An excerpt of this column originally appeared as a special to the Kenosha News, Sunday Mornings With Basil Willis, January 15, 2012
It was at our house on New Year’s Eve, sometime after the Basil-tinis started flowing but well before the ball dropped, when I was blinded by a bright flash. It went off inches from my face and was followed by a familiar whirring sound. After blinking the spots out of my retinas, I realized someone had just taken my picture. With a Polaroid instant camera.
Before anyone could say anything, the bandit photographer was darting around the room, randomly shooting people from various angles and distances, throwing the undeveloped pictures onto our kitchen island. She quickly burned through the 10-pack of film, then loaded another and started shooting again. The remarks came from all corners; “Where did you get that?” “I haven’t seen one of those in years.” “Don’t waste the film!” “No, I’m not ready!”
The Polaroid camera was iconic when I was kid. Scoffed at by photo buffs for the relatively low quality, it definitely had a fun factor. The film was expensive but there was no fuss and only a couple minutes of waiting. It was the old fashioned version of the view finder, and at the time it was the only way to get near-instant results.
Back in the day the only other option was a camera that required disposable flashbulb cubes to be mounted on a swivel atop the camera. People would scrunch together at gatherings, holding smiles seemingly forever, and there would always be a problem with either the flash or the film not being wound to the next picture. A crazy uncle would grab the camera from the poor photographer and there would be conferences and arguments. Pictures and flashes would be wasted while the contraption was figured out. Then everyone would have to scrunch back into a group and try again.
Then there was the waiting for the film to be developed. When you finally picked them up, pictures would be cut off, or of a ceiling, or covered by a thumb. It’s amazing we have as many pictures as we do. Something tells me the youth of today wouldn’t have bothered.
In my kitchen, as we stood around the white, undeveloped pictures, the first one of me started coming into focus, the ghostly outline of my alien-shaped head giving me away. “There’s Basil,” someone giggled.
This film was old so all of the pictures had a brownish hue, almost like they had purposely been put through an Instagram filter. It was a neat effect that professional photographers and graphic artists sometimes do on purpose.
I equate the experience of Polaroids to reading an analog newspaper. The hardcopy and online version of the newspaper have the same content, but in some ways the online version is a much richer experience; there is virtually endless space for more images and video. Color does not cost more to produce. There is reader interaction with comments and polls. Content management systems are becoming more intelligent and can suggest related items you might be interested in based on your reading habits. You can search it. Soup to nuts, the online version is a better product.
There is just something about being able to hold and fold a newspaper. You can scribble on it or cut out articles or coupons. It is nice the ads don’t flash at you or make noise. Finding an old newspaper in the attic is like opening a time capsule. It is the same feeling I got watching the photos develop, shaking them like a Polaroid picture, as the song goes, even though it isn’t necessary.
Someone found a notebook and people began taping the Polaroids into it, writing notes and random quotations on the white border of the pictures. Someone asked if we had a glue gun. The evening devolved into a fun, drunken Martha Stewart episode and now we have a pretty neat crowdsourced scrapbook of the event.
Today the Polaroid company itself is just a shell, gutted by changing markets, corruption and ultimately bankruptcy. The last Polaroid instant film was produced in 2008 and a four-year old pack of 10 prints on eBay will now run you about $60. I’m not sure the picture taker at our party realized that she had just burned through over $500 worth of rare film.
A group of enthusiasts known as the Impossible Project has since taken up the torch and is producing film packs that work with Polaroid cameras for about $20, but their re-engineering process isn’t perfect yet and the film quality is not great, even for Polaroid standards.
In 2010 Polaroid teamed up with Lady Gaga to promote a new mobile printer that wirelessly connects to smart phones or cameras with Bluetooth or WiFi. It’s about the size of a paperback novel and uses special paper that does not require ink or cartridges. A 30 pack of prints costs $20. It’s a cool concept which gives you the instant developing experience. They are pitching it as a “mobile photo booth.”
At some point during the night I took a picture of the random Polaroids spread across the island with my iPhone and uploaded it to Facebook. A picture of pictures; new technology chronicling the extinct. I am able to share the picture around the world, but it will never be as fun as the original, or feel as good in my hand. And they will never find it in the attic.