“It’s for an office party,” quips Raj Thomas as he hands over his debit card in a Dubai store, in return for a “Polaroid” camera that’s made by Fujifilm. “I think we’ll have some fun with it for a few weeks before the novelty wears off.”
The force of nostalgia is strong with instant cameras (which, no matter the brand, will always be referred to as Polaroids, just like every vacuum cleaner used to be known as a Hoover). Old school doesn’t get much cooler than this.
The unexpected resurgence in the popularity of vinyl records shows there’s demand for the technology of the past and that, as useful as digital is when it comes to playing music and taking photographs, there’s an undeniable hankering for the way (some) things used to be. Practically every mobile phone in the world can be used as a camera now, but for dramatic effect, absolutely nothing beats gathering around a photograph as it develops in front of your eyes.
With the advent of digital cameras, the demise of Polaroid was not a surprise, and the company, which had been a global household name, ceased to be a decade ago. Last May, however, the Polaroid brand and its intellectual property were acquired by a company called Impossible Project, which had been manufacturing and selling instant film for owners of the old SX-70 cameras. It’s now known as Polaroid Originals and business is booming.
For fans of the real thing, this can be an expensive hobby, with Polaroid Originals offering a selection of vintage models that cost many thousands of dirhams. But if you’re not fussed by the style of the equipment, there are cameras available for less than Dh500, depending on the model and brand.
It might seem like throwaway tech for some of us, but there are professional photographers out there who adore the image results from Polaroid cameras and include them in their portfolios. One such artist is Julian Castaldi, a Dubai-based Welshman who has travelled the world with some of rock music’s biggest names as an official photographer.
“For me, Polaroid was my first introduction to photography,” he recalls, “as my parents had one at home that came out for birthdays and special occasions – at £1 [Dh5] a shot it was not cheap, but it’s what got me hooked on photography.”
When Castaldi began touring with bands, he says he shot stills and film using more traditional methods but always carried a Polaroid camera with him. “The shots I got with it remain some of my favourites – the colour 600 film had such a great look and it really did capture the moment like nothing else. I would experiment using torches and putting tape over the flash to get different effects.”
Oasis, Paul Weller, Pearl Jam, Public Enemy, Eddie Vedder, The Rolling Stones, Lemmy, Tom Jones and Stereophonics – Castaldi has shot them all and many more. “The colours and the vibe were only available from a Polaroid, long before Instagram filters came along,” he says. “And the prints allowed me to experiment when it came to producing artworks – I would paint over them, cut them up and make giant paper and canvas versions. I would see something new to photograph and I would know exactly where that shot would work with others I had taken; I like to group them together in similar colours and genres. I took some shots of [actor] John Malkovich once, which I then turned into a two-metre-high collage artwork for him.”
He adds that while he’s seen plenty of these new instant cameras being used at events and parties, he’s so far remained unmoved by the results. “I’ve shot thousands of real Polaroids, so the new format would look out of place. I did try the 600 reissue film manufactured by Impossible Project, but it didn’t quite have the same results. But, having said that, the new cameras are keeping instant photography alive, which is a great thing in this digital age. You have to think a little more when shooting instant, as it’s expensive and not ‘deletable’ like digital.”
Some of history’s most revered artists have been inextricably linked with Polaroid photography. Andy Warhol used his Big Shot camera to create iconic portraits of luminaries such as singer-songwriter Debbie Harry and artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, as well as of himself, in the process turning snapshots into desirable and highly collectible culture. Popular American landscape photographer Ansel Adams immortalised the Yosemite with his Polaroids and, being a friend of Edwin Land (the co-founder of Polaroid) he was heavily involved in the development of the company’s technology, signing up as a fully-fledged consultant in 1949.
Barbara Hitchcock worked in Polaroid’s marketing division during the 1970s and 1980s, and she says the appeal of the format to artists was obvious. “For many people, the Polaroid was like an empty canvas,” she explains. “They could add or subtract, do something very personal that was going to be the stamp of who they were.”
An excellent example of Polaroid’s cultural stamp can be found on the cover artwork for Talking Heads’ second album, More Songs About Buildings and Food. The idea was conceived by band frontman David Byrne, and executed by an artist called Jimmy De Sana, who created a photomosaic using 529 close-up Polaroid shots of the group members. It’s a simple idea and perfectly captures the magic of instant photography – something treasured by creative artists like Castaldi, whose love for the format is unlikely to ever die away.
As for the tradition of waving a Polaroid after it’s ejected from the camera, Castaldi has bad news for us. “It’s a myth,” he laughs. “It does nothing to speed up the developing process and can actually damage the image. Having said that, I always did it. It just came with the territory.”
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