The Last Camera You'll Ever Buy
When you stare into the viewfinder and the viewfinder stares back at you.
Computer Love is a monthly column that investigates new technology with the purpose of making it feel less dense and more fun. In this installment we examine the shifting landscape of commercial photography and how it shapes the moments we capture.
This past August, Byline was invited to Blank Studio NYC in SoHo for a hands-on demo of Polaroid’s new I-2 camera. It was an impressive but tame affair that would lead me to something of a creative identity crisis.
I’m not a photographer, but last autumn, when I thought I might want to be one, I walked around SoHo with a Canon EOS Rebel T5 that I bought used in 2016 for $320. You can see the photos I took here, but you wouldn’t want to because they were mediocre, out of focus, and not worth the time it would take to process them in Photoshop. According to the marketing materials for Polaroid’s new $599.99 camera, “for the imperfectionists,” that makes me their ideal demographic.
When I arrived at the temporary showroom, I was welcomed by Ruth Bibby, the PR & Communications Manager at Polaroid. We talked briefly about Polaroid’s history and the ephemeral nature of instant photography. It’s an outlier in today’s camera market, because the photos have no embedded metadata and don’t live in the ambiguous cloud. In Ruth’s words, “it can’t be hacked”. The writer David Sax, has written extensively about the embrace of analog technologies among a sea of digital tools. He claims that analog appeals to the head and the heart; the head because there are logical reasons why you would want a physical record of what you create and the heart because there is an inherent “joy of things” that ties back to a larger community of makers. We hear this story every few years as new generations embrace vinyl or physical books despite the availability of massive digital libraries.
The definition of “analog” becomes abstracted with the recent interest in older point and shoot digital cameras which create more artifacts and nuance than a smartphone camera. Camera manufacturers are trying to figure out how to capitalize on this interest in outdated cameras. In 2016, Kodak announced they would be releasing a contemporary version of their classic Super 8 camera. Kodak planned to offer a service that would develop and digitize the physical film. The anticipated cost of the camera ballooned from the initial $500 to $2500, and eventually news about its release dried up altogether. The latest Polaroid I-2 camera enhances the analog experience with in-camera double (or quadruple) exposure and the ability to trigger an external flash, but also integrates an app for more controls. They seem to be focused on building an optimized pro version of traditional Polaroid cameras.
Polaroid has had some difficulty navigating the changing technological landscape of the last 80 years. Founded in 1937 by Edwin Land and George Wheelwright, Polaroid was built on the impatience of Land’s daughter who was frustrated that she couldn’t see a photograph immediately after it was taken on a family vacation. Land and Wheelwright set to work developing a film pod that combined a film negative with small quantities of chemical reagents that spread across the film when the pod was ruptured during removal from the camera. Polaroid film and cameras thrived between 1947 and 1977, until one hour color photo development and portable video cameras became popular. After plunging money into the development of the unsuccessful Polavision instant video camera, Land resigned in 1982. Under new leadership, the company continued to experiment beyond consumer photography with ventures into video cameras, scanners, and early digital cameras, but ultimately filed for bankruptcy in 2001.
The following decades played out like a season of Succession. The Polaroid brand was licensed to other companies manufacturing TVs, speakers, and smartphones. The brand passed through the hands of several liquidation firms and holding corporations and in 2008 auctioned off the equipment used to develop its film to a company called the Impossible Project, which continued to manufacture and develop the film from the Netherlands. In 2017, the holding company for Polaroid was acquired by Polish investor Wiaczesław "Slava" Smołokowski who was convinced to do so by his son Oskar (who worked at the Impossible Project). The younger Smołokowski became CEO and then Chairman of the Board at the current incarnation of Polaroid, which is returning to the production of analog cameras.
Photo by Oskar Smolokowski.
Polaroid may be perfectly positioned for a resurgence as millennials who used to line the walls of their dorms with Polaroid photos start having babies and feeling nostalgic. For those Gen Z photographers who aren’t satisfied with the digital camera they found in their parents' basement, Polaroid cameras may offer something beyond the minuscule sensors and lenses of their smartphones. Polaroid is jostling for relevance and approaching influencers at the advice of marketing firms that identify “imperfection” and “authenticity” as commercial opportunities with Gen Z, which may be missing the fact that authenticity as a marketing strategy negates its meaning.
Even when you’re aware that you are on the receiving end of an aggressive marketing strategy, there’s an undeniable joy in fiddling with physical dials and buttons. It’s extremely easy to exploit those of us who want to be creative and will buy any tool that makes us feel like we are creating something that wouldn’t exist without us. This is what I alluded to when I referred to the creative identity crisis caused by the camera. I have always had a passion for drawing but never pursued illustration as a career. I embraced the “nights and weekends” approach to my passion and spent them making various animation projects. They never filled a commercial need, but I preferred it that way. I wanted them to be personal and expressive. Despite sharing them on every social media platform, they never caught on in any way that felt like success. I think this is probably the norm for most creative people; the years it takes to build any kind of following can weigh on someone wondering why they started making things in the first place. In a culture where we are responsible for marketing ourselves in order to reach people online, it can be increasingly difficult to identify what the authentic self is and how it differs from our ability to market it.
The internet was built on the promise of self-expression, but has increasingly become inhospitable to that vision. Giant platforms like Flickr, Twitter, Artstation, and Instagram have failed to serve the creators that propped them up, and nothing is filling that void. The latest Polaroid camera hopes to circumnavigate that problem, but also serves as a reminder of its existence.
As the appeal of “hustle culture” dwindles due to burnout, it has become important to identify sustainable paths towards creative fulfillment. In moments of quiet reflection, I tend to dwell on the hard truths I am trying to internalize: it is nearly impossible to succeed at something alone, and to perfect a skill, you need to pursue it exclusively. This is bad news for someone who likes making things alone and jumps from one fascination to the next. I believe the answer to creative fulfillment lies not in the product you buy but in finding a community that helps you grow.