I said in the last post about film that I felt sad that something fundamental goes missing from my experience of photography when I find myself shooting exclusively in digital.
Since that post was originally published (November 2018) I’ve set up a temporary darkroom at home, have been developing prints, using a lot more film, and being a lot more experimental. But one thing I know I love that I haven’t been doing much of is using instant film.
A couple of 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 for my youngest son for Christmas and found myself wanting to pinch it a bit too often. I’d always wanted a Polaroid myself and had never had one. I’ve since bought an old Polaroid camera too – a cheap Supercolor 635.
The 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.
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 actually a negative to a Polaroid image, but it’s very difficult to get to in practice and I’m not sure you can actually get a copy of the image from it. I could be wrong, but certainly I couldn’t get an image from any negative from a Polaroid that I’ve ever managed to salvage. I certainly can’t get anything at all from a Fujifilm Instant Wide photograph – I can’t lift the emulsion from it and if I try the image is totally destroyed, although it can give interesting colour results.
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. There is an element of not being able to get a perfect image and so not trying. 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.
I just took an photo of the chaos that is my desk, as I’m writing this, and scanned the result over and over to show the development of a Fuji Instant image:
One aspect of instant film is that it offers a security that digital can never give. I have taken images of myself, based on research into pornography, that I would not feel comfortable taking with a digital camera. I don’t trust the security of digital images, and instant film offers a way to make sure that only I have access to the images I produce. Polaroids have a history of use for pornography; unlike film, the development wasn’t done by a stranger and so there was no-one else involved who might judge. Polaroid images of wives and girlfriends proliferate – just Google images for polaroids and pornography to see examples of this rise in amateur porn. Andy Warhol also used the Polaroid in his Sex Parts & Torsos exhibition.
The ultimate fate of some of my images is destruction, and so I am offered a further aspect to explore; a way to destroy the image that can never fully be destroyed digitally. At each stage of work on the 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. 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 the meaning is fixed, in the context of the medium.
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.
(Some of these links are links to another of my blogs)
Wim Wenders instant stories. (2017). London: Thames & Hudson.
Adam, R. (2017). Polaroid – the missing manual. 1st ed. London: Thames and Hudson.
To see my previous experiments with emulsion lifting Fuji Instant Wide;
and some more information on my use of Polaroids;
and to see a rough record of my first Polaroid emulsion lift, including the original image that the black and white impossible project negative came from;