams began working with Land in 1949, after he was sent an early version of the Land Camera and film that produced sepia-toned photographs. During the next three decades, Adams tested cameras and film and even made suggestions on packaging (the product name was too small, he once argued).

Later the company expanded the program and began giving cameras and film to artists such as Walker Evans, André Kertész, Lucas Samaras, and Chuck Close in exchange for images. Partly it was a way to build the company’s photo collection, which extended beyond Polaroids and spanned several decades. And partly it was about gaining artistic credibility and publicity for the brand. Soon after Polaroid introduced the 20-by-24-inch format in 1977, it began giving artists studio time with that camera, too. William Wegman is one of the few who takes the behemoth—the first was five feet high and 600 pounds, although it was later pared down to a comparatively light 235—out to shoot in the field. David Hockney used his to create a new form, a combination of Cubist collage and minimalist grid that proved so compelling, he basically gave up painting for a few years. And Polaroid didn’t shy away from controversial artists: It supported Larry Clark’s dark portraiture as well as David Levinthal’s concentration camp miniatures.

Polaroid came of age during the sixties’ sexual revolution, and it helped reshape erotic photography. No longer did rolls of film have to be sent out to a lab, where they might encounter a censorious technician. Carlo Mollino, the Italian designer, avid skier, and bon vivant, famously used a Polaroid camera to create a secret erotic world. He’d summon women, mostly prostitutes, to a Turin apartment furnished as a set for his fantasies, and work late into the night, photographing them in various states of undress. After his death a stash of some 2,000 Polaroids were found hidden in a chest of drawers.

Still, Mollino’s posed portraits were staid in comparison to the early Polaroids by Robert Mapplethorpe, the subject of a recent show at New York’s Whitney Museum. Before the instant picture, photographer and model had to wait to see the, um, fruits of their labor. But as Mapplethorpe’s photos made clear, with the Polaroid it was possible for the first time to seduce someone with a camera, with Land’s magic machine as both recorder and participant.

Ironically, the innovations of the Polaroid helped pave the way for its demise. In today’s digital world, you can shoot, inspect the results, reshoot, and e-mail the picture in the time it takes a Polaroid to develop. Of course, for some people nothing will ever replace the Polaroid. “I bought a thousand or so packs and stuck them in the refrigerator,” says Greenfield-Sanders. “Now I just have to use them all before they go bad.”

Sources and Resources

Because Polaroid was embraced by so many photographers, there’s no central source for collectors. Start with the artist’s gallery. Two fascinating and well-documented bodies of Polaroid work are those of Walker Evans and the Italian designer Carlo Mollino.

Walker Evans The pioneering photographer, not known for working in color—he’d even disparaged it earlier in his career—had only a brief relationship with Polaroid, in 1973–74. Using the SX-70, he produced portraits and abstract studies of signage that are miniature masterpieces of composition. The Andrea Rosen Gallery in New York has examples for around $7,000 (525 W. 24th St.; 212-627-6000; andrearosengallery.com). Walker Evans: Polaroids (Scalo) can be found for less than $150.

Carlo Mollino The New York gallery Salon 94 represents Mollino’s estate and has an extensive selection from his secret stash of sixties Polaroids of women—with clothing and without—such as the one at right. Expect to pay upwards of $32,000 for a vintage print (12 E. 94th St.; 646-672-9212; salon94.com). A less expensive way to see Mollino’s fantasy world is to get your hands on Arena Editions’ limited-edition Carlo Mollino: Polaroids, copies of which typically start at about $450.

Do-it-yourself If you still want to make your own Polaroids, the Web site Unsaleable.com sells old cameras, from SX-70s to the tiny izone. It offers an assortment of film, both fresh and, for the experimentally minded, expired. The site also has a gallery of Polaroid art, with prices from $225 to $17,000 for editioned prints.

Coping with the Loss

When Paolo Roversi first picked up an 8-by-10 Polaroid camera more than 20 years ago, he felt immediately he’d found the perfect tool. “I never know what I’m going to get, even after using it all this time,” he says. “I love the accidents.” The Italian photographer, known for his dreamy, almost pre-Raphaelite fashion portraits, embraces the strange colors, the ripples and bubbles where the film’s emulsion has stretched or developed at a slightly different rate. “With a Polaroid, every time it’s like magic,” he says. “It’s as if the camera gives you a gift.”

That every photo was a unique object was at once part of Roversi’s love for the camera and a limitation. “The Polaroids were so much more intimate, so much more present, because when I shot I knew this was the only one.” But then there was the problem that they then had to be turned over to the client. “I hated to give them away. I always wanted to hide the best ones for myself.”

With high-resolution scanning it’s now possible for Roversi to make prints that retain the qualities of his original Polaroids—flaws, accidents, and all. His New York gallery, Pace/MacGill (32 E. 57th St.; 212-759-7999; pacemacgill.com), recently showed a series of photos of his muse, the American model Guinevere (at right, from 1996). Produced as pigment prints in editions of 17, they ranged from $7,500 to $25,000.

Asked what he’s going to do now that Polaroid has stopped production, Roversi says: “I’m pretending it’s not happening. It’s like someone asking you what you’re going to do now that you have to stop breathing. I can’t even think about it.”

A Snapshot History

1932

Edwin H. Land founds Land-Wheelwright Laboratories.

1937

The company is renamed Polaroid, producing polarized lenses.

1948

Instant film makes its debut as Polaroid rolls out its inaugural camera, the Model 95. Retail price: $89.75.

1949

Land begins his collaboration with legendary photographer Ansel Adams, who advises the company on cameras, film, and packaging.

1965

The Swinger, a plastic-cased camera that takes only black-and-white wallet-size photos, debuts with a $19.95 price tag.

Early ’70s

The company expands its program of giving cameras and film to artists such as Walker Evans, Lucas Samaras, and Andy Wharhol.

1972

The popular SX-70 camera is introduced, at $180. Within a year the company is producing 5,000 a day.

1985

Polaroid’s legal victory in a long- running patent dispute forces Kodak out of the instant camera business.

2001

Polaroid files for bankruptcy.

2008

The company announces it is ceasing production on all film products.