During a televised comedy special in the 1980s, a once-beloved comedian famously spoke the old witticism that the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” After that, the witticism entered the mainstream and has been repeated ad nauseam. But That’s not the definition of insanity. Not even close.
Sitting alone in my office I can think of dozens of examples of people who do the same thing over and over while expecting different results, and these people are as far from the actual definition of insanity as it’s possible to be.
How many rockets exploded on the launch pad before the Saturn V successfully delivered a human being to the surface of the moon?
I think also of a small child strapped into ice skates, feet jittering on a lake of ice, firing slapshot after slapshot toward a gaping net and missing every time. But the child keeps shooting expecting that, eventually, one will go in.
My daughter failing to hold a handstand over and over. The bird watcher who walks the same woods every week in hope of seeing a rare bird that they’ve never seen. Old-timey prospectors, panning for gold.
The whole of life is repeating the same things over and over. Sometimes things work, sometimes they don’t. Doing things over and over and enjoying the unpredictable results is the reason we’re here. There’s nothing “insane” about it.
But I must admit, this week, that the flimsy bon mot around insanity has started to sound a bit more solid for one simple reason. Because I’ve been shooting Polaroid film.
The Three Fs of Polaroid Photography
This week, I discovered my own witticism. That there are three F words that encompass the whole experience of shooting Polaroid film.
The first F is a happy one. Fun!
I load a fresh pack of Polaroid 600 film into my delightfully retro Polaroid Amigo (what a name) and smile down at the small box of ‘80s tech cradled lightly in delicate hands. The expectation that I’m about to make beautiful, unpredictable, experimental (ooh, experimental – I’ve read the word in Polaroid’s press releases!) instant photos is too tantalizing.
I wander around dumbly, my eyes crinkled, the corners of my lips lifted in a slight innocent smile. I can’t wait to take a picture.
This is the fun.
I love my daughters. They’re cute and happy and always oblige me when I ask to take their photo. Today is no different. I place my oldest on a stool by the window, where natural light streams inward upon one side of her face. It’s a basic window light portrait that I’ve shot hundreds of times in the last decade. But it’s pretty.
I frame her in the charmingly vacant viewfinder, nothing more than a square of hollow plastic passing through the camera, and press the shutter release.
The mechanical Polaroid shutter flicks open to capture the light. I hold still, and so does my daughter. She’s well-trained by years of her father using old, slow, rather dumb cameras. The shutter flicks closed, and the whirring gears of the Amigo fire to electric life.
The Polaroid photo is gripped by a metal hook deep within the belly of the camera. It’s drawn forward to the spinning compression rollers and squeezed through, the development chemical raked across the exposed photo material to create the slowly-developing instant photo.
The picture ejects smoothly from the camera, and, miraculously, a photo has been made. I gingerly take it from the camera and place it face down on the table allowing it to develop over the next twenty minutes.
During those twenty minutes I look for more photo opportunities. I shoot a shot of the family dog, now old and whitened, with strange skin growths that the vet assures us are normal and weakening hip joints that slow him down just a little. The photo ejects with the whirring clatter, and it joins its developing predecessor on the table.
A still-life of some sort of grass my wife tells me looks nice. A close-up photo of my second daughter, smiling. A shot of a retro electronic device that I love. A photo of a homemade birthday card featuring the Nintendo character, Kirby.
I’ve shot eight shots in fifteen minutes. I give the photos half a day to develop there, on the table.
When I come back to the photos later that night, the fun is over.
Now it’s time to consider those exploded rockets. Those missed slapshots. The gold a lie. The prospector lying desiccated in a river-less canyon, his only reward the corpse of his pack mule laden with bags of bad luck.
The second F is Failure.
The first shot of my first child is brutally under-exposed. The image is blurry. There’s no sharpness and zero shadow detail. It’s a terrible photo.
The still-life of the decorative grass is exposed well enough, but the entire shot is soft and the framing is way off. The charmingly unsophisticated viewfinder lacks parallax correction for close-up shooting.
The photo of the electronic toy is barely visible. The homemade birthday card is indecipherable. There’s one picture that’s nothing more than a blank, blueish-brown nothing.
The close portrait shot of my second child is also under-exposed. Her beautiful smile is barely visible. There’s an over-bearing green cast dousing the entire image in a sickly hue. It’s like the office sequence of The Matrix, except we don’t have that cool flip phone.
I’m disappointed. In myself. In the camera. In the film. Maybe I didn’t plan enough. Maybe I shouldn’t expect so much from Polaroid film. Maybe I needed more light, or a camera with a flash, or fresher film.
I drive to Target and buy two more packs of film at $21 a pack. Forty-two dollars for sixteen photos.
I load the film into two different cameras. One is another retro camera, the Polaroid 600 One Step. This camera also lacks a flash, but buoyed by quiet self-assurance that if I adjust the exposure compensation dial I’m sure to get better shots, I press on. I load the second pack into the modern Polaroid One Step 2. This new camera has a flash, new circuitry, and has given good results in the past.
I spend the next week shooting instant photos of life. My young daughter’s birthday celebration, the birthday cake, her indoor camping trip in our living room (complete with tent). A winter morning as we make our way to school. Shots of my other interests and projects in vintage electronics and game systems. More pictures of my dog. Photos of fruit.
Throughout the process I become painfully familiar with the third F of Polaroid photography.
The third F is Frustration.
Though I’ve had success shooting Polaroid film and cameras in the past, I’m not sure it’s worth it these days. And that’s what’s frustrating. The uncertainty.
The good Polaroid photo is too elusive. Acquiring it makes no sense. The shots are under-exposed, except when they’re over-exposed. The shots are never sharp. The flash is too flashy, except when it doesn’t fire for some unknown reason. Sometimes the development chemical spreads unevenly, or not at all. Occasionally the camera spontaneously ejects a photo without making it into a photo.
My vast experience with making photographs does not help.
I adjust exposure. Does nothing. I use a flash or don’t use a flash. Doesn’t really matter. I frame the shot with my own estimated parallax compensation. Might as well smash the camera. I shoot outside. I shoot inside. I shoot in a studio with full light kit. I use a tripod. I do everything I can to make it work, and it doesn’t work. At least, it doesn’t work well enough.
See, the thing is, Fuji makes Instax film and cameras to shoot it. The film works. The cameras work. And I hate to say it, because I truly love Polaroid’s cameras, Polaroid’s history, and that Polaroid film is bigger than Fuji’s, dimensionally.
But Polaroid film never works. At least, not consistently or well enough to justify the cost.
What’s most confounding, though, is that I’ll still buy Polaroid film and I’ll still shoot Polaroid cameras. I can’t stop. I don’t know why.
What was that bon mot, again, about insanity?
This article launched with the headline that Polaroid photography brings with it three Fs. Fun, failure, and frustration, in that order.
But there’s another F word that comes with making Polaroid photos, a fouth F word that I left out of my newly crafted witticism. The fourth F word is, in fact, the one that I mutter most when shooting Polaroid film. But you’ll have to use your imagination, because this particular F word is not fit to print.
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