The post-Polaroid age: some still cling to instant film

As Polaroid discontinues its line of instant films, some photo pros stay analog in a digital world.

mary knox merrill – staff
Analog art: Elsa Dorfman takes portraits with a film set to be phased out by 2009.
stephan savoia/ap
Still stocked: At E.P. Levine's in Boston, popular lines of Polaroid instant film remain in stock.

Photographer Isabel Asha Penzlien shoots the latest and greatest in the New York fashion scene, but she still loads film into the back of her medium-format Hasselblad. For many clients, she likes to present actual photographs – on paper, and on the spot – so she loads her camera with Polaroid film.

"The thing with digital is it totally acts differently," she says. "I guess I'm old school."

Instant analog film is dated technology, but for some, it has practical applications and an artistic dimension not easily replicated by digital. Waltham, Mass.-based Polaroid Corp. recently announced that it would discontinue its once-popular lines of instant films. But at least one group of artists clings to instant.

Ms. Penzlien will probably switch to Fujifilm products. The company makes compatible instant film and has also moved into digital. Other photographers such as Elsa Dorfman of Cambridge, Mass., are less likely to get replacement film. For the past 28 years, Ms. Dorfman has been shooting large portraits with a camera the size of a refrigerator. It's one of only six such cameras – and she rents it from Polaroid. Once her film supply is depleted, sometime next year, that's it.

"Now, we're living in a digital world," says Dorfman, who characterizes the old Polaroid as "egalitarian" and its fans as enduring romantics. "It's sort of like the people who collect vinyl [records]," she says. "There's always people that are going to say vinyl sounds better."

For many young photographers, the use of film lends a certain artistic credibility. Patrick Winfield, of Yonkers, N.Y., produced colorful mosaics of outdoor scenes – made with dozens of Polaroid prints – to land his first show.

"There's a bunch of us that just shoot a majority of our work with Polaroid," says Mikael Kennedy, a photographer in Brooklyn, N.Y. "We basically have a year when we can still get film. Then, those cameras are basically going to be useless."

It's not the first time that Polaroid's product phase-outs have forced photographers to adapt. Mike Brodie, known as the "Polaroid Kidd," shot gritty freight-hopping vagabonds with the SX-70, a single-lens reflex camera, but he switched to traditional 35 mm when the SX-70 film was discontinued in 2005.

Other instant-film artists have been using expired film or a blend that was temporarily manufactured in Europe. Polaroid says supplies of most of its films are expected to last into 2009.

While some consumers lament the end to the firm's iconic 600-series film cartridges, which developed glossy, colorful square images inside a white rectangular frame, the company says instant is here to stay – it has simply shifted to the adapting consumer market, a digital one. But it has not abandoned its speed-to-paper heritage. Later this year, Polaroid plans to introduce small, inkless printers using Zink Imaging technology. The portable printers heat dye crystals on paper, which will develop full-color images transmitted from cellphones and digital cameras.

As costs for the remaining analog film rise, a generation of artists may rethink their technique. That is, unless campaigns to save the processing prevail.

Sean Tubridy, a graphic designer in Minneapolis, has started Nearly 4,000 people have downloaded press kits urging film companies Ilford Photo and Fujifilm to buy the manufacturing rights to Polaroid's instant-film business.

Ilford, a British firm, has entered into discussions with Polaroid about the possibility of taking on the production of its instant black-and-white films, says a spokesperson.

FujiFilm says consumers have petitioned to the company to expand its own existing instant-film lines.

"There was some speculation and talk about this," says Diane Rainey, Fujifilm's corporate communications director. "They say, 'Gee, they do instant film. Maybe they'll pick up what Polaroid was doing.' [But] we have no plans to pick up where they left off."

"A lot of my friends that shoot this stuff are heartbroken," says Mr. Kennedy, the Brooklyn photographer. "People will find different ways to make art."

For Dorfman, her art won't transition to digital cameras and inkjets. "I don't see me doing what I do in digital," she says. "I'd be like learning ballet all of a sudden. Or ice skating. Or piano."

Instant film, however, is unlikely to regain enough mass appeal to make its production viable.

"In the end it's going to come down to a business decision," Mr. Winfield says. "The company's not going to save it [just] for these people that are nostalgic for the film."

But that hasn't stopped the hopeful speculation among diehard fans about forming a distributor that would market instant films manufactured by another filmmaking company.

"We're cautiously approaching doing it ourselves," Mr. Tubridy says. "We have no idea what's really involved. Starting a business for a niche product is not something you do on a whim."

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