Retro photography

Shake it, shake it, shake it, shake it, shake it
Shake it, shake it, shake it, shake it
Shake it like a Polaroid picture! Hey ya!

— lyrics from “Hey Ya!” by Andre Benjamin (Andre 3000)

Have you ever clicked on some Internet ad out of idle curiosity, or even by mistake, and then for the next few weeks, every ad you see on multiple pages is for that product? It has to do with cookies and ad networks, of course.

Lately, I’ve been seeing ads for Polaroid cameras.

A couple of years ago, I read a great book about Edwin Land, the history of Polaroid, and the epic patent lawsuit between Polaroid and Kodak over Kodak’s introduction of instant cameras. Kodak had been Land’s ally during the early years of instant photography, selling him materials and figuring out how to mass-produce film that had been developed in Polaroid’s laboratories. But then Kodak introduced its own instant camera, which Land and other Polaroid executives believed infringed on their patents. Polaroid filed a David-and-Goliath lawsuit against the much-larger Kodak. The lawsuit dragged on for years, but Kodak was eventually forced to stop selling its instant camera line.

Within a few years of that lawsuit finally ending, of course, it became a moot point; mass-market instant photography had been eclipsed by digital photography.

But even all these years later, Polaroid instant photography still has its fans.

In 2008, ten years ago, Polaroid announced that it would stop manufacture of its instant film. The people who still owned and used Polaroid cameras were shocked and alarmed. But a Dutch startup, The Impossible Project, was formed to try to continue production of the film. They bought some of Polaroid’s old equipment and began making replacement Polaroid film. Then, they developed their own brand new model of instant camera. Then, a year ago, the primary stockholder of The Impossible Project acquired the Polaroid brand name and intellectual property. Now The Impossible Project is known as Polaroid Originals (even though it’s not the same company that used to go by the name Polaroid). Polaroid Originals sells its own updated model of Polaroid’s classic OneStep camera, as well as lovingly-refurbished Polaroid instant camera models going back to the SX-70, the original dry, no-peel instant camera. Land, by the way, had a lot in common with the late Steve Jobs. He loved the beautiful, top-of-the-line SX-70, with its collapsible, leather-and-chrome exterior. He was never enthusiastic about putting out a cheaper, plastic, mass-market camera, although his business people eventually won out.

Something about the story of The Impossible Project/Polaroid Originals appeals to me — no, I am definitely not in the market for a OneStep 2; it’s more of a wish-list, someday kind of thing, the way one might dream of someday owning a ridiculously-powerful sports car. This, too, is a silly and overpriced indulgence — not only the price of the camera but the ongoing price of the film. After all, I carry a powerful, high-tech camera in my pocket, with which I can take an unlimited number of photos. I can enjoy them electronically or print them at my leisure. I don’t have to worry about running out of film.

But maybe that was the point. Back in the days when you did have to worry about running out of film, each photo was, perhaps, more special. And there was something magical about watching the opaque protective layer slowly become clear, revealing the photo beneath.

Maybe its a nostalgia thing for me, although not all of Polaroid Originals’ buyers are from my generation.

Nearly-unrelated trivia: In the mid-1970s, when I was about 13 or 14, I won a Polaroid camera — the older kind where you had to peel the photo from a plastic sheet and let it dry — from Pat Sajak, years before he hosted “Wheel of Fortune.” Sajak was the afternoon DJ at WSM-AM in Nashville, and he and newscaster Al Voecks would have a funny little free-form chat every day at about 3:30. They decided to have a “Name the 3:30 Segment” contest, and I was one of the runners-up, with the highly-original suggestion “The 3:30 Segment.”