Monday, September 1, 2014

Time Zero: The Last Year of Polaroid Film

by Drew Martin
In Sleeper (1973), Woody Allen plays Miles Monroe, a jazz musician and owner of the 'Happy Carrot' Health-Food store who was cryopreserved in 1973, and revived 200 years later. When Allen’s character realizes the duration of his stasis he says, “You know, I bought Polaroid at seven, it’s probably up millions by now.”

At the time Sleeper came out Polaroid was cutting edge, the kind of company that Apple grew up wanting to be, but unlike Apple, Polaroid was unique in that they had unchallenged rule over their product - consumer cameras that shot instant film.

The company was founded in 1937 and had their first consumer camera on the market in 1947.  In 1972 the company introduced the folding, single lens Polaroid SX-70, which changed the history of photography. By 2001 the Polaroid Corporation filed for bankruptcy. It stopped making cameras in 2007 and stopped selling film after 2009 to the shock of die-hard Polaroid photographers. The decline had less to do with losing out to the digital age and more to do with mismanagement and lack of enthusiasm for their own product .

Since 2010, however, a group called The Impossible Project kick-started a defunct Polaroid production plant in Enschede, Holland, and have made instant film available to its niche market.

This morning I watched Time Zero: The Last Year of Polaroid Film, a 95-minute documentary that captures this free-fall moment for Polaroid photographers through many personal interviews.

What I did not know was how devoted the employees were to the founder and leader, Edwin Land, who considered himself first and foremost an artist. One of his first employees explained that she went to work for Polaroid thinking of it as a technology company and found herself dealing more with the art and the artist.

One of Land’s achievements with the SX-70 was its integral film, which meant everything was contained in the photograph: no peel away, no chemical waste, no detritus. Land did not want the people using his cameras to litter the land. His love for the photographic arts and the environment is evident with one of his first hired consultants, Ansel Adams. Land believed that everyone had a kernel of creativity and his cameras were tools to help them explore their inner artist.

Most of the film speaks about Polaroid as one would expect from an artistic point of view: the magical production of a physical product, the instant artifact and instant memory, and the social experience of taking pictures. One of the surprises was a clip by Paul Giambarba, a former art director at Polaroid, who was most known for the package design. He says what he did was big deal at the time because it gave the consumer the first chance to pronounce the company's name. A lot of people mispronounced it with attempts like poylaroad. Giambarba said this had a lot to do with the typeface of the original packaging that used Memphis, which made little distinction between the lowercase a and o (left logo, top). He improved the clarity of the name by setting up POLAROID in all caps New Gothic within a black end panel (left logo, bottom).

Click here to watch the trailer for Time Zero: The Last Year of Polaroid Film.