Remember that girlfriend or boyfriend from your youth? That really special person that you still find yourself dreaming about long after you’ve gone your separate ways? That’s how I feel about Polaroid Chocolate 100 film. The two of us had an intense and all-too-short fling that left me with nothing but memories and a few precious mementos of our time together. This is the story of my brief, but spectacular romance with this now long-lost film.
In 2014, I had a near fatal car accident and injured my spine in three places. To take my mind off of the pain of recovery, I dreamed of what I would do when I was able again. One of the happiest periods of my life was when I lived in Paris in the 1980s. At that time I’d bought a Minolta X-700 from a tiny camera store on the Boulevard Beaumarchais that specialized in vintage cameras, and spent hours wandering the city capturing its beauty. I decided that as soon as I was able, I’d relive those halcyon days. But this time I’d have a project, a theme to my photography.
I started researching my favourite photographers. Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau, Willy Ronis, Jacques Henri Lartigue, and many others; but the photos that really touched me were those of Eugene Atget. I decided that I’d spend my time documenting the spots that Atget loved in a way that might replicate the look of his photos (which was distinctive due to the processes and tools he used, as well as the passage of time).
Atget was obsessed with the history of Paris, and capturing the things that were disappearing, he led a solitary, poignant life, a lifestyle that comes through visually in his photography. He shot with a view camera using glass plates, a process that was old-fashioned even then, and used the plates to print Albumin prints. Over the years the prints have aged to a beautiful chocolate colour. This last point created a challenge – how to replicate the look of these aged photos?
At the time, I was shooting a lot of Polaroid peel-apart film, specifically the glorious 669 film famous for its pastel colours. While I was shopping for film in preparation for my trip, I saw an advert for two boxes of Polaroid Chocolate 100 film. The seller had accompanied that ad with some images shot with the film, and I was dumbstruck because they looked identical to the aged look of Atget’s prints. I bought the two boxes immediately, and then tried to find as many more boxes as I could. This wasn’t easy because, as I was to discover, Chocolate was one the last films ever made by Polaroid, and probably the rarest and most sought-after as well.
Paris Chocolate film utilise – Paris shot with Polaroid Chocolate Film
After much hunting I’d managed to find ten boxes of the super-rare film. I traded some of my precious Polaroid 669 (at an exchange rate of three boxes of 669 to one box of Chocolate) and managed to buy the others at pretty steep prices. But I had my film, and my sites mapped out, and in Spring of 2015 I finally received a clean bill of health, my car accident compensation insurance check, and flew to Paris.
On the way I stopped off for a private tour of what was then the Impossible Project factory in Enschede, the Netherlands, where all my cameras were serviced by the wonderful Jos Ridderhoff. Then before departing I met up with a Walter Sans, a professional photographer who shoots portraits using Polaroid Chocolate 100 film. Walter has been kind enough to provide some of his images to accompany this article, and you can see more of his work here – Walter Sans’ analog photography.
As you can see from my images above, I managed to shoot several images in Paris with Polaroid Chocolate 100, and the images bear a remarkable resemblance to Atget’s prints. But not all was well. As many people had warned me, the film was prone to drying out, after which the film sticks in the rollers and the tabs break. For each box of film, I only managed to make one or two images. The images were so beautiful, just as I imagined, but sadly I was unable to fully document my project. But I am happy with the few that I managed to get, and my favourite is the view of the Cathedral Notre Dame, which has just been damaged by a massive fire.
The Birth of Polaroid Chocolate 100
Production: Small run of 29,980 packs that expired October 2009
Film Speed: ISO 80/DIN 20
Format: 3¼ x 4¼” (8.5 x 10.8 cm) pack film
Type: Peel-apart Pack Film, medium-speed and medium-contrast coaterless, Chocolate print film
Image Area: 2.88 x 3.75 in. (7.3 x 9.5 cm)
Exposures: 10 exposures per pack
Development Time and Temperature: 30 seconds at 75°F (21°C)
Despite being such a unique and beautiful film there was very little written about Polaroid Chocolate 100, so I decided to research its history and speak to those directly responsible for its development. I was fortunate enough in the process to be able to deal first-hand with the people responsible for this miraculous film.
Polaroid Chocolate 100 was one of the rarest films Polaroid ever made, and because of its unique production process it produces images starkly different to every other Polaroid film. The black and white/colour cross-process method produces chocolate/brown images with a warm texture in which highlights are suppressed, and deep shadows are given an almost solarizing effect unlike any other photographic process. The photographs produced with Chocolate film have a painterly and timeless quality exactly reminiscent of the nineteenth century toned albumen prints that Atget made.
In late 2008 (just prior to Polaroid ceasing film production), Dr. Paul Telford from Polaroid management, asked the Polaroid production factory in Queretaro (Mexico) to combine left over materials into three limited run pack films – Chocolate, Sepia, and Blue film. Packaging design was created by Polaroid’s in-house graphic artists. All three films were some of the last ever produced before the factory was closed forever in 2009. Chocolate 100 had a very limited production run of 29,800 packs with an expiry date of October 2009, so if you manage to find any today it will be ten years past its expiry date.
I asked Dr. Telford how Polaroid’s Chocolate 100 film came to be developed. Here is his reply.
“The special runs of 100 series peel apart films came about as part of what was called “end of life” planning for the instant film business. Because Polaroid was highly “vertically integrated” virtually all film components and chemicals were manufactured in house. It was inevitable that as the end of production was reached there would be a mis-match of components and chemicals required to produce the traditional products. Film production, planning, engineering and marketing representatives therefore looked at what could be done to both optimize materials usage and provide some viable and interesting products for Polaroid enthusiasts.
Film production at this stage was already running at extremely high quality levels, due to the expertise and commitment of the relatively small numbers of people remaining in the business. Their skills enabled the development, fine tuning and manufacture of the films. Final selection of what was most viable was a judgement call based on image quality, stability and anticipated desirability.
Our relationship with Unsalable (later to become Impossible) was the natural choice for the distribution of these films since there was an existing connection with the key target market. We had previously developed and manufactured other films which were exclusively marketed in this way. They were never available through any other source.”
Dr. Florian Kaps who was running Unsaleable – later to be PolaPremium, and the precursor to Impossible Project – purchased all of the film along with the limited production Sepia and Blue films. On Thursday, December 4, 2008, PolaPremium unveiled all three films for sale on its website. Kaps had commissioned famed Polaroid graphic designer Paul Giambarba to create new packaging for the three films, these were covers that slipped over the Polaroid packaging designed by Polaroid. All three films cost $16 USD per pack of ten exposures and were available from the PolaPremium film shop. Later remaining stock was sold by the Impossible Project.
[Images in the galleries below are courtesy of Walter Sans]
The Polaroid Chocolate Process
“Cross process or chocolate film began life as an accidental combination of Polacolor ER negative and Polapan 100 positive and reagent. This unintended combination produces a result where the silver from the colour negative transfers to the BW positive and the colour dyes in the negative “stain” the BW positive. This results in a chocolate brown image colonization (cooler in tone than sepia) and unusual suppressed highlights not unlike 19th Century albumen prints. The deep shadows can solarize at times, producing an effect like no other photographic process. The results are stunning and Polaroid recommends that final prints be scanned to insure unlimited archival stability.” – Polaroid 20×24 Film Brochure
Polaroid Chocolate 100 was made to replicate the Chocolate process which was already in use in 8×10 and 20×24 Polaroid film whereby a color negative was paired with a black-and-white developer pod, but in 3×4” peel apart film making the unique process more accessible. Polaroid “Chocolate” was originally developed as cross-processing method using the color negative from 809 film, and the positive from 804 black-and-white film. The result is about ISO 50 and produced images with a unique solarized, split-tone, sepia-like luminescence. The process was discovered by experimentation with Polaroid 8×10 film. Images were shot on colour positives (809 or 879), and then processed using black-and-white negative development pods (803 or 804).
Normally when you shoot Polaroid 809 film, you put the negative half in a Polaroid filmholder, expose as you would normal film, and then slide the positive receiving sheet into the holder (for the earlier type of holder, which serves both as a filmholder and loading tray for the processor). The positive side contains the developing chemicals in pods just like smaller format Polaroid. When you run it through the processor, it breaks the pods and spreads the chemicals, just like when you pull a sheet of Polaroid out of a 4×5″ holder. So what you’re doing with Polaroid chocolate is using a color negative and processing it in black-and-white chemistry. The color dyes developed in black-and-white chemistry migrate from the negative side to the positive side and form the brown image on the positive receiving sheet.
The same process used in the reverse order creates the wonderful cross-processed look favoured by photographers Paolo Roversi and Cathleen Naundorf in Paris. With Chocolate 100 film the same process was used except in the 3×4” peel apart film format, which was described in detail by the Polaroid engineer who worked on the project, Stephen Herchen, PhD.
“By exposing the color negative and then processing the exposed negative with a black-and-white developer pod and black-and-white positive receiver sheet. The result would be that you would get silver developed in the negative and undeveloped silver dissolved and transported to the positive sheet where it would be developed on the nuclei there to form a black-and-white positive image. This is basically the normal instant black-and-white process but with the color negative the resulting image is not a neutral black but more brown.
What makes this different from the standard black-and-white film is that the color negative has the three image dyes (yellow, magenta and cyan) which are normally not there in the standard black-and-white negative. So, with the color negative the image dyes can migrate to the positive and “contaminate” the black-and-white image there. Also, control of the dye diffusion would not be as good as that in the full color system where the developer and positive receiver sheet have been optimized to work with the color negative.
The result of all of these factors – the brownish black-and-white image process and the contamination of the black-and-white image with the color image dyes – gives the image the chocolate look.” – Stephen Herchen, PhD
The chocolate process became quite famous after being used in a series of photos for the December 2002 issue of Sports Illustrated with the cover shot being a portrait in Chocolate film. The story featured a portfolio of NFL player portraits by legendary Sports Illustrated photographer Walter Iooss Jr. and Tracy Storer using an 8×10 camera and the chocolate process described above. Tracy Storer and John Reuter, the Director of Polaroid’s 20×24 Studio, also used the chocolate process to produce 20×24 Polaroid images.
Marc Langrange: The Master of Polaroid Chocolate
Just as my love affair with Polaroid Chocolate film was brief and poignant, there is another very poignant story linked to Chocolate film. Without a doubt the photographer who truly mastered the beauty of Chocolate film was Marc Lagrange, who had given up his engineering career late in life to follow his passion for photography. If you ever have the chance to see an exhibition of his work do not miss it, or you can view his works online at Atelier Marc Lagrange, or buy the beautiful book of his Chocolate Polaroids appropriately called Chocolate.
Sadly, just as Polaroid 100 disappeared too soon, Lagrange’s life was cut short in a tragic accident in 2015, when the golf cart he was driving outside his hotel in Tenerife fell four meters, killing him. It was a great loss to the photography community, and he was only on the cusp of commercial recognition. The publication of his book Diamonds and Pearls in 2013 was his breakthrough with the general public.
Over the years, Lagrange developed his own signature style of female portraiture, and Polaroid Chocolate film was an essential ingredient of his beautiful images. Like many photographers in the late 1990s Lagrange would have used Polaroid film for what was called “proofing”- making an image on Polaroid film to check the light before shooting with expensive medium format film. But Lagrange immediately recognized the beauty and immediacy of Polaroid peel apart films, and started using it as his main medium. It quickly become a hallmark of his works.
The Polaroid Chocolate cross-process method produces images unlike any other Polaroid film, adding a creaminess to the highlights, and the darker areas produce a rich chocolate brown tone with a very slight texture that gives the images a dream-like quality which Lagrange used superbly to advantage. His glorious portraits have their own signature style helped along by the film, which immediately set them apart from the standard hard-edged fashion portraiture. The models in his portraits seem to be ethereal and other-worldly, as if photographed from a memory or a dream.
“Therein lies my ambition: to place the durability and significant immobility of the photograph opposite the speed of our daily world. My settings are places for dreams, for the imaginary to prevail.” – Marc Lagrange.
This article relies on a former article published in Pryme Magazine in 2015. The author wishes to thank Walter Sans; Dr. Florian “Doc” Kaps, Supersense; John Reuter, 20×24 Studio; Paul Giambarba, Polaroid graphic designer; Dave Bias, formerly Impossible Project; Amy Heaton, formerly Impossible Camera GmbH; Paul Telford, formerly Polaroid; and Stephen Herchen, PhD, formerly Polaroid.
If you’d like to try shooting the long-expired Chocolate film yourself, you can find packs on eBay even today. If you’re so adventurous, please feel free to link to your Chocolate photos here in the comments. We’d love see them.
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