Saturday, February 9, 2008

Developing obituary

Polaroid has announced that it is closing the manufacturing lines that produce its instant film. The company had stopped manufacturing instant cameras some time ago and now will stop producing the film that goes into them. The decision will cost about 150 jobs.

Polaroid was a genuine innovator in the photography field. For those too young to recall the days before digital photography, cameras required film, and most exposed film had to be taken to a developer. Polaroid's "instant" film was self-developing. The earliest films required that you wait a few minutes after taking a picture and then peel a foil cover sheet off of the exposed film. The film didn't work well if the air temperature was too hot or too cold (or if you were too impatient). The whole thing was an ecological nightmare with the extra foil cover that needed to be discarded, a smell like a small refinery, and a sticky surface on the picture itself. Moreover, the film was very expensive and pretty much one off (copies, we don't need no stinkin' copies). BUT you got a picture in a few minutes, and if necessary you could retake the picture before your cousins left, the vacation ended, the casket closed, etc. The alternative for standard film cameras waa to wait until the entire roll of film to be exposed, wait some more for it to come back from the developer, and then discover that your finger had been partially covering the lens.

Polaroid later created a different instant film with one sheet that developed before your eyes. The effect was vaguely creepy as images would begin to emerge, ghost-like, out the milky film.

One of my great thrills growing up was discovering my parents' discarded land camera in the early 1970s and finding out that it still worked (this find and the discovery of their stash of Beatles albums were shocking evidence of their happy pre-Dave existence). I used the camera for a few months until a combination of allowance, odd-job money, and flat-out begging yielded sufficient funds for a 35mm single reflex camera. I'm not sure what happened to the land camera after that.

Instant films made an important appearnce in grad school. The Ph.D. program at Brown took instant pictures of all of the incoming students. Pictures were then placed on a bulletin board, and the pictures from previous cohorts of students were moved farther along the board. The first tip-off to what we were about to endure was how much smaller the second-year cohort was (and always was) from the first. The other thing that we eventually noticed was that they stopped labeling the cohorts after they got past the fifth year. The pictures for this finite yet still sizeable set were just arranged under a label "Nth year."

Instant films reappeared at my first academic job. Economists hold an annual convention and conduct nearly all of their screening interviews at this convention (if it's January and you see about 10,000 people with enormous foreheads and a strict aversion to tipping, you know that we've come to your town). Penn State was regularly on the market for several positions and conducted dozens and dozens of interview each year. To keep track of the hordes who had ventured through the interview suite, someone on the recruiting team initiate the interview with a Polaroid picture of the candidate. This was an unsettling start to the interview. Besides the obvious "ew" factor, the flash temporarily blinded you and left you describing your dissertation to a group of disembodied blue dots. The "ew" factor was compounded later when I discovered that one faculty member's pictures consistently had women's heads higher in the frame than men's.

Digital cameras, which are now standard in cell phones, have all of these "conveniences" and much better picture quality. Their pictures can be printed, sent as e-mail or phone messages, shown as slide shows or posted on-line. Hopefully, they'll continue to produce as many memories.