Friday, May 23, 2008

Art, Commerce and Polaroid Manipulations

Polaroid Corporation arguably started out as one of the most unique companies in the annals of photography. It was the first company to understand that numerous photographers wanted instant gratification. For decades, Polaroid was the only game in town for people who wanted such gratification. The maximum size of prints was typically pretty small (unless one was one of the tiny handful of people who could afford their gargantuan 20x24 Polaroid view camera), and the cameras themselves were nothing to get particularly excited about, if one ignored the ability to produce instant prints. But Polaroid films did offer some unique capabilities, not all of which were intentional on the part of the manufacturers.

Artists discovered that Polaroid films possessed some unique properties which encouraged them to manipulate those films in order to produce images which looked as if they might have been created by painters, not photographers. The films made for the Polaroid SX-70 cameras were particularly useful in this respect. The gelatin-based emulsions which created images in SX-70 film (later changed slightly and renamed Time Zero film) didn't become completely dry and permanent until some time after they'd emerged from the cameras (or, in some cases, from the Daylab processors used for the purpose of making exposures onto such film, using 35mm slides created in traditional 35mm cameras). By manipulating the malleable emulsions with appropriate tools, photographers were able to create impressionistic images which were instantly identifiable as SX-70 manipulations.

Interestingly, Edwin Land (who invented the Polaroid camera) is said to have been greatly displeased by such manipulations. I think that he viewed it as a sign that he'd failed to achieve his goal, which had nothing to do with creating prints which took a long time to achieve anything resembling permanence.

Here are several web pages which display such manipulations:

Floral photos by Klaus and Elke Wolfer

Polaroid Manipulations by Kathleen T. Carr

J.B. Schilling (Gallery One)
J.B. Schilling (Gallery Two)
J.B. Schilling (Gallery Three)

This web page on the Daylab website explains how such manipulations were made.

Kathleen Thormod Carr even wrote an entire book on the process!

The images produced with that process were really quite small, so the solution (as documented in Carr's book) was to scan the manipulated images at high resolution, in order to significantly enlarge them and print them out with giclee printers such as the ones made by Epson, or with digital photo printers such as the Durst Lambda or the Fuji Frontier.

Sadly, Polaroid has now discontinued all of its special films! Which means basically that once the remaining stock of Time Zero film is gone, photographers will no longer be able to create such manipulations. (We may be at that point already.)

The bottom line was that the user base which appreciated the unique artistic potential inherent in the SX-70/Time Zero films just wasn't enough to justify Polaroid's continued production of those films. Polaroid still exists, but there's no longer anything special about the company, other than its unique history. They're just competing with all of the other companies which make digital cameras --- and not doing a particularly good job of it, in my opinion. Personally, I think that the company's days are numbered, unless they can introduce something so groundbreaking that they will once again regain their lost momentum.

Now, here's what I'm thinking. It's likely that we will never again see a film comparable to SX-70/Time Zero film, unless some small company owned by hobbyists is able to successfully petition Polaroid to release the technical information which would enable them to manufacture such film once again. But that may not be a big loss.

I've seen a number of digital filters (usually sold as Photoshop plug-ins) which can emulate a wide variety of traditional films. Also, the Liquify filter offered with Photoshop is similar to SX-70 manipulations in some respects.

So why not make an interactive digital filter specifically designed to emulate the look of Polaroid SX-70 manipulations? It could be designed to work in conjunction with the Wacom tablet, which would essentially serve the same function as the styluses once used for manipulating real SX-70 film.

In many respects, such software would be an improvement over the original process. One could work on high resolution images, for instance, thereby eliminating the need to scan manipulated prints at high resolution and retouch them in order to produce big prints. It's also likely that using the pressure-sensitive capabilities of the Wacom tablet would enable people to exercise more control over the actual manipulations. Using multiple pixel-aligned layers in Photoshop, people could blend manipulated and unmanipulated versions of the same images together, using varying levels of opacity and various blend modes in Photoshop, in order to achieve effects which would have been extremely difficult to achieve the "old fashioned" way. They could use layer masks in order to smoothly combine the best parts of multiple manipulations of the same images! They could also save their "SX-70 manipulation" movements as meshes which could then be used with the Liquify filter, if desired. A final benefit, compared with the traditional process, is that there would be no time limit imposed on the process. One could return to the image several months after creating the manipulation and add more manipulations. That wasn't possible with real SX-70 film, since the gelatin emulsion eventually hardened so that it could be manipulated no more. More working time would mean that people could be more reflective about what changes they chose to make.

While they're at it, the software programmers responsible for creating such a filter could also add the ability to emulate other artistic Polaroid processes, such as the image transfers and emulsion transfers described in another book by Kathleen Carr.

If they wanted to go even further, they could also add the ability to emulate all of the "alternative processes" described on this web page. And they could finish it up by adding functionality which would enable photographers to easily generate proper digital negatives based on the principles taught by Dan Burkholder, for the benefit of people who wanted to use the real alternative processes rather than just simulating them digitally. Want to create a platinum/palladium print based on a digital emulation of an SX-70 manipulation? With such a software program, that would be a very real possibility, without the need to do any scanning (assuming that the original photo was taken with a DSLR).

Alas, I'm not a computer programmer, and I wouldn't have a clue about how to go about creating such a Photoshop plug-in. But there are enough talented programmers around that I'd imagine that they will see the need, sooner or later, and they will then create such a program.

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