In his wonderful book INSTANT, the Story of Polaroid, Christopher Bonanos describes a scene in 1970 when Edwin Land, inventor of the Polaroid camera (and the glasses you wear when you watch a movie in 3D) envisioned the future of photography:
"…a camera that you would used as often as as your pencil or your eyeglasses. It was going to be effortless, point, shoot, see. Nothing mechanical would come between you and the image you wanted. The gesture would be as simple as… taking a wallet out of your breast pocket, holding it up and, and pressing a button."
We all have that now in our smartphones, but then it was not so easy. The Polaroids of the time were messy affairs that created a lot of waste; even Lady Bird Johnson (TreeHugger here) asked Land to come up with a way of getting rid of the garbage.
The SX-70 was the response to the demand for an easy to use, easy to carry and waste-free camera. It's actually none of the above, but closer than anything else at the time. It was a leather-covered wonder of design and chemistry.
One of the toughest chemical problems was the opacifier; Bonanos describes it:
For SX-70 to work, the picture had to be light-sensitive whole inside the camera yet able to develop in daylight. That requirement led to what may be the most extraordinary bit of Polaroid chemistry of all; the opacifier. As a Polaroid camera spit out its photo, rollers spread its cocktail of delveoper over the negative, including a green-gray chemical that blocked out light. Over the next few minutes, as the dyes migrated through the white background layer, the opacifier protected the picture underneath. Then it turned from opaque to clear, unfogging the image.
It was nearly impossible to do.
I had an SX-70 that I used in my work as an architect documenting projects or in this case, the opening of an art gallery I designed; that's me and my not yet wife, art and photo by Toronto artist Charles Pachter. Once digital cameras came out the SX-70 was relegated to the basement; after Edwin Land died, the company pretty much did too, was sold a couple of times to corporate raiders and pretty much destroyed. They stopped producing film in 2008, even though there was still demand from artists and retro hipsters.
That's when the Impossible Project started. Andre Bosman, who worked at Polaroid in the Netherlands, Dr. Florian Caps and Financier Marwen Saba bought the equipment from the Dutch Polaroid factory and recreated SX-70 film from scratch. They had to find new chemistry (many of the chemicals were now banned under the European REACH program). By 2010 they had black and white film, and not long after, colour. It wasn't cheap and it wasn't very good.
But it is such an amazing idea, that enthusiasts could recreate such complicated chemistry in a different era, or that they would even try in this age of digital photography. Of course I had to try it, and thought it would make a great present for my daughter, who has always been interested in photography. The film isn't cheap, at C$30 per box of eight; before digital one was always aware of the cost of film, but four bucks a shot is a lot of money.
One of the wonders of SX-70 film was that the battery was built into the film pack, designed to make it even more carefree, you never had to worry about the batteries running out. So the real question was, after 15 years, what would happen when I stuck the film in and closed the camera. It went kachunk and spit out the black paper protector, just like it was supposed to do. I then took a photo, and it spit right out like it was supposed to do, and was a solid deep dark blue. That would be the opacifier, protecting the image while it develops. That will disappear….
And it didn't. The old Polaroid would appear in about a minute. Here there was nothing after ten minutes, just blue. I was certain that it was not exposed, that the shutter on camera was in fact not working. Thinking that it might need more light, I went outside and took a photo of our street. Nothing, still just a black square. I was very disappointed (and upset that I bought two boxes of film instead of just one to test it.)
Wait… half an hour later, there was some discolouration. In another half hour, an image began to appear. The first photo was not good at all; perhaps the rollers were not yet moving freely and the developer wasn't spread around properly, or I might have left it out in the light while it developed, the opacifier isn't perfect.
The outdoor shot was much better, not perfect, but better.
This thing is never going to replace my iPhone or my Lumix. It certainly isn't TreeHugger green; there's no North American recycling program for the batteries that are replaced every eight photos, and you can't even travel with them:
Because the lithium in our batteries is a highly reactive element, there is potential danger of the lithium igniting when exposed to high altitudes. Federal restrictions now prohibit the shipment of lithium batteries by air in the USA.
It is also really expensive and I have to scan it to share it. But the idea, that I can buy a package of reinvented film and stick it into my 30 year old camera and point and shoot: that is impossibly amazing.