My friend James and I spent Saturday in my studio shooting some of the last Polaroid 8×10 film in the world. James brought over his beautiful Linhof 8×10 view camera – what a stunning example of mechanical engineering. We experimented with some black and white Polaroid 804 and a processor I had found on eBay. Neither of us had ever used this film before. All I can say is I wish I were shooting 8×10 Polaroid by the box back when it was still being made. It’s a slow methodical process but one with exactly the magic that people talk about when they romanticize photography.
The film was almost 10 years old. The processor in unknown condition. We could just have easily found out that neither worked. It could have been a hugely expensive pile of garbage. It was not garbage, it was amazing. All these years later it still made pictures that have that Polaroid goodness.
Shooting and processing 8×10 Polaroid requires - according the the instructions - 33 steps. From inserting the negative in the holder to placing the positive in the processor and timing the development to finally peeling the print from the negative. We shot 8 pictures in about 5 hours. We could have been faster but we didn’t want to waste any film. Oh, we did waste film. The first sheet got flared and then we mis-processed a sheet – that’s an expensive mistake about on par with shattering a bottle of fine wine.
Let us not give all the credit for this look to Polaroid. The Linhof camera fitted with a Heliar 360mm lens is special all by itself. One of the reasons this camera is exceptional for portraiture is that huge 8×10 image area. Technology companies have done wonders with small sensor digital cameras. But there is no changing the physics that govern light and optics. The bigger the imager (in this case 8×10) the longer the focal length of the lens which creates a “normal” field of view. The longer the focal length the greater the compression and shallower the depth of field.
Back to the Polaroid. The science side of photography is all about controlling variables. E.g. processing time and temperature effect film speed and contrast which in turn effect exposure. Many of these variables are well documented. In the case of 10 year-old film, the temperature vs. processing time side of the equation is a mystery. We started at the recommended 45 seconds and quickly doubled that to 90. With a decent supply of film that was all manufactured and stored under the same conditions we could determine the “right” processing time. Since that’s not possible we tried some variations around 90 seconds then accepted that as optimal.
This incredible day of making pictures purely for the sake of experimenting with the medium reminds me how much I loved working with Polaroid films, especially Type 55. It of course also reminds me how betrayed photographers feel by Polaroid for taking away integral film. There are fine-art photographers whose entire style was based on Polaroid’s films, if I’m annoyed by loosing this film I’m sure they are devastated.
There has never been more interest in photography and never have we seen more people building small companies devoted to photography enthusiasts. Somehow the MBA’s at Polaroid thought it would be better to hire Lady Gaga then to make even small amounts of the film that made them a worldwide brand. All we can hope for is the impossible. Impossible project that is. Maybe in years to come there will be more of this film. But there are very few 8×10 cameras, so it’s kind of hard to imagine. There are however tons of 4×5 cameras, I am told that 4×5 integral film like type 55 will never be made again. Polaroid destroyed the equipment. Fuji still makes a 4×5 instant film, it’s very good but it’s not the fine-art media that Polaroid’s films were.