One-Click Wonder

A Polaroid photo from the late 1970s (left), taken with an SX-70, and one from March 2012 (right), using film made by the Impossible Project. (flickr/newskin0; Tom Whitten)

A Polaroid photo from the late 1970s (left), taken with an SX-70, and one from March 2012 (right), using film made by the Impossible Project. (flickr/newskin0; Tom Whitten)

In October 1972 Polaroid, already the acknowledged master of the instant photo, released the SX-70. This pocket-sized camera and its integral film made one-step instant photography a reality. The film itself embodied the pinnacle of the analog instant photo, the marvels of molecular chemistry, and the culmination of over 30 years of continuous research and development by Polaroid’s founder, Edwin H. Land, and his staff of chemists. With their distinctive white borders Polaroid instant photos became iconic, and remained so even after the end of film. Today’s digital images often come with the option of a Polaroid-type frame.

The Polaroid Company opened its doors in 1937 with its production of glare-reducing polarizing sheets (which eventually ended up in sunglasses). But the success of the first instant-photo film, made publicly available in 1948, assured the company a future. The idea of an instant photo first came to Land in December 1943, so the story goes, while on vacation in Sante Fe, New Mexico. Walking around town, Land and his young daughter had taken several photos. When she asked why she could not look at the pictures right then, Land was prompted to wonder. 

By 1947 he had come up with a way to produce an instant photo. At the winter meeting of the Optical Society of America he demonstrated the peel-apart process, which resulted in a sepia-toned image and a throw-away negative. The instant photo was a hit, and the Polaroid Company entered the photo business. Land’s constant desire to improve the images and make them available in color led to years of research and development: thousands of compounds were tested in the search for sharp, no-fade, instant color dyes. By 1962 Land and his research team had finally found a way of making color instant photos, though they still included a negative to be thrown away. 

Even after the team’s success with no-fade, instant color prints, the search continued for a completely integral film. Polaroid wanted a photo that, once shot, would develop on its own with no outside intervention, under even the brightest sunlight, and without wasting any negatives. To create such a picture required inventing a chemical opacifier that would protect the image from light while it developed, like a dark chamber on a camera would do, but then turn transparent so that the image could be seen. The opacifier also needed to be added into the already complex system of instant color photography. The SX-70 achieved this goal. A person needed merely to point the camera at something, press a button, take the photo as it was ejected, and then watch as the image appeared over the next 30 seconds.

The instant picture pod for the SX-70, the classic white-border Polaroid photo, was less than 2 millimeters thick but required 17  layers that reacted together to develop the photo. When ejected from the camera, the photo pod passed through rollers that spread a viscous reagent, called “goo” by company workers, between the layers. The alkali in the goo dissolved the dye developers, which produced the color. Exposed silver halide captured these developers: magenta, cyan, and yellow. The colors were set against a background of white pigment. Opaque indicator dyes were included in the goo as part of the opacifier—a sort of chemical darkroom. These dyes protected the still fragile image and slowly lost their own color as the image developed and became fixed.

The success of the SX-70 and the brilliance of its invention are undeniable. Still, with the advent of digital photography the demand for instant analog film sharply declined. But the fascination with the instant printable photo remains, tied up in its materiality and the sense of wonder one feels watching it develop. So when Polaroid announced the end of its film production in 2008, three analog film lovers got together and founded the Impossible Project. Impossible leased the last Polaroid film-manufacturing plant, in Enschede, Netherlands; bought the Polaroid film-production machinery; hired several former Polaroid employees experienced in working with analog film production; and started reinventing instant film. The project has now reinvented both sepia and color instant films, using new materials and techniques to replace obsolete or unavailable originals. Their films are compatible with old Polaroid cameras, are available all over the world, and have provided lovers of analog photography with a new means to practice their art. The chemical opacifier that allowed for watching as the photo developed—thereby adding a level of fascination to the process—has sadly not yet been replicated.

Kelly Tuttle is an editorial intern at Chemical Heritage.