Nostalgia is a powerful emotion. The faintest whiff of it sends us down an incredible slide laced with the lush aromas of yesteryear, always sharp and contrasty thanks to the 20/20 f/1.2 hindsight lens through which it’s viewed. If a fictional guy named Teddy who was referenced in a TV show during a meticulously crafted sales pitch is to be believed, nostalgia comes from Greek and translates to the pain from an old wound. A more official (and my favorite) definition of nostalgia is, “the state of being homesick.”
Unlike afflictions like the flu, which carry a uniform set of symptoms, nostalgia affects each person uniquely, attacking us through the experience of our lives. Some of us are immune to it, while others are disproportionately ruled by it. I have to admit to being among the latter. While recently browsing different types of face cream, my final selection was based solely on one particular cream being called “Virginia.” This particular product had nothing to do with the Old Dominion, nor the memories of it which I constantly carry with me while living, as I do now, in Europe. But despite only having the same name as my former home, that alone was enough for me to stop, look at, and buy it. The memories of summer nights in Richmond somehow played into my selection of face cream. You don’t have to say it – I know I’m a sucker.
That’s all a long and winding way to say that nostalgia is powerful and I bow before its alter. Or rather, I am often sacrificed upon it. It would take an army of heavily armed psychiatrists to diagnose the source of my malady, but for our purposes, just understand that I’m a sucker for nostalgia’s honey.
I’m wondering just how much of a sucker it makes me as I arrive at one of the many package shops in my Berlin neighborhood. I’m there to pick up a shipment from Polaroid. And not one that I ever expected to be opening. Inside is not a new i-Type camera, or packs of film for the cameras I already own. Instead, it’s the Polaroid Lab — the company’s printer that creates Polaroids directly from a cell phone app.
If you’re rolling your eyes at the idea of a cell phone Polaroid printer, I completely get it. That’s why I went scurrying from the package shop under the cover of darkness, hoping to get home before anyone saw what I was enabling. I felt guilty of something deviant and only the power of my two legs could outrun the shame of the box in my arms.
If the shame isn’t self-evident, let me explain it in a little better detail. No matter what any of us film photographers might say in public, part of the reason that we make photos on film is because of its purity. I’m no exception. While I’ve become much less photographically dogmatic in recent years, I will always believe that light exposed on chemical celluloid is more “real” than a digital sensor which approximates the color it’s exposed to. Based on that perspective, an object that takes a phone photo and turns it into an instant film image could only be described as an abomination against nature (or at least against the “purity of film”).
But as I hovered on the product page deciding whether or not to buy the Lab, I remembered what Don Draper said about nostalgia when he sold Kodak on the Carousel — those beautiful words about going around and around and back home again — and I slammed that buy button.
What is the Polaroid Lab
The Polaroid Lab is a device designed to take a photo from your cell phone and recreate the image on Poalroid’s i-Type instant film. Initially I had the concept of a scanner in my mind, even though Polaroid never refers to it as such. But I was surprised to find that it’s actually more of a camera than a scanner, as it uses a 3-element 35mm lens to actually photograph your phone’s screen and expose what it captures onto the film.
I know, we have a reputation for doing deep dives on the things we write about. But it’s just not going to happen with this one. It would be boring for you and disingenuous for me to pretend that I even care about the technical specs of the Polaroid Lab. I didn’t buy it because of how the Lab works, but because of the ideas it put in my mind. (Though I will say that I love its design — something both vintage and futuristic, like the Enterprise on Star Trek: The Next Generation.)
Using the Polaroid Lab
The Polaroid Lab costs $129 in the USA. I paid about 180 euros for the Lab and three packs of film, because I was genuinely interested in what it represents to a photographer like me. More than anything else, I wanted to see what it would be like to reproduce some of my favorite images in a Polaroid form, and whether they would pack the same emotional punch in a format designed to make people pine and swoon.
Even before the Lab arrived, I began picking out photos that I wanted to print. Some I selected because they already had a faded and worn look because they were either taken with expired film or with cameras tending toward light leaks. Others were personal favorites, or photos of close friends. Two thirds were color, which I was apprehensive over, and the other third black-and-white, which made me excited.
I am a huge promoter of Polaroid’s black-and-white film stock. I love how it looks, its contrast, embracing of messiness, and general awesomeness. I think it’s perfectly suited to Polaroid’s cameras and philosophy. I’ve been much less enthused by the new Polaroid color film, which I find maddeningly inconsistent, and its color shifts are much too magenta for my taste.
The beauty to anything made by Polaroid is its simplicity of use, and the Polaroid Lab checks that box. Using it is as simple as possible. Just insert a pack of Polaroid i-Type film (either black-and-white or color), use the dedicated Polaroid Lab app to select and crop your image into the Polaroid signature square, place the phone face down on the top platform, wait until you hear a dinging sound, and then push the big, red button. A photo spits out, which you should then keep in darkness until it’s fully developed (which takes between 15 and 30 minutes).
You have the option to print a single image, or to make collages from two to nine images. (With the nine image option being the most efficient for blowing through an i-Type film cartridge.)
Results and Image Quality
So what about the results? How do these images stack up, especially when compared to those made with an actual Polaroid camera?
First, regarding the film: If you’re expecting a dramatic difference between images made with the Lab and images made with cameras, you will be disappointed. It’s the same film, taken with (generally) the same lens. It’s just pointed at a screen instead of the world. For me, that’s a disappointment. Don’t get me wrong, I love Polaroid. It’s a company built on the democratization of photography and the dignity of the personal snapshot. But the color film they’ve produced since reemerging from bankruptcy has never impressed me. The color shifts are always dramatic and unpredictable. The magentas are the worst offenders and they’re just as magenta-y with the Lab. In fact, I found that making prints with images that were already warm produced Polaroids that looked like they sat in the back window of a car through a Florida summer.
The black-and-white film is another story altogether. I really (really) love Polaroid’s black-and-white film. It’s incredibly contrasty, punchy and embraces randomness and mistakes with aplomb. While I find that approach less satisfying with the color film, it gives a magic to the black-and-white Polaroids. An image of the railroad tracks in Central Virginia is my favorite, and a great example of what I’m talking about. The original image was taken on a point-and-shoot of no great repute, and developed at home, which is to say, poorly. Filled with mistakes and technical errors, the Polaroid that came out of the Polaroid Lab created a magical effect that made the image look like it was taken just after the Civil War rather than in 2017.
So, the film is par for the course. What about the experience? I’d say it’s about what you would expect from what is essentially a funky printer. The Polaroid Lab will give you a Polaroid look to your images, but it doesn’t give you “the Polaroid experience” of looking through those plastic viewfinders and praying the scene is composed correctly before pushing the button.
There’s a detachment here for me, the experience of making these images happened long before I made them into Polaroids. Granted, 99 percent of those buying the Lab will not be taking my approach or come at the Lab from my perspective. For those that just want to make Polaroid versions of the selfies on their phone, the experience will still carry the Polaroid magic.
For me, looking at images made with the Lab vs. those made with my Polaroid camera, there’s something missing from the former. They lack that little bit of spice that connects us with the Polaroids taken in the moment, as the memories were happening and haven’t yet crystalized. It’s not a huge difference, but enough for the Lab Polaroids to fail the Voight-Kampff test.
There was something interesting on Polaroid’s website about the Polaroid Lab. They urge customers to use the Lab to ‘unforget” their favorite moments. I think that’s a good bit of advertising. Think of how many photos we take with our phones and never look at again. You can almost see the image falling out of someone’s memory as they’re taking it with their phone. (That’s if the photo is meant to be memorable. 95 percent of photos I take with my phone are utilitarian — where I parked, a white board filled with information, etc.)
The Polaroid Lab invites you to go through the photos on your phone and “unforget” them by making a physical representation of it on their film. It’s an interesting concept, and an ironic one considering that in their heyday Polaroids were the modern equivalent of cell phone images.
That irony is the most interesting thing about the Polaroid Lab. It’s a weird mutt-like creation, with its foot in different eras. It creates something, but what exactly is the final result? For most people (certainly all non-photographers) it’s a cool tool to take photos from the weekend at Myrtle Beach taken on your phone with the cracked screen, and turn them into something you put on the wall or into a scrapbook.
Memories are worth saving, no matter how you capture them. This goofy little tool takes them and makes them physical. In a world that seems to only exist on brightly lit screens, that’s something different and cool, and worth having around. And hopefully not just a few people will be enticed with the little celluloid square spit out by the Polaroid Lab enough to wonder what other opportunities the film world offers.
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