Marks and Remarks
Food for the Mind and Eye

No. 0146, November 10, 2017


  A New Inspiration

     "November 10, 1977"

Copyright 2017 by S.W. Paul Wyszkowski

     In 1972, one of the most remarkable technical achievements of the 20th century was introduced to the public. It was unique and technically amazing and it was by far the most elegant object of its kind ever produced, probably never to be surpassed.

     SX-70, made by Polaroid, was (and is) the world's only foldable single lens reflex camera (that is, one with the viewfinder using the same lens used to take the picture) and the first one to produce completely finished prints right out of the camera, automatically. The prints self-developed in a few minutes. The camera folded gracefully into a simple flat oblong package meant to be slipped into a pocket (although it would have to be a large pocket). A single pull upwards unfolded the camera in ready-to-shoot configuration.

     The camera's super elegant simplicity was deceptive. Mechanically and optically it was probably the most complex camera ever built. The near miraculous, self-contained, self-developing "instant" film with its highly sophisticated chemistry required high mechanical precision. It took over a decade to develop the SX-70 system and it was a marvel of ingenuity and technical virtuosity.

     But in 1981 SX-70 was discontinued. Polaroid Corporation offered me (and other SX-70 owners) in exchange for my SX-70 a brand new Spectra camera. (Foolishly, I took them up on the offer because continued availability of SX-70 film was in doubt.) So what was the problem?

     Even though SX-70 was not a pro camera it was not an average Joe's camera either. People discovered that, simple as it looked, to get good results it needed to be handled with a degree of attentive precision that most folk couldn't be bothered with or had no talent for. It was not the carefree fun camera that people were led to believe it was. It was more of an Art camera (Andy Warhol loved it) and an Art object in its own right. It tended to be unforgiving of careless handling.

     Arrival of digital cameras and smart phones took the wind out of chemical based "instant" photography. Polaroid folded several years after the demise of SX-70. Yet "instant" cameras and film continued to be made, primarily by Fuji Film in Japan. Even Leica makes a "Sofort" (German for "instant") camera using Fuji's Instax film. Not only "instant" photography did not die, there seems to be a bit of a revival going on. The contemporary "instant" cameras are firmly in the "fun" category. Robust and candy colored, they take small pictures for sharing at parties. Long ways from Polaroid's visionary techno-aesthetic tour de force.

     But SX-70 made a powerful impression on the geeky and the aesthetically sensitive. Its dedicated fans were determined not to let it die and be forgotten. Currently there are at least three companies in the USA specializing in refurbishing existing SX-70 cameras to virtually like new status. A group of fans acquired Polaroid's old film factory and, under the name "The Impossible Project", began to reinvent instant film from scratch since many of the chemicals used in the original were no longer available. Their early versions of the "Impossible" film were plain horrible. They persisted. The most recent batches, now re-branded "Polaroid Originals", are vastly improved though not yet to the quality level of the original film nor, for that matter, of the Fuji Instax film which, unfortunately, is not (yet?) available in SX-70 format.

     For nearly four decades I've been missing my SX-70 and cursing myself for having given it up. Now that film is again available and its quality is improving, I am seriously considering buying a refurbished SX-70 and having another fling with it. "And what exactly are you going to do with it?" asks Prickles, our resident vintage and rare Art media curator and an aesthetically sensitive hedgehog. I don't know - something radically new. Redefine photography as an Art form. Invent totally new image aesthetics. Discover new photographic techniques. Possibilities abound. "I'm sure," says Prickles, "good luck with your new Muse". I can never tell if she's being sincere or sarcastic.