Thursday, February 14, 2008

Death By Digital: It's The End Of The Amazing Polaroid As We Know It!

Another sad day had come. And thank god this story has nothing to do with any celebrity! In 1947, an inventor named Edwin Land introduced a remarkable innovation to the world -- a film that developed itself in a matter of minutes. This new instant camera technology was a huge success for Land's company, the Polaroid Corporation. In 1949, Polaroid made more than $5 million in camera sales alone! Over the proceeding 50 years, the company carved out its own special niche, selling millions of instant cameras and more than a billion rolls of instant film. The brand synonymous with instant film is killing off the Polaroid film format and attempting to reinvent the brand so it "lives on for the next 30 to 40 years." In the short term that means closing factories in Massachusetts, Mexico and the Netherlands, cutting 450 jobs, and breaking the hearts of hipster-photographers the world over. It's still sad to see a format with so much history and fond memories die.

Now, some camera buffs who still use Polaroids for fun are trying to buy as much as they can. Joe Howansky, a 23-year-old professional photo technician from Queens who has shown Polaroid shots at art galleries in New York City, said he bought $800 worth of Polaroid film at a discount warehouse club after he learned Friday that Polaroid planned to stop producing its film. "It has an intangible quality that fits with walking down the street, and I see something cool, and snap a photo of it," he said. At a photography store in Boston, business from both instant film and regular film has shrunk with the advent of digital photography. It's going to be hard to imagine the photo business without Polaroid being a part of it.

So how does it work? Well, the instant-camera developing process combines colors in the same basic way as slide film, but the developing chemicals are already present in the film itself. The instant camera film has three layers that are sensitive to different colors of light. Underneath each color layer, there is a developer layer containing dye couplers. All of these layers sit on top of a black base layer, and underneath the image layer, the timing layer and the acid layer. This arrangement is a chemical chain reaction waiting to be set in motion. The component that gets the reaction going is the reagent (as in re-agent). The reagent is a mix of opacifiers (light-blockers), alkali (acid neutralizers), white pigment and other elements. It sits just above the light-sensitive layers and just below the image layer. Before you take the picture, the reagent material is all collected in a blob at the border of the plastic film sheet, away from the light-sensitive material. This keeps the film from developing before it has been exposed. After you snap the picture, the film sheet passes out of the camera, through a pair of rollers. (In another configuration, often used by professional photographers, the reagent and developer are coated on a separate sheet which is pressed up against the film sheet for a set amount of time.)

The rollers spread the reagent material out into the middle of the film sheet, just like a rolling pin spreading out dough. When the reagent is spread in between the image layer and the light-sensitive layers, it reacts with the other chemical layers in the film. The opacifier material stops light from filtering onto the layers below, so the film isn't fully exposed before it is developed. The reagent chemicals move downward through the layers, changing the exposed particles in each layer into metallic silver. The chemicals then dissolve the developer dye so it begins to diffuse up toward the image layer. The metallic silver areas at each layer -- the grains that were exposed to light -- grab the dyes so they stop moving up.

Only the dyes from the unexposed layers will move up to the image layer. For example, if the green layer is exposed, no magenta dye will make it to the image layer, but cyan and yellow will. These colors combine to create a translucent green film on the image surface. Light reflecting off the white pigment in the reagent shines through these color layers, the same way light from a bulb shines through a slide. At the same time that these reagent chemicals are working down through the light-sensitive layers, other reagent chemicals are working through the film layers above. The acid layer in the film reacts with the alkali and opacifiers in the reagent, making the opacifiers become clear. This is what finally makes the image visible. The timing layer slows the reagent down on its path to the acid layer, giving the film time to develop before it is exposed to light. Doesn't that all sound so simple?

One of the coolest things about the Polaroid was watching the image slowly come together, caused by this chemical reaction. The image is already was always fully developed underneath, but the illusion that it is forming right before your eyes was incredible. I remember my Uncle Howard and his Poloraid and saying "WOW" everytime a picture came to life. Sadly though, the Concord, Massachusetts based Polaroid announced last week that it plans to close factories in Massachusetts as well as Mexico and the Netherlands that make the incredible fun product. The digital age is definitely here now...sadly though, something had to die because of it! So for all those Polaroid users out there, were sorry, looks like you'll only have another year left to take random pictures at house parties.