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Art in an instant
Published Feb. 15, 2008

What is it about the old-fashioned Polaroid camera that holds such sway in this megapixel age?

It's a decidedly lo-fi tool of the photographic trade, a kitschy relic of the Ford-era photo album. If you were born between 1970 and 1980, there's a decent chance your first photograph was taken on Polaroid film.

Sadly, the days of the Polaroid instant photo are winding to a close.

Polaroid announced last week it would stop making instant film, and expects to run out of stock completely by 2009. The company will now focus on digital cameras, printers and televisions.

"We're trying to reinvent Polaroid so it lives on for the next 30 to 40 years," Polaroid president Tom Beaudoin told the Associated Press.

It's an ignominious end for an art form that had gotten a second shot at life. In the past couple of years, more and more Polaroid enthusiasts had begun scanning their favorite shots and sharing them with the world via Flickr and other photo-sharing Web sites.

Just last month, D.C. gossip blog Wonkette( sent videographer Liz Glover to cover the New Hampshire primaries with a pink and green Barbie instant camera, which she used to snap images of Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich. "It's quite a conversation piece," Glover said.

Music blog Gorilla vs. Bear ( hit last year's Austin City Limits Music Festival with a Polaroid and now has a gallery of indie-rock luminaries Cat Power, M.I.A. and members of Spoon, Wilco and Arcade Fire.

"We're sort of obsessed with the medium now," said Gorilla vs. Bear's Chris Cantalini, who lives in Dallas. "Sort of a change of pace and a throwback when everyone else is using digital. We now have four different Polaroid cameras that we tote around to shows."

The death of Polaroid photography isn't entirely unexpected, considering the high price of instant film in an era when a single digital flash card can hold thousands of photos. But as the instant camera is phased out, traditionalists will no doubt remember just how much Polaroid had going for it.

There's the convenience factor, for one. You don't need to be a professional photographer to take an intriguing Polaroid. Just point, snap and voila: There's your photo. Instant souvenir.

And you can't take the negatives to Ritz to print off extra copies of your work, because there are no negatives. A Polaroid photo is a unique, spontaneous creation, blurred lines and all.

"It's one of a kind," said Polaroid artist Allen Hampton, 25, of Tampa, "so it's almost like a sculpture."

Even as Polaroid enthusiasts snap up remaining film supplies nationwide, there's still time to celebrate the art form. The Tampa artist collective known as [5]art is in the midst of a three-week exhibition of Polaroids from local and national artists. Prices on the works range from $10 to $500. Check it out now, before Polaroid art becomes a thing of the past.

Then flip open your own crackling photo albums at home, and admire the simple square masterworks therein.

Jay Cridlin can be reached


How to make your squares hip

How can you make the most of the time you have left with your Polaroid? Here are some tips to get you started.

- Get a camera. The most common style is Polaroid's 600 series, which takes 3.5- by 4.2-inch photos - the format shown here. These cameras cost between $40 and $70 but can be found on sale for less. A 10-photo cartridge of film costs around $15. You can also find vintage models, like the popular SX-70, on eBay. But you'd better hurry. Once they're gone, they're gone.

- Find your range. Most Polaroid cameras have a minimum distance. If you don't adhere to it, your subjects will appear blurry.

- The sun is your friend. Natural light brings out the best in Polaroid cameras. "Outdoors, reds and blues really get picked up nicely," said Los Angeles Polaroid blogger Jen Gotch ( Even photos washed out by bright sunlight can give your photos an ethereal quality.

- Be careful indoors. Fluorescent lights can make a Polaroid photo look yellow. Artist Allen Hampton works around this by holding colored filters (available at photography stores) in front of the lens. And Polaroid flashes usually aren't very strong, so check the manual for a flash range.

- Use fun backgrounds. If your subject is standing in front of a concrete wall, your Polaroid may look like an arrest mug shot. Bright colors (like a crisp blue sky) or patterns (a mural) can make a subject stand out. "The lighter the background, the better," Gotch said. "Sometimes, for me, when you have a really dark background, the film doesn't grab on the same way."

- Do not "shake it like a Polaroid picture." OutKast was wrong: Shaking modern Polaroids won't help them develop faster - but it can warp the photo and cause spots on the film.

- Display them with care. Exposure to direct sunlight damages all photos, including Polaroids. Gotch, who has taken up to 300 Polaroids in one day, stores hers in archival-quality albums.

- Be spontaneous. "It's a pretty unpredictable medium," Gorilla vs. Bear's Chris Cantalini says. Hampton almost always carries his camera with him, in case he sees something worth shooting. And Gotch says she usually doesn't take more than one shot of each subject.

"If I'm doing more of a controlled environment, I might take a couple," she said. "But I still feel like you lose something if you're really trying to cover your subject. It kind of defeats the purpose of what you're doing, which is to have one original image."