Introduction: For a number of years, Jim Hughes, one of the best writers on photography around, wrote a well received and always-eagerly-awaited regular column for the newer iteration of Camera Arts magazine called "The Long View." (Jim was also the founding editor of the original Camera Arts, circa 1980–1983). When the newer Camera Arts ceased publication, Jim's last column got caught suspended in the production pipeline, and never saw the light of print. Here for your reading pleasure, and for the first time, is the long-lost last Jim Hughes Camera Arts column. It's called "Instant Classics."
Jim is also former editor of 35MM Photography, Camera 35, and the Photography Annual, and the author of W. Eugene Smith: Shadow and Substance, Ernst Haas in Black and White, and The Birth of a Century: Early Color Photographs of America. He and his wife Evelyn, after 42 years in the same Brooklyn brownstone, last July moved permanently to the small town in Maine where they have summered for many years. —Mike-
By Jim Hughes
There was something vaguely familiar about the face zeroing in on me from the slick magazine cover in front of me. Rashida Jones was depicted holding a Polaroid SX-70 to her hip and a circled thumb and forefinger to her eye as if to form a viewfinder. "Quincy Jones' Daughter Shoots from the Hip," the blurb announced. Inside were more pictures of Rashida flashing us looking at her. The cameras in her hands, a different one for each image, were all throwbacks: another Polaroid, a Kodak Instamatic, even a wallet-sized Disc camera (hailed as "revolutionary" when it was introduced in 1982). It was then that I recognized not the name, but the face: she is the very image of her mother, iconic actress Peggy Lipton, star of the hip '60s television series "The Mod Squad," a show I watched with some regularity.
The significance of the obsolete cameras finally struck me. All once represented cutting edge breakthroughs. Now they are conversation pieces. Gestures to the past, as it were. In their moment, however, they were wondrous to behold.
I remember my excitement when the SX-70 was introduced in 1972 to such great fanfare (it even made the cover of Time). A folding single lens reflex that could be slung flat under a shoulder or snugged into a purse or a coat pocket, this elegantly designed camera spit out 3.5-inch square, one-of-a-kind, full-color prints that developed themselves as we watched. They had both presence and dimension.
Aimed at providing instant gratification to the mass amateur market, the SX-70 soon was quickly adopted by a parallel universe of so called fine-artists: Andy Warhol, David Hockney, Lucas Samaras, even Walker Evans and André Kertész, took to this newest form of instant photography like ducks to water. I, too, was seduced; for an extended period in the 1970s I put aside my sharper-than-life 35mm Kodachrome in favor of the soft palette of the enormously malleable SX-70 print film. I carried the ingeniously designed camera everywhere, along with a bag full of flashbars, some bamboo shish kebab skewers to manipulate the plastic-encapsulated emulsion when inspiration struck, and a small plug-in warming plate to enhance and extend the film’s remarkable workability.
Dr. Edwin Land was already a legend in the photography business. Instant photography was his brainchild, literally—his daughter was said to have asked why she couldn't see a picture right after he snapped it, so the inventor of Polarized lenses went on to devise the Land camera for instant photography, which was introduced in 1948. Over the subsequent years, a full line of remarkable black-and-white cameras and film ensued—progressing from simple to professional. Some versions also provided, in addition to true contact prints, excellent negatives from which to make traditional enlargements in the darkroom. Each film had its own unique properties. Ansel Adams was a fan, and Dr. Land became a patron, sponsoring, among other projects, an Adams book on what became known as Polaroid Land Photography.
I knew one man, Tom Maloney, publisher of U. S. Camera—he gave me my first job in photographic publishing—who very early on believed in Land when few others did, and invested, I was told, $10,000, a large sum for the time. Years passed. Stocks split. Again and again. By the 1980s, my last personal contact with this man, he had become a millionaire many times over, due in large measure to Polaroid’s performance....
Dr. Land brought more than technical genius to the table. He had the kind of charisma that held in thrall not only the small teams of sharply-focused visionaries he employed on his various projects, but the general public as well. I traveled to Cambridge in the late 1970s and sat among an audience of professional skeptics (as we editors, writers and critics liked to call ourselves) as Land personally introduced a revolutionary system of instant peel-apart color that produced life-sized prints of astonishing depth and clarity. As with most Land projects, this one began as a technical tour de force: a camera the size of a small room which was capable of making one-to-one, virtually exact reproductions of museum paintings—which is precisely what he demonstrated that day. We were mesmerized by not only the mammoth 20x24 camera system, but by the man himself. He made the mundane sound miraculous, high-tech facts and figures fascinating. Inspiring was the word that came to mind. I remember thinking that if this man wants to run for President, I'll vote for him.
Since I prefer small cameras, my only direct experience with the 20x24 was in 1982 when, as editor of the original Camera Arts magazine, I commissioned a story on the photographer Sandi Fellman, and spent a day in her studio watching Polaroid's camera operator (and artist in his own right) John Reuter turn her sophisticated vision into photographic reality. It was hard, grueling work for all concerned. Fellman's model had to hold poses for hours on end, and various parts of her body kept going numb.
It was there that I learned that the original 800-pound mahogany and steel gorilla had been reduced to 200 pounds by the judicious use of "lighter" materials such as titanium and carbon filament. The 600mm Fujinon lens that allowed 1:1 fidelity with a 48-inch bellows draw offered a depth of field of something like eight inches! No wonder the trolley-wheeled camera was limited to studio work by the likes of Chuck Close and William Wegman, who would rent blocks of time with the camera and its expert operators at a few select locations.
Land never intentionally aimed his inventions at artists. He had the general public, the mass market, in mind, although he might tackle a difficult technological challenge simply for the sense of accomplishment its inevitably elegant solution might provide. But in the end, it was the art world that most appreciated his work. Those who were manipulating SX-70s or doing delicate emulsion transfers with 4x5 or 8x10 film or mastering the intricacies of the unique 20x24 proved to be the company's core support after the digital revolution began to take the edge off "traditional" instant photography. But artists do not a viable market make. At best, they are a niche—and a small one, at that.
After Land’s death in 1991, Polaroid seemed to become not only leaderless, but rudderless. Ten years later, having successfully, and expensively, fought off in the courts a strong Kodak challenge, Polaroid declared bankruptcy. To make a long, sad story a little shorter, in February, 2008, new owners of the brand announced that, having already stopped making instant cameras, remaining materials-manufacturing plants would be closed and all film and print materials would cease manufacture by early the following year. They left open the possibility of licensing "recipes" to others, but for all intents and purposes the Polaroid brand we had come to know and love was dead, although the name might continue to appear on some digital cameras and flat-screen TVs. [Update: Fujifilm still makes some instant materials that fit old Polaroid cameras and backs, and has its own new line of "Instax" film and cameras. And one European company—having bought a closed Polaroid factory in Holland, lock, stock and barrel—seems devoted to keeping the analog-instant flame alive; a check of its website reveals that the much appreciated SX-70 Blend packs, called SX-70 TZ, are again available from Hungary, as are limited amounts of some b&w pack and 4x5 positive/negative materials.]
The history of photography is littered with innovations that shone brightly for varying lengths of time only to ultimately dim and disappear, occasionally to be resurrected by diehard aficionados otherwise known as alternative process fanatics. (For a thorough and entertaining guide to said processes, see Christopher James's The Book of Alternative Photographic Processes.)
Daguerreotypes come to mind. As do tintypes and ambrotypes. And wet plate collodions. Cyanotypes. And stereograms. And let’s not forget those shiny metallic Cibachromes. Or the magnificent Dye Transfer process. Not to mention Autochromes—and oh yes, Anscochromes and Agfachromes and, most recently, my Kodachromes, for which only a single processor, Dwayne's Photo in Parsons, Kansas, remains. With new Kodachrome stock no longer being produced by Kodak, Dwayne's says it will shut down its K-14 line by the end of this year. A sad development indeed.
My own stockpile dwindles. Not just of my favored 35mm Kodachrome slide film, but my preferred printing media as well. I like dye-sublimation because, along with Kodachrome, it actually matches the way I see, and the way I've always wanted my prints to look. Both possess a kind of depth and clarity I can only describe as "liquid." A little over a decade ago, when it was new to the market, my printer of choice was the Alps, made in Japan and distributed worldwide. But it didn't last. A mass market never developed. As digital has killed film, inkjet has kicked dye-sub's butt. A few years ago, the Alps printer line was discontinued. Now supplies, which are of course machine-specific, have been discontinued as well. An internet user-group at Yahoo! sprung up just so we Alps-lovers have a way to support each other and make do. Rumors of some enterprising company or other making new ribbons, new paper, new printers, spring up with some regularity. But so far, to no avail. In the meantime, we scrounge and save and pray our now-antique machines keep pumping out wonderful prints.
Pigeon Roosting in the Shadow of a Tree, Brooklyn House of Detention, Atlantic Avenue, 2008, Brooklyn, New York. Another sort of jailbird, perhaps? Film: 120 Fuji Velvia 50, rated at 100. Camera: Zeiss Super Ikonta B 6x6 folder (circa 1950). Photograph © 2008 by Jim Hughes.
Clearly, traditional ways, and some non-traditional ones as well, are fast disappearing. Film shooting has become, I fear, the latest alternative process. But hope springs eternal. A couple years ago, I learned that Fuji has revived Velvia 50 transparency film. And unlike Kodachrome, it is available in 120 as well as 35mm, and of course can be processed by labs that do E-6 (which number itself is shrinking mightily, but Dwayne’s remains eminently reliable, if you don't mind putting your faith in the U.S. Postal Service). Although I stopped shooting the 120 format years ago when Kodak discontinued 120 Kodachrome, I dug up my old but still mint Zeiss Super Ikonta B with its Zeiss ƒ/2.8 Tessar-Opton, freed up its sluggish shutter with a few drops of rubber cement thinner, and proceeded to try a roll, reinventing myself in the process. There has always been something comforting, I must admit, about waiting for film to arrive back from the lab to remind you of where you've been, what you've seen and, more importantly, what you've felt. An image from that roll is reproduced above. Others have followed.
The more things change, it seems, the more they stay the same.
Featured Comment by mitch cohen: "I saw a video of the 20x24 Polaroid in action recently and thought you might like to share it with the rest of your readers. The link to the website is http://20x24studio.com/. About three-fourths of the way down the page is a fairly long video that describes every aspect of the camera and how it is used, followed by a 'shoot' (actually a shot) using the camera."