Too many cameras, too much film, too many choices.
That’s the problem I face each month as a member of one of the 12:12 instant film projects set up by Penny Felts a few years ago. The underlying challenge for the women in the 12:12 Project and the guys in 12:12 Men is to post a photo every few weeks in which we do something we have never done before. So for the June 12:12 Men theme of “Tribute to Polaroid,” I arranged to shoot with body painter Brenda Leach and model Justine Saba of the San Jose-based Human Art Collective, a group whose work I have shot at festivals over the years. The concept I wanted to do was inspired by a picture done a few years ago by David Miller, a Los Angeles photographer, in collaboration with body painter Jamie Graden. The picture featured a psychedelic 1960s-style painted model taking a selfie with a Polaroid.
Everywhere I looked around San Francisco this spring, people were getting ready to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the “Summer of Love.” So it seemed natural to do the 12:12 Polaroid tribute in that style, but with a color palette taken from the Polaroid rainbow stripe and adorning the model with iconic names from the company’s past. But what camera and film to use? In typical fashion, I decided to go with two of my workhorse cameras — Impossible Project’s I-1 camera and a Polaroid 180 I inherited from my late father, whose career as a Polaroid engineer started in the 1960s. I also had on hand a camera that I had just bought but hadn’t used yet, the new SQ10 from Fuji.
I keep going back to the 180 and I-1 for their manual modes that allow me to push into what could otherwise be very difficult natural light situations. I was intrigued by the SQ10, being the photo gadget freak that I am. I figured it would be a fast and relatively cheap way to get test shots to help me, the painter and our model figure out the best way to proceed during our shoot, which was only four days before I was scheduled to post the results. When I asked Brenda how long it would take her to paint Justine, she told me, “Forever,” and it turned out she wasn’t very far off. It took five hours and ate up much of the natural afternoon light time I thought we would have. But it also gave us plenty of test shots along the way.
As the instant photos piled up, the results reminded me of conversations I had with my dad about Impossible film versus Fuji peel-apart. He tended to work on Polaroid film used for commercial work, like medicine and insurance adjusting, where getting the color as close to reality was important. When I first showed him pictures I shot on Impossible Project film, he told me, “That’s not the colors Dr. Land hired me to do.” He preferred the crisp accuracy of Polaroid’s peel-apart films that Fuji emulated in its instant films. The soft images and impressionist colors of Polaroid’s integral films that Impossible was trying to recreate (and so many shooters love) was inspired by Kodak’s films, he told me. He had experience with both because he also worked at Kodak while a student at Rochester Institute of Technology.
But I like both for different reasons. That made choosing which photo to post for June’s 12:12 theme quite difficult. In fact, I probably confused Brenda and Justine in the three days before posting because I changed my mind daily about which photo I would post. All three of my favorites accompany this blog.
The first one I chose was shot with the I-1 and Impossible Color Frame film. I even told Brenda and Justine when it first developed that I thought this shot was going to be the one I would post because the color of the frame randomly matched the subject quite well. But I had nagging doubts. The film muted the brilliant colors that Brenda had produced and didn’t have the kind of pop I thought would show her work best. So I changed my mind to a shot I did on expired Fuji FP100C film using the 180. The colors were very close to real life and I liked how they popped on the peel-apart film.
But again I had nagging doubts. Other than shooting with a fully body-painted model, what was really new about this shot? So I turned to the test shots I had done with the SQ10, a camera I had never used before the day of our shoot. I was definitely doing something new with instant film with those shots. So that is what convinced me to post the Instax Square photo the next day.
I know there are some who dislike the SQ10 because it is a hybrid camera that shoots digitally and prints on Instax film. I don’t have a problem with this because I also have enjoyed printing iPhone pictures on Impossible Project’s Instant Lab and 35MM film on peel-apart instant film with the Vivitar Slide Printer. Others dislike all Fuji Instax products. Some resent the fact that the company phased out its peel-apart instant film lines and stonewalled a group that proposed doing an Impossible Project-style rescue of the format. I fully sympathize with the second group and worry that the company is cashing in on what may be a passing fancy for instant photos by a generation that didn’t grow up with them. Boycotting a company that is finding a way to keep instant film alive, however, seems self-defeating.
After using the SQ10, I wondered how long Impossible can wait to introduce some of the features I like on the Fuji camera. They appear to have answered some of those questions with the One Step 2 camera they just introduced as they change their branding to Polaroid Originals. The big one is battery life. Any day I want to use my I-1 I have to recharge it. It drops below the level that it can power its ring flash within 24 hours and goes to zero power after a couple of days. The film counter is also rendered completely inaccurate when it needs to be fully recharged. My SQ10 so far has held a charge for at least a week, even after a lot of use and printing.
Impossible/Polaroid Originals boasts much better battery life with their new One Step 2 camera, which is nice. But it doesn’t have a lot of the sophisticated features like Bluetooth, the ring flash, autofocus and shifting lenses to wear it down, so longer battery life should be a given in the new point and shoot.
Another I-1 aggravation has been the lack of through-the-lens composition of pictures. The new One Step 2 apparently will have a similar parallax issue. But I have gotten pretty good, through trial and error, at compensating for this on the I-1. I prefer, though, to be able to see what I am going to get before I shoot, like I can with the SQ10 and my other two Polaroid workhorses — the SLR 680 and SX70. I asked Impossible Project CEO Oskar Smolokowski about this on the day he debuted the I-1 at the Bloomberg Design conference in San Francisco. He told me that through-the-lens focusing would have cost another $1 million or so in design. He said he couldn’t afford to spend that on R&D at the time.
Another thing I like about the SQ10 versus the I-1 is that it doesn’t require juggling my camera in one hand and my iPhone in the other when I shoot manually without a tripod. I hope and trust that Impossible will address these three issues with the I-2, I-1 Gen 2, or whatever they call the next iteration of that camera. It won’t be a problem with the One Step 2 because there is no app to connect to a smartphone.
In the end, I like the I-1 a lot for its manual controls and I like the qualities of Impossible film for some of my work. For that reason, I don’t think the One Step 2 will be for me, but I hope it is a big success that brings new Polaroid shooters on board. I also like the SQ10, in part because it is a new toy, and also because using it is closer to the experience I remember with the Polaroid integral film cameras I grew up with. I love the Polaroid 180 because it was my dad’s and because of the wonderful results I get from all of the peel-apart films, recently expired and very expired. In the end, I posted the SQ10 to 12:12 Men because it fit the requirement of using a new technique or tool each month. It also showed the contributions of my collaborators to best effect. But I won’t choose sides in the general debate about Polaroid, Fuji and Impossible cameras and films. I like and will continue to use them all, depending on what seems to fit the photo I am trying to capture.
I just wish somebody would figure out a way to produce new peel-apart film.