Film Photography: Instant Film

I feel that something fundamental goes missing from my experience of photography when I find myself shooting exclusively in digital. As soon as I realised that, I set up a temporary darkroom at home. I started shooting and developing a lot of film, printing from negatives and being a lot more experimental. But one thing I didn’t do was use much instant film.

Instant Film

A few years ago I got myself a Lomography Instant Wide camera – an instant camera that uses Fuji Instant Wide film. I decided to get one after I’d got a Polaroid Instax mini camera as a Christmas gift for my son and found myself feeling jealous of him! I’d always wanted a Polaroid and the Lomography camera seemed like a good substitute. My son and I both used the Lomography instant so much that it ended up being called ‘The Precious,’ just like Bilbo’s ring in The Lord of the Rings. That being the case, I decided it was time to take the plunge on a used Polaroid camera. I have bought several Polaroid cameras since, both old and new, and an Instant Lab.

Below: My first Polaroid camera

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These instant film cameras were the first suggestion of what I was missing from digital; the materiality of the image.

There is something satisfying about the size of the Polaroid image in particular; it fits well in the hand, it has a band at the bottom made for writing on and therefore giving further opportunity for physical interaction, and it feels thicker and more robust than a printed digital photograph.

As objects, instant images have a beauty and worth of their own. The physical habits that people develop and cannot let go of – like shaking a Polaroid or sticking it under their arm – also involve the photographer at a more instinctual, physical level. Even my son shakes a Polaroid; I’ve never told him to.

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Above: Fuji Instant of Latticed Windows, Lacock Abbey

When you are holding an instant film image, there is a knowledge that there will only be one of these; any image you make is unique. It makes the image, even an imperfect one, more valuable. The characteristic ability to replicate and share a digital image, which is what they are most valued for, for me lessens both their meaning and the meaning of the act of photography. The experience suffers for me when that meaning is diminished.

The idea that the Polaroid image is unique is put well by Wim Wenders in his book Instant Stories.

"The entire Polaroid process (or procedure)
had nothing to do with our contemporary experience,
when we look at virtual and vanishing apparitions on a screen
that we can delete or swipe away to go to the next one. 
Then, you produced and owned an original!
Not a copy, not a print, not multipliable, not repeatable." 
- Wim Wenders, Instant Stories 

There is a negative behind the Polaroid image, but it’s very difficult to get to in practice and you can’t actually get a copy of the image from it. You can’t get anything at all from a Fujifilm Instant Wide photograph – if you try to lift the emulsion from it the image is totally destroyed, although it can give interesting colour results. I’ve mainly given up on using that now and stick to the new generation of Polaroid films.

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Top: Polaroid emulsion lift on watercolour paper, Durdle Door, Dorset.  Above: The negative after rinsing in dilute bleach

There is a sense of excitement with instant film that digital just cannot reproduce. Instant film is relatively expensive, but the expectations for the image are lowered and an acceptable image is of a lower quality. Part of that is the limitations of the equipment, with artefacts from plastic lenses and parallax errors expected.

I find myself taking a different type of photograph with an instant camera, being a lot more creative and feeling a lot more excited by the result. You work within the limitations of the equipment, forcing you to think more creatively. There is an unpredictability in the process. But you also have a physical object and you interact with that object in a way you cannot interact with a digital image (unless you print it, which I rarely do).

The development of an instant image is often described as magical. The waiting is long enough to be exciting, but not too long to be dull. It’s interesting to watch all on it’s own. Perhaps it puts the image maker in a more mindful place? Fuji Instant images come out white. The Polaroid comes out dark blue; I try to put it away, to shield it from light, but it’s hard not to look.

The ultimate fate of some of my instant images is destruction, and so I am offered a further aspect of photography to explore; a way to destroy the image that can never fully be destroyed digitally. At each stage of work on an instant image the destruction is complete and entire. There can be no going back at any stage of the process. No undo command. That changes the meaning of what I am doing and the value of the work. I can take away from it and add to it. I can fundamentally change the chemical nature of it. I can’t do that with digital. With digital I feel that in the context of the medium the meaning is fixed.

I am still at the beginning of a process of experimenting with the creative opportunities that Polaroid and instant films provide. As I experiment further I’ll add to the technical or blog parts of this site, so please follow if you’d like to learn more along with me.

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