TECHNIQUE & TECHNOLOGY
Polaroid instant film has the fascinating property of malleability in the first few moments, hours, and days after the photograph is exposed. Since the photo-reactive chemicals are contained in a gelatinous layer, one can manipulate the images by hand – be it by nudging with a toothpick, embellishment, mild burning and heating, peeling, or exposing to more light, chemicals, air, and time. Fully (or partially) peeling the photochemical layer and exposing it to air will freeze the development process, allowing in-between colors and textures to be easily obtained. These techniques allows an otherwise failed or uninteresting photograph to become the canvas on and through which a new artwork may be born.
Before I get into too many details about the films themselves, a little history. Polaroid, as it was originally known, went out of business in 2001. In 2008, The Impossible Project launched, purchasing the old machines from polaroid to make the film. They had no idea of the processes or chemical compositions of the films – they had obtained the machines but had to re-engineer and experiment until they eventually got the formula right though many successive iterations, eventually becoming successful enough to purchase the Polaroid brand in 2017 and became the product they once aspired to recreate. Of course, in this time, they released all sorts of experimental films and botched side projects, some of which are documented here. You can find out more information about the recent history of the impossible project here.
Some of the interesting “issues” with the experimental films were the “death crystals,” where parts of the photochemical would crystallize and discolor over time, or having the photochemical fail to evenly disperse upon exposure, creating roller marks or blank brown spaces absent of any image properties. Other common problems included radical discoloration, unpredicable exposure behavior, extreme temperature sensitivity, and severe discoloration and deterioration over time. Looking at some photographs from ten years ago, most of the images and chemicals are still changing to this day.
By some uncanny miracle, my adventure with polaroids began in 2009 when walking in a rural area of Squamish, BC, where I found a road-side cardboard box, complete with TWO (!) functional, folding SX-70 Polaroid cameras, two amazing leather cases, and a Kodak Brownie 8mm video camera. I shortly found out about the impossible project thereafter, and one of the SX70s made home with one of my friends.
Many people seem to think the “polaroid revival” is largely attributed to a factor of nostalgia and novelty. Personally, I can agree with the latter, but not the former. As a medium that encourages serendipitous accidents and a malleable photographic substrate, polaroids are a medium ripe for experimentation and unexpected pleasures.
F2B – Fade to Black
This now extinct film was one of the impossible projects most incredible botched experiments. By way of chemical instability, after the exposure of the photograph, the image would develop through a dynamic spectrum of colors and tones over the course of minutes to about a day, by at the end of which the image will have turned totally black – hence the fabled name. Beginning through bright greens and splotchy blues, eventually deepining into bruised shades of indigo and umber, eventually into the indistinguisable void of blackness. Considering this ’transitory’ type of image, it is usually smart to be ready with the appropriate scanner or digital camera to archive the phases of transition.
A more extreme way to manipulate this film, post-blackening, is to put it through a process known as solarization – simply, explosing it to sunlight repeatedly, which over time lightens the already exposed chemicals. Though this process is known to purportedly “invert” images, making the darks light, and lights dark, this has not been our experience with this film. While exposing multiple blackened photographs to the sun daily for a year a half yeilded dark and mysterious abstractions of the original photo, often in bruised teals and blues and rust, exacerbating chemical imperfections with speckles, warps, and crazing. At the time of writing this article, we have begun re-exposing some of the aforementioned photos to sunlight again.
Early Black and White (PX100)
This sepia-washed film was one of the first undertakings of the impossible project, and thus was extremely unstable and produced variable results from indistinct brown blobs to delicate, antique looking photos. No longer widely available as the processes and chemical compositions of the films have improved and stabilized substantially since.
PX100 exhibiting both ‘death crystals’ and unevenly dispersed photochemical.
This film, while also extremely unstable, produced beautiful and ethereal washes of pinks, peaches, and violets. Due to the bleary nature of this film I endeavoured to manipulate them by hand with a toothpick and peeling extensively.
Like other polaroid films, during the curing process the gelatinous photo chemicals are physically malleable, such as with a toothpick or nail. Shifting the chemicals like this is itself one of the greatest values of polaroid film, being able to draw or write on images, obscuring or highlighting as is desired.
SX70 Original Time Zero
Reaching way back into the past, this was an expired film from the 80s. A few of the images turned out; most of them were teal and yellowish blurs. Lended very well to manual manipulations.
Some of the photos in this pack amounted to little more than streaks of yellowish photochemical, due to the fact that the battery for the Polaroid is contained in the film pack, and over years had lost its capacity. I took this opportunity to experiment, peeling the film and adding acrylic paints, iridescent pigments and manual manipulations.