Instant Photography: Keeping a Classic Process Alive

The name for this blog originally came about when I was naming a Tumblr account specifically to post my instant photography. I started using the name for Twitter, and then when I started to get into writing again, and wanted somewhere to post some of my thoughts and opinions, the name also fit with that. The blank borders framing an instant photograph, the blank borders around a piece of printed text. This post combines the two interests in that I want to write a little about my love for instant film.

When you have an interest in something, there is a tendency to assume that everyone else is at least aware of the basics of it. You often don’t realise that what you are doing is quite a niche thing, and so that was for me up until I went from ‘interested’ to ‘immersed’. Once I got involved with the community of instant film users, I began to see the same names popping up quite a lot. In a way, that’s nice, because you can quite easily get to know other people who share your interest, and get to know the kind of work they’re producing, as well as how they’re producing it. Within a lot of smaller art movements, I’ve noticed, there is much more of an inclination towards not only sharing the work you’re producing, but also sharing your methods and tips, which of course makes the community feel much closer and more approachable. I think that this is hugely important for something fairly small, because it’s those movements which desperately need more people to develop an interest. Sure, there will be a handful of people who always want a small community to stay small and exclusive, but it needs to be sustainable, particularly when there is a marketable product steering it.

In this case, the shrinking instant film industry.

Polaroid closed its production around 2008, much to the dismay of a great many people, and the future of many Polaroid cameras seemed, at best, uncertain. There are two manufacturers at present who are still producing film. Fujifilm are manufacturing their own brand Instax cameras and film, and for the time being, the security of those seems stable. They are also producing a peel apart film, the FP-series, as a replacement for Polaroid to fit in the older Polaroid cameras, although the future of this seems uncertain. They have discontinued the gorgeous FP-3000b, a high speed black and white emulsion that I have found to be a beautiful partner for pinhole work, and am quite devastated to see the end of, as well as the FP-100B standard speed black and white, and the 5×4 large format version. They are still producing the FP-100C, a colour emulsion, for the time being, although it’s anyone’s guess as to how long it’ll be before we see an end to that also.

In part, I suspect, the decreased production it this  case has a lot to do with the availability of functioning cameras of the type which use the peel apart. I have two, one in full working condition, and one which had faulty electronics and has now been gutted and converted to pinhole. J has bought two from Ebay, one which  had faulty electronics and was returned, and the other which works fine. Based then on our limited experience alone, it’s a 50/50 chance of getting one in fully working condition, and even then, there’s a few (very easy) mods you’ll need to make to the battery compartment to run it on cheaper modern batteries.

The second company producing film is The Impossible Project. Based in the Netherlands, this small company began research and production of integrated instant film back in 2010, about two years after Polaroid ceased production. Using only the last of the Polaroid production plants, the Polaroid dyes were lost along with their patents, and Impossible had to begin from scratch, producing the new emulsions via a system of trial and error.

The very first batches were well known for their instability, and Impossible always released them with this in mind. They were essentially beta versions, and came with instructions for shielding from light upon ejection, and generally taking great care with storage. A lot of people reported drop offs in colour over the coming months, and they weren’t generally regarded as being permanent.

Fast forward to 2012, only three years after they began, and the release of their latest emulsions. Dubbed ‘Colour Protect’, it required less shielding (although shielding for the first seconds in bright light was still a recommendation), and developed fully in about 45 minutes. Still a way off the five minutes of the old Polaroid, the progress was undeniably impressive.

The price has been steadily dropping, too. Whilst still expensive at around £17 for 8 shots, compared to the Polaroid (and I keep using that phrase, but I do need to state for the record that I feel it’s unfair to directly compare a chemical process developed to perfection over 75 years and marketed to a world without modern digital cameras, to one still in relative infancy and marketed to a far smaller community of artists, enthusiasts and hobbyists), I remember the price originally being closer to the £25 mark, for a lower quality, mostly untested, emulsion. For me, it’s worth the cost to not only continue to shoot cameras I adore using, but also to support a small company in the continued research and production of this film.

The most recent generation of colour emulsion is the recently beta-released Gen2, which holds claim to a much reduced development time. This gentleman has posted a very good, in depth review of the film, so I won’t bother writing too much more on it here. Even as a beta version, it’s proof that Impossible are really getting somewhere with their products, and have made impressive progress given the limited market and short timeframe.

The Gen2 has only been released as a small batch so far, and has sold out very quickly. I have a pack of it, which I’m extremely excited about, and will be writing more on that subject following the week away in Cornwall when I intend to shoot it.

With all this in mind, I’d urge anybody who still has a Polaroid camera lying around anywhere, and who has ever enjoyed the use of them, to pick up a box of film, either from Fuji, or from The Impossible Project, and have a go, even if it’s just the once. The absolute beauty of these cameras is that you don’t need a mass of expertise to produce a lovely shot, you just need a little basic knowledge of the camera you’re using (minimum focussing distance, approximate lighting conditions – information which is readily available with a quick Google search) and something to point the camera at. The more people who continue to buy and use these films, the longer they will be available for production. It would be such a shame to see such a huge part of photographic history die out entirely.

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