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“We think of photography as the intersection of science and art.”

— Edwin Land

The Polaroid SX-70 camera (1972). Collection of the MIT Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

I bought a disposable film camera at the end of last year.

After reading photographer Petra Collins’ biographical photobook, Coming of Age, I was enthralled by the imperfect and artistic qualities of film photography — the light leaks, the faded images, all these things which are ‘less than’ the perfection that digital cameras are able to offer us. I suppose there is an almost human quality in film photography, one that screams about beauty being achieved through imperfection.

I have not seen a single image taken with my disposable camera yet, because, like any other film camera, one has to finish shooting the entire roll of film before developing it. Owning a film camera, even a disposable one, changes the way you take photos drastically.

Sure, you have 27 shots, but you only have 27 shots.

Deleting a photo or putting your camera on ‘burst’ to have the option of selecting a decent image is simply not an option. Back then, and now (should you choose the old-fashioned methods), film photography takes patience. Despite all the technological advances and editorial and creative freedom that digital photography offers us, we still find ourselves owning instant film cameras. Perhaps human nature is simply such that we seem to enjoy looking back to poignant points in history, in order to hold on to them.

In this age of hyper-efficiency, the photographs we capture (usually digitally) can be accessed and even edited on our mobile devices in an instant. It is therefore understandably difficult to imagine just how revolutionary the Polaroid Land camera was.

The National Museum of Singapore brings us back to a time when film cameras were the only option available to us. In In An Instant: Polaroid, At the Intersection of Art and Technologywe are reminded that the Polaroid Land was the first camera of its time to produce photographs that could develop images on the spot. The idea for the instant camera was born when inventor Edwin Land’s daughter, Jennifer, asked why she could not instantly see the photographs that her father had captured.

“Well,” Land must have thought, “why in the world not?”

The first section of the exhibition introduces visitors to the story of Edwin Land, inventor of the first instant camera

 

Close to 200 Polaroid artworks, on loan from international institutions and collections, are on display in the exhibition.

Land founded the Polaroid Corporation in 1937, commercially releasing the world’s first instant camera in 1948. However, in the mid-1970s, competitor Kodak (itself a large customer of Polaroid) created its own version of the instant camera. This precipitated a massive lawsuit by Polaroid for patent infringement, which resulted in over 14 years of litigation and in Kodak having to pay out over US$900 million in fines.

In any event, with the advent of digital camera technology, Polaroid slowly lost its market share, filing for bankruptcy in 2001.

Christopher Bonanos, author of Instant: The Story of Polaroid explains:

“There are a lot of different threads that sort of come together. It’s little stumbles that turn into a snowball effect. Land didn’t put a good successor in place or more accurately, he didn’t have a succession plan in place. His successors did something right and some things wrong but what was missing in the time after Land’s leadership was a big idea. They did a pretty good job of coming up with products that enhanced the technology they already had, but they never quite figured out what the next thing was going to be.”


Nonetheless, the legacies of the iconic brand have continued to persist. Disney-themed film, for example, is exceedingly popular with users of Fujifilm Instax cameras, a brand that has carried on the legacy of Polaroid.

Why, one wonders, do instant film cameras even continue to exist — why haven’t they gone the way of floppy disks? Why has Instagram adopted the Polaroid as its brand logo?

Perhaps the answer lies in art.

While digital cameras are more convenient for everyday use, the Polaroid camera continues to be used by artists and photographers as an art medium in itself.  Edwin Land recognised the importance of art and in the late 1960s, sent Polaroid paraphernalia to artists through a corporate sponsorship programme. The artists used Polaroid cameras, film and studio space in the production of their artworks, and in exchange gave the company some prints to be included in its corporate collection.

Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons’ Abridor de Caminos (the One Who Opens The Path) (1997). These works are part of the Polaroid Collection.

The Polaroid cameras thus opened doors to the creation of iconic works by artists such as Andy Warhol, Ansel Adams, Lucas Samaras, and Barbara Crane.

Oliver Toscani’s 1974 portraits of Andy Warhol

Charlie Duke’s Family Portrait on the Moon (1972) (a photograph which remains on the moon to this day), is also included in this exhibition:

The end of the exhibition features a section on social media. It alludes to the instantaneity of social media platforms such as Instagram, comparing them to the Polaroid, suggesting the premise that social media is, in fact, today’s ‘polaroid.’ Influencers such as Jamie Chua and Preetipls were featured to illustrate this, sharing their thoughts on how social media has shaped the world today:

Preetipls channels some hashtag-girlpower

Jamie Chua talks about technology

Presumably, they were included to attract a younger, digital media – savvy audience, but I’ll be honest, I spent less than five minutes in that room. It simply did not work for me, and the parallel seemed to cheapen an incredibly rich exhibition experience. However, I suppose, upon deeper contemplation, the juxtaposition between the two sections helped to refine my own thoughts.

And here they are:

When I use an instant camera, I am reminded of the transience of each passing moment. In film photography and in life, we often have only one shot at a single moment. If you’re using a film camera, how would you angle your body and your camera, knowing that you have only a specific number of shots left? If you’re in front of that same camera, how would you choose to spend that specific moment, knowing one day that you will probably look back on a faded photograph of a second you will never get to re-live?

We live our lives almost oblivious to temporal transience, yet in retrospect almost always wish that we had done some things differently. These may be justifiable regrets, but some moments will always stay with us, just like the images one might capture on Polaroid film sheets.

These are faded imperfect memories that we find ourselves holding on to despite every regret and heartbreak. Why? Because sometimes, these snapshots of the little moments in our lives might be all we have to remind us of who we used to be.

Each moment captured through film photography is simply that much more precious.

 

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In An Instant: Polaroid, At the Intersection of Art and Technology, runs at the National Museum of Singapore till 31 March. 

(All images save for those of Preetipls and Jamie Chua, courtesy of the National Museum)

 

 



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