POLAROID’S CAPSIZED CAPTIVA: TOO MUCH, TOO LITTLE, OR TOO LATE?

Captiva

“[Many folks who bought the product]…didn’t realize how small the picture really was.”

— Bruce Godfrey, Polaroid Marketing Manager

“Personally, I don’t know why anyone would want it.”

— B. Alex Henderson, Prudential Securities Analyst

“…Captiva sales estimates and capital equipment spending was consistently based on incremental sales of 30 million [film] packs in the fifth year after Captiva’s inception.  The sales never exceeded 5 million packs per year.”

— Milton P. Dentch, Fall of An Icon: Polaroid After Edwin H. Land
An Insider’s View of the Once Great Company

That was the official post mortem on Polaroid’s innovative, last-chance instant camera and film system, the wonderful but nevertheless doomed Captiva: the pictures were too small.  Remember, the Titanic was a swell boat, also; Captiva was a few square inches short of a winning picture size, just as the Titanic was big on grandeur and luxury but short on lifeboats.

That’s how the story goes, or went.  But is small picture size really the reason Captiva bombed?  Or was it something else, something that has more to do with what might be called “The Winds of Change,” and less to do with picture size?

To quote the famous spiritual leader Jiddu Krishnamurti, “let’s look into this deeply together, shall we?”

A Changing World

The world has changed a lot since the 1990s, and for the last decade or so, people have gradually been weaned off of large desktop office computer monitors onto tiny handheld iPhone screens.  Various new species of chiropractic conditions — not to mention eyestrain, headaches, attention deficit disorder, and insomnia — have appeared as a result.

With this preponderance of digital images — images with no “physical” or “material” reality or existence — actual hardcopy photos of any type are becoming rare, and thus welcomed like a long lost friend.  And that’s one of many cruel ironies about Captiva’s failure:  in 2017, smaller print sizes don’t bother anyone anymore; any kind of photographic print, especially an instant print that comes into physical being right before one’s eyes, is a genuine novelty (“now, more than ever”).

Anyone who doubts the appeal of small prints nowadays can just look at the wildly-successful Fuji Instax Mini line, which offers prints quite a bit smaller than Captiva’s; Polaroid was bashed and ‘dissed in 1993 for photos the size of baseball cards, while Fuji cleans up in 2017 on photos the size of credit cards!

And the venerable Hewlett-Packard has just introduced an instant picture printer, the HP Sprocket, based on ZINK (Zero Ink Technology) technology (originally developed inside Polaroid), which also uses prints that are smaller than Captiva’s.

What goes around, comes around.  Let’s raise a toast to Dr. Land and party like it’s 1947.


The Threat to Polaroid Was Exactly 35mm Wide

And yet, the main threat to Polaroid wasn’t digital photography (yet).  Rather, it was “big pictures” — large prints — and free duplicate pictures — cheap pictures — fast pictures — taken with inexpensive (even disposable) 35mm film cameras and printed in an hour at increasingly ubiquitous one-hour photo labs, huts, and kiosks, which constituted one of the major competitive challenges (okay, the primary death threat) to Captiva, and by extension, to my alma mater, Polaroid, itself.

How could the late I.M. “Mac” Booth, then-Polaroid CEO, possibly sleep at night, knowing that a $5 disposable plastic Kodak camera could often take better photographs on 35mm film than any Polaroid camera rolling off the assembly lines, from a $29 OneStep all the way up to the flagship $150 Sonar SX-70?

On the other hand, there was always the unique “instant kick,” available from Polaroid only, helped by the fact that ongoing film advances at Polaroid meant that the pictures, in many cases, looked pretty damn good.  But the photographer had to get close-up, something we’ve all learned with Instax and especially Instax Mini.  To paraphrase the old advertising slogan, “the closer you get, the better they (the pictures) look.”

And the lighting needed to be pretty good also. Colorful balloons and baskets of bright flowers helped, too.  The film quality on Dr. Land’s Polavision Instant Movies was so poor that for the product’s introductory road shows, the great man had to bring in brightly-colored (and very well-lit) jugglers and mimes and bouquets of expensive fresh flowers, like Flo Ziegfield always brought on “more girls” whenever things began to drag onstage.

To this day, the “fault-tolerance” (latitude, detail, sharpness, color rendition and faithfulness, etc.) of ANY instant film falls short of traditional analog 35mm shots and their associated prints (of course, these are pretty much dead, too, so it no longer matters; old age and death do not play favorites).  And yet, as we will see, the instant integral film pioneered by Polaroid still thrives, but Polaroid isn’t around to enjoy it, only those inscrutable, calculating Asian copycats at Fuji, and that small, merry band of quixotic heroes at Impossible.

That, also, just doesn’t seem fair.

At the time, Captiva could not really compete with this growing threat from traditional film photography combined with increasingly cheap cameras and fast, easy photo processing; instant pictures came up short in virtually every aspect of the user experience (and still do).

The current hipster-preference for washed out pictures and moody lighting and incomplete image development had not yet developed (as it were); instant photography users were still taking photographs of their kids and dogs and vacations, not artistic shots of gorgeous naked women, crouched down, without reason, in the corners of abandoned, unheated warehouses and wrecked factories, or wearing frilly, flouncy dresses, holding bouquets of flowers dreamily in the nearest misty enchanted forest, under the towering pines, waiting for Prince Charming to show up on a white horse, sweep them off their feet, and spirit them away from this cold horrible digital world to a perfectly warm and fuzzy analog realm where everybody drives red Vespas, stays young forever, and shoots photos exclusively with free Hasselblads and lifetime film supplies handed out at birth along with social security numbers.

Hey, is there room on the back of that white horse for another passenger?

The Enemy Within: Polaroid’s Existing Instant Product Families

Captiva was also competing with other Polaroid products, and personally, I think this competition was the real killer, “the enemy within.”  Polaroid’s existing family of instant cameras and films were excellent, fully up to the job.  Who needed anything else, instant-wise?  There was nothing really new under that blazing instant sun. Polaroid was in a box, a beautifully-built box, Dr. Land’s handiwork and lifework, and nobody there knew how to get out of it (to Polaroid’s credit, neither did outsiders like the regrettable, clueless Gary DiCamillo. Next time, stick to power drills and hand saws, buddy).

To this day, I wonder if Dr. Land didn’t plant a kind of “Easter Egg” in the organization that detonated after he left, with a slow-burn fuse.  In fact, I have often thought this about Land, and also about the late Ken Olsen at the once-mighty Digital Equipment Corporation.  How could these huge corporate behemoths have disappeared from the face of the earth, while IBM, Kodak, General Motors, and other Dinosaurs still stalk the planet, albeit somewhat anemically and anorexically?

But when it came to “the next big thing,” well, sometimes you need it, but just don’t have it. Polaroid didn’t have it.  As with the ill-fated Polavision that came before it, people predicted and suspected disaster but didn’t do anything about it; deer caught in the headlights, paralyzed with fear and inertia. Captiva was all Polaroid had, but it wasn’t the solution.  The fix wasn’t in.

Simply put, from the user’s perspective, if you wanted to do “the instant thing,” there were already a gazillion Polaroid cameras from which to choose, along with the mature, familiar, high-quality, affordable, and larger-imaged SX-70, 600, and Spectra films.

Captiva would have had to offer something really unique and appealing (emphasis added) in the film department (emphasis added again)  as well as the camera department.

One out of two ain’t bad.

MAY2017098

A Fine Camera Doth Not A Uniquely New and Compelling Photographic Experience Make

The Captiva camera was definitely up to the task, anyway.  In fact, the Captiva hardware is a lovely piece of engineering and manufacturing work, designed and built in the good old U.S.A., in Norwood, Massachusetts; manufacturing cost approximately $160 in the early 90s, each one sold for $100 at a big loss to Polaroid, hoping against hope to make it up with future film sales that never happened, not even close.

The Captiva’s clever inside-the-camera film storage system may have encouraged people to shoot more film, but as they say (well, maybe as they used to say at W-1, Polaroid’s Waltham, Massachusetts-based film manufacturing plant, recently bulldozed to make room for, you guessed it, shopping malls and condominiums), you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him burn film.

This feature may have been a bit self-serving on Polaroid’s part — sure, the occasional market research guinea pig may have squealed about not knowing where to put the pictures after they emerged from the front of an SX-70 or OneStep, but was it really such a big problem?  Try your pocket, dummy; warm pockets help on cold days.

Was the Captiva solution really going to change anything?  It was clever, sure.  Handy, yes.  But revolutionary?  Not quite, not anywhere except on Planet Polaroid, where innovation had basically frozen since Land left in 1982.

Otherwise, the Captiva was a compact, well-made, easy-to-use folding Single-Lens-Reflex design with bellows, autofocus, and auto exposure, arguably as elegant and competent, if not iconic, as Dr. Land’s unwieldy, difficult-to-focus, cricket-shaped brainchild.  But here’s another glitch in the Polaroid Matrix: If Spectra had the “best” (biggest) film, then how come Captiva had the best camera but the smallest film?  This was a bit of a misstep in Polaroid’s product positioning lineup.

I always admired the beauty of General Motors’ once-perfect product hierarchy, from Chevy at the bottom to Cadillac at the top, and lots of well-placed steps in-between (Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick).  I still use this basic template to explain quality differences to my customers.  It mirrored the career development and salary arc of many American family-men and householders, everyone part of one big happy “GM Family.”

You could live within it, content, and never look or step outside it.  When you’d bought a Caddy,  you were at the very pinnacle, the apex, the apogee.  There was nowhere to go, not even up.  It may have been silly and old-fashioned and artificial, but it was perfect nonetheless; a Madison Avenue Marketing Man’s Dream, and a viable lifetime blueprint for one’s automotive-consumer-existence.

In my weekly Captiva Grief Recovery Support Group meeting, we all lament the death of this terrific camera (the film was fairly ordinary; it featured a Polapulse battery, 10 pictures per pack, the latest film chemistry technology, and one unique difference: a large, pod-sized film trap and frame at the top as well as at the bottom of each picture, presumably to facilitate customers writing notes on the front of the pictures).

cap1

I recently heard from the young folks at Impossible (think tattoos and beards), who report that Polaroid destroyed the Captiva film machine(s) at the Enschede, Netherlands factory at 5 minutes to Midnight, before Impossible came in and saved the rest of the equipment.  Stateside, Polaroid also destroyed one or more brand new film machines while stillborn in their crates, unpacked and unused, million-dollar-baby infanticide, when it became acutely obvious they would never be needed.  Ouch, that really hurts, 25 years later, and I’m not even an engineer.

The bottom line is that nobody, ever again, is going to manufacture film for these terrific cameras, meaning you can buy them for $10 on Ebay and put them on your shelf as a testament and a shrine to what can happen when you head down the road with the best of intentions, but imperfect plans.

What’s the truth, the cold, brutal, unvarnished truth?  By 1992, the Polaroid Party was ending.  As people put on their coats and went home, they may have been shooting just about exactly as many $1 Polaroid instant photos as they wanted to shoot, both for economic as well as habitual personal reasons.  Captiva wasn’t going to change that.  It was like watching reruns on television. Saturation and concomitant numbness had set in.  Isn’t one picture of the family dog enough?

At best, Captiva was simply going to cannibalize sales of other Polaroid Products, not convert people away from 35mm cameras and film, or get them to consume more Polaroid product.  In the end, it didn’t even do that.


If You’re So Smart, What Should (Might) Captiva Have Been?

Given Captiva’s unhappy fate, one can only imagine what Captiva could or might or should have been.  Sometimes, as anyone who has had a loved one die from some terrible disease or accident can attest, there is simply no hope, only healing.  One can guess, and brainstorm, and pray, and conjecture, but it’s all just a mental exercise when the grim reaper pays a visit.  That cold-hearted bastard does not like to leave empty-handed.

3-D Pictures?  Very Doubtful.  Duplicate photos emerging at one time from the camera?  Cool, but double the film costs.  Really Large Photos, bigger than Spectra?  Maybe, maybe, maybe (that’s my best bet, but I don’t know nothin’).  What was needed was the equivalent of a KILLER APP for Polaroid.

The late Peter Wensberg, Polaroid Marketing V.P., wrote in his book Land’s Polaroid that after Land’s Polavision introduction nearly 20 years before, one was impressed with the obvious technical achievement, yet left without the feeling that something really new and useful had been birthed.

This was the identical situation with Captiva; Polaroid hounded Land out of his own company as payback for the pain of Polavision, and yet pulled the same stunt itself — introducing world-class flops, and betting heavily on them — without any input from our dear departed genius, who severed all ties with Polaroid in the 80s, and died in 1991.

When Steve Jobs was thrown out of Apple, he hadn’t yet invented the iPad and the iPhone and the iPod, a handful of modestly successful consumer products…but the company rehired him, as we all know, and had the good sense to retain him until he left feet first.

Land was older, and may have been out of ideas…but possibly not.  And given the fate of Captiva, and “Helios,” a failed medical imaging product, maybe the Board of Directors was a bit hard on Land, in retrospect.  Maybe they killed the goose that had laid golden eggs for them for decades.  Since Day One, in fact.

Unfortunately, perhaps, the state of digital photography was not sufficiently advanced for Polaroid to have developed and shipped a hybrid digital/analog instant camera.  Indeed, Fuji has just gotten around to doing this with its Instax Square lineup, released this week.  With this new instant camera, part instant and part digital, Fuji has opted for a relatively small picture size, advanced photo controls, and in-camera (digital) photo “storage.”

Hmmmmm….let’s see now.  Today, in May 2017, the newest and most advanced instant camera on the planet — a camera very likely to succeed in the market, given Fuji’s demonstrated engineering and marketing savvy — offers relatively small pictures, all the familiar limitations of instant film, and advanced features such as auto-exposure, auto-focus, built-in flash, and in-camera photo storage.

Sounds familiar…sounds like Captiva!  Like I said, kids: what goes around comes around.

* * *

PostScript: Film Size Comparison Chart

Polaroid iZone: 1.5″ x 1″ = 1 Square Inch (Runaway Success)

Fuji Instax Mini: 1.8″ x 2.4″ = 4.32 Square Inches (Runaway Success)

HP Sprocket: 2″ x 3″ = 6 Square Inches (Just Introduced)

Polaroid Captiva: 2.87″ x 2.13″ = 6.11 Square Inches (Total Flop)

Fuji Instax Square: 2.5″ x 2.5″ = 6.25 Square Inches (Just Released, Jury Out, Probable Success)

Fuji Instax Wide: 3.9″ x 2.4″ = 9.36 Square Inches (Big Success)

Polaroid SX-70/600: 3.1″ x 3.1″ = 9.61 Square Inches (Runaway Success)

Polaroid Spectra: 3.5″ x 2.9″ = 10.15 Square Inches (Big Success)

Lesson:  DOES SIZE MATTER?  MAYBE!!!

END

POLAVISION GOES TO CHARM SCHOOL!

land
Polavision, the late, great brainchild of Dr. Edwin Land, and his swan song at the remarkable company he created. A failed instant movie system that nevertheless represented a high-level of technical genius and engineering wizardry (like most Polaroid Products of the era).  The film factory in Norwood, Massachusetts, on the old Forbes estate, was a humdinger, also. I think it’s been turned into condominiums now.

So sit back, drink a little psychoactive pod juice, and set the Wayback Machine to the late 1970s.  Your humble narrator, a sort of benign Young Turk, is ensconced at 549 Technology Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts, cranking out copy for The Polaroid Newsletter, a few floors below “The Suits.”  Dr. Land is working assiduously down the street at his Osborn Street Laboratory (as usual), or arguing with William J. McCune Jr. on the steps of the building (I wisely walk around them; that city wasn’t big enough for the three of us).

Even we peons toiling in Land’s vineyards knew that Polavision was going to bomb.  It was a running joke in the office, whenever somebody was off to attend a meeting at which Land might show up, to be sure to remember to tell him to “Drop Polavision”.  But Land, stubborn man that he was, went ahead with it anyhow, even though no less a personage than the chairman and founder of Sony Corporation, Akia Morita, told him personally that his amazing invention was, sadly, “too late.”

But was it?  Or did it just need a little tweaking?  I wonder.  You know you’re dealing with a Polaroid Lifer (me) if he still thinks about Polavision in the shower in the year 2016, with Dr. Land himself dead for nearly 30 years, the factories shuttered and razed, and the company he founded now a Zombie marketing outfit located in the Midwest with about 15 employees.  But stay with me here, because I’m going to digress. 

There was a time in the 1990s when, to put it quite simply, I wasn’t having much luck with girls, and I was getting a little frustrated and perplexed, since I knew I was the cat’s meow (as we said back then).  So I asked for help and advice from a friend of mine, a woman to whom I was not romantically attracted.  She rolled her eyes as if to say, “where to begin?”  She asked me to look at my fingernails.  They were ragged and dirty.  She asked me, “If you were a woman, would you want to be touched by those?”  (That wasn’t exactly what she said, but it’s close enough).  

She was obviously right. 

So, in an act of focused will worthy of the great man himself, I sent myself to charm school.  I actually had a manicure and a pedicure.  I got my hair cut by a professional.  I went to the dentist, bought some stylish new clothes, read books on the arts of love.  And gee whiz, just like in the movies, the results came in.  I got lucky THREE TIMES IN ONE WEEK, with three different, extremely attractive women (one was married, but that’s another subject — chalk it up to youth).

The bottom line was obvious — I was basically okay, more than okay. I just needed to clean up my act. So I did. And it’s been one long romantic comedy ever since.

Was Polavision Basically Okay?

In a post-mortem eulogy to Land in 1991, the late Ken Olsen, founder of the mighty Digital Equipment Corporation, spent some significant time praising Polavision.  He thought it was a great product and a very slick system.  Ken knew a thing or two about building and selling successful high-technology products.  Was Olsen just “being nice” to Land’s memory, or was he onto something?  Could Polavision have “made it” in the marketplace, even with Consumer Videotape charging hard over the next mesa, making very loud war-whoops?

With that question in mind, let’s have some retro-high-tech fun and send Polavision to Charm School.

polavisionviewer

LOSE THE PLAYER!

The Polavision system consisted of the amazing Polavision film cassettes, and a camera and a tabletop processor/player manufactured by EUMIG in Austria (America’s Bell & Howell was going to produce it, but negotiations broke down and lawsuits followed). You can see the player above. Eumig went bankrupt and folded soon after the Polavision fiasco.

Land may have dreamed about millions of Americans sitting around these bulky players (clear off the kitchen table, Mom!) watching cassette after cassette of his 2 Minute, 37 Second Instant Movie Miracles, but it wasn’t going to happen.  Think about it — Duhhh!  Who wants a Microfiche Reader-lookalike cluttering up the house?  Again, think: what do Americans love to sit in front of, for hours and hours (this was before the answer to that question became: “Unemployment Offices”)?

The Answer?  TELEVISION SETS!

Polavision didn’t need (or “want”) a standalone dedicated tabletop player/processor/viewer, and this item alone (along with the lack of sound, stay tuned) may well have doomed the whole system, the huge iceberg floating right smack dab in the middle of Polavision’s journey to market acceptance.

Read my Lips:  POLAVISION SHOULD HAVE USED A COMPACT DESKTOP PROCESSOR/PLAYER THAT ATTACHED PERMANENTLY TO THE FAMILY TELEVISION SET.  The viewers would pop in a Polavision Cassette, and they could make some popcorn, sit back, and watch Polavision Movies on their TV Screens. It would and could have worked beautifully.  No significant technology innovations were required.

This player/processor would have been about the size of a high-fidelity cassette deck of the time, and would have resembled it:

cd

FOUR MINUTE MOVIES WITH SOUND

I won’t argue about this with any Polavision engineers who may still be alive, talking (like me, ha-ha) about the good old days from their rooms at Senior Centers in Cambridge, Waltham, Norwood, New Bedford…

…Polavision was (at the time) competing with 4 Minute Super 8mm films, which were still selling well.  Polavision tapes also needed to be at least 4 minutes long.  A bigger cassette?  Thinner film?  WHATEVER, just make the running time at least 4 minutes, guys, or forget about it.

Now, sound was a bigger issue, and it’s been written about extensively by obscure historians like me.  Polaroid was certainly thinking about it, hard, and in the end developed a fine system that never made it to market because the product was finished by then.

The use of separate, standard cassette tapes for the soundtrack was proposed, but rejected because it was too inelegant (with all due respect, dead isn’t exactly elegant either, Dr. Land).  Had audio cassettes in fact been chosen, cameras and players would have had to be significantly redesigned.  

The “final solution” turned out to be an audio tape intertwined on the spools with the film itself, and in that case, if things had gone that way, the desktop player I proposed above would “simply” have had to be reengineered.

All this brings up the natural question:  WHAT WAS THE HURRY, DR. LAND?  Was he racing to beat videotape, or his own mortality, or maybe both? Yes, it’s been written that Land was “an old man in a hurry,” but Land lived for 13 years after Polavision’s introduction, and was productive (as one might expect) to the bitter end, so why (oh why) could Polaroid have not waited a year before introducing the product, and gotten it right?

 Polavision was clearly a product that wasn’t ready for Prime Time.

sukie20160918

One, Two, Three…Success!

Just like me and the ladies in the 1990s, success may not have been out of Polavision’s grasp, but instead, just around the corner, a relatively short distance away, considering the lofty technological peaks that Land had to climb to develop the product in the first place.

Easy as One-Two-Three:  One: Lose the Player — Use the Family TV. Two: Four-Minute Tapes. Three: Sound. That’s it, that’s all!  Think of how Polaroid’s history might have played out differently (no pun intended). 

Polavision may have been a modest success.  Land may have stayed at the Company.  A sustainable line of succession may have been established.  The transition to electronic imaging technologies may have been achieved, and if they made it through that decade-long storm, all the instant films could have enjoyed a modest resurgence, as they are enjoying now, with the spoils going to Fuji, Impossible, and others…everyone but “Polaroid”itself…

…oh, but I’m feeling bad now.  Coming down.  Hard. The Pod Juice is wearing off…

Steven Salemi
Santa Fe, New Mexico
September 2016

PDC-2000/3000 – Polaroid’s Fin de Siècle Handmade Digital Masterpiece

pdc

It’s easy to divide Polaroid’s history into two phases — “the real Polaroid,” from the company’s beginnings in the 1930s, with Dr. Land in charge, and the post-Land era, from Land’s exodus in 1982 until the company’s financial collapse, demise, and rebirth as the kind of zombie company it remains today.

As a young Turk, I was lucky enough to work for Polaroid in what could be considered the apex of its Phase I period, which ran from just before the introduction of SX-70 until after Polavision and Land’s departure. This was a time when, on any ordinary day, I might see Dr. Land walking up or down Main Street on the way to his Osborn Street Laboratory, or arguing with Bill McCune on the steps of 549 Technology Square (they had plenty to argue about — I walked around them on the way to my office).

Although I missed the 60s at Polaroid, which must have been incredible, the 70s were pretty heady times, too, and Land always considered the SX-70 camera and film of the 1970s his greatest achievement — greater than sheet polarizers, greater than the early instant cameras and films, greater than Polacolor, and yes, of course, greater than instant movies.

No Polavision jokes, please.  Show some respect for the Genius Dead.

Of course, I was just a young man at the time, so while I enjoyed my tenure at Polaroid, my brain wasn’t sufficiently enlarged nor permeable to realize I was living at the epicenter of a fantastic, extraordinary intersection of technology, commerce, and history — all, never to be repeated on this planet or anywhere else.  Only now, at mid-life, do I realize how much I miss it all; how fortunate I was to be paid to “walk among giants.”

My sweetheart, who speaks fluent French, says the French have an expression for everything.  I’m sure they have something for what was once enjoyed and is now sorely missed, but I don’t know if they have one for missing what never was, but what might have been, and what (had it been) would almost certainly have been wonderful.

Enter Polaroid’s remarkable PDC-2000 and PDC-3000 digital cameras.

With Polaroid cameras no longer part of the Zeitgeist, except for the lucky few who can actually afford Impossible film (and who can bear to look away from their iPhones for more than a minute at a time), it is easy to forget that in the years before Polaroid gave up the ghost and simply badge-engineered cheap generic film cameras and low-end Fuji instant cameras, Polaroid was — read my lips — a high-volume, highly-profitable American Camera and Film Manufacturer.

And so, when the digital revolution began, Polaroid didn’t send buyers to China. They set up a laboratory in Cambridge, Massachusetts — that’s a long way from China — and designed, and engineered, and built the PDC-2000 and PDC-3000 cameras in low volumes, by hand.  They even sold them for around $2,500 a pop:

“The PDC 2000, Polaroid’s first digital camera, was unveiled in 1996 and met with high praise. This was produced in Cambridge in low volume, but follow on cameras were not produced and the electronic imaging future for Polaroid consumer cameras started and stopped that year.

Over the course of a four year period, thirteen thousand PDC 2000 digital consumer
cameras…were produced through this effort.”

–Milton P. Dentch, (2012-10-11). Fall of an Icon: Polaroid after Edwin H. Land: An Insider’s View of the Once Great Company.  Riverhaven Books. Kindle Edition.

And, at the time, they were worth it!  Because even if Polaroid was only dipping its toes in the digital waters — which must have felt mighty icy cold to folks in Cambridge, Waltham, and New Bedford — they did so in the time-honored Polaroid way: Classy, Elegant, Technically Impressive, Individualistic.  Even after Land left — and died — the real Polaroid was never anything but a reflection of the man who invented it.

Looking like a set of high-tech military binoculars (and not unlike a Sunpak video camera I once owned), the PDCs exude a level of quality and solidity that you might find in a German-made Hasselblad or Leica camera.  They feel as though they were carved out of a single piece of metal.  The sounds they make when you snap a photo are unique, reassuring, deep, almost musical.  Polaroid’s terrific sonar focusing device is incorporated very elegantly indeed.

With an ASA equivalent of only about 100, you need to hold the camera steady, and this is a uniquely easy camera to stabilize. The original camera came with an elaborate set of SCSI hardware and software to enable fast uploads of digital photos from camera to computer — and to use the computer itself as an extended monitor/viewfinder, surely a nifty studio trick.  I have read about interchangeable PDC lenses, but I’ve never seen any for sale, anywhere.

What’s fun about shooting with the PDCs today is that they accept a standard Compact Flash (CF) memory card, and you can pop that memory card out of the camera easily and place it into your computer’s memory card reader.  More remarkable still, the Polaroid PDC Studio software (which must have been written for Windows 95) runs perfectly well on Windows 7. The built-in electronic flash works perfectly,  and there are a nice set of controls and manual overrides.

In other words, you can use this camera as a daily shooter just as easily today as you could when it was introduced.  By skipping all the SCSI stuff, which I highly-recommend, even more easily. You can do whatever you need to do with the photos (read: Photoshop them, e-mail, post them on Facebook — all the modern stuff), and you can even print out handy contact sheets — a cheeky nod by Polaroid engineers to film photography!

CS

Contact Sheets are easily generated by the excellent Polaroid software for the PDC cameras.

And how are those photos?  Well, considering the low resolution, not bad…not bad at all.  Remember, low-resolution photos are not the worst things for shooting pleasing portraits, and I find the PDCs’ color rendition remarkably good.

With the Polaroid PDC cameras, pictures of fruit always capture the correct colors!

With the Polaroid PDC cameras, pictures of fruit always capture the correct colors!

So if you want to really stand out in the crowd, just forget your SX-70s and Impossible film and Polaroid pack cameras loaded up with Fuji.  The Polaroid PDC-2000 and PDC-3000 are really, truly something rare and unique, and unlike Polaroid/Impossible/Fuji mongrel combos (the only game in town nowadays), they are totally, 100% purebred Polaroid, all the way…

…just so long as you can tolerate the bittersweet taste of what might have been.

For detailed technical information on these remarkable cameras,

Visit:

http://www.imaging-resource.com/PRODS/P3K/P3KA.HTM

The Big Shot — Polaroid’s Uniquely Fantastic 1970s Plastic Portrait Camera

bigshot

Let’s get Andy Warhol over with right away, since the iconic artist — whose works are now being snapped up by the “one percent” for crazy prices, long after his death — made a name for this camera by toting it around for a few weeks and taking pictures of his celebrity friends. 

But, with or without Andy, the Big Shot — introduced in 1971 and discontinued in 1973, a few years before the introduction of SX-70 — is a wondrous camera, embodying a large quantity of Vintage Polaroid Genius in its unique plastic snout.

What the Big Shot does (one might joke and say “ALL” that it does!) is to take incredibly pleasing color portraits of human beings (and, for those who march to the beat of a different darkroom timer, pets or flowers) on peel-apart color pack film (Fuji FP-100C, these days; Polaroid’s is gone).  The quality of the photos produced by this hunk of old plastic is so nice that it makes you wonder about how today’s digital technology really works for us — or against us.

Figure:  if you hold some expensive 24 megapixel camera a foot from somebody’s face, blast an electronic flash into their eyes, and grab a photo, how flattering can you reasonably expect this picture to be?  Not very, unless you like to see deer-caught-in-the-headlights.  Great for dental records or forensic identification or police line-ups, maybe, but otherwise?  Barring the possibility that your favorite friends and subjects are Scarlett Johansson, George Clooney, and Angelina Jolie, you’ll probably get something you’d prefer to delete!

But do the very same thing with your overweight middle-aged next-door neighbor and the Big Shot, and you will find — some might say magically — that the camera manages to capture their very best visual qualities, and leaves the rest in that Origami-pile of paper and sticky developer goop that you dispose of when you’re done.  This camera refuses to take bad pictures of people; the results are consistently, almost eerily, good.  From a camera made entirely of plastic, with no electronics, batteries, light meters or exposure control, focusing mechanism — are you amazed yet?  You should be!

Those of us who own, use, and love the Big Shot do so for many reasons.  For one thing, molded into its very plastic (the camera is too primitive to have DNA, Polaroid or otherwise) is Dr. Land’s contempt for (indifference to?) marketing and market research as a guide to product development: surely, nobody at Polaroid did any market studies to determine whether there was a demand for “single-purpose plastic portrait cameras” in the early 1970s!  Also pleasing, to curmudgeons like this author, is the fact that the Big Shot’s greatness has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not it was any kind of market success — it probably bombed, and certainly had a short product life. 

Who cares?  Polaroid didn’t.  The Big Shot, and the company that created it, and the man who created that company, were way above all that.  Polaroid was on top of the world throughout the 1960s, could do no wrong in the stock market, were the sole owners of the instant photography business — and their greatest commercial and technological triumph, SX-70, was waiting in the wings (their greatest failures, Polavision and Captiva, also).  In short, when this camera rolled off the Waltham, Massachusetts assembly lines, Polaroid was at the top of their game, and the Big Shot makes pictures that actually show it. 

One could safely say — read my lips — that no Polaroid camera ever made takes better pictures (excepting the 20 x 24, wise guys).  So buy one on E-Bay (don’t forget the Magicubes), get some Fuji FP-100C on Amazon, and have some fun.  Let your inner Andy out!  Do the Big Shot Shuffle!  These times will never come again.

For more on the nuts and bolts of the Big Shot, visit these links:

http://www.rwhirled.com/landlist/landdcam-pack.htm#BigShot

http://camerapedia.wikia.com/wiki/Polaroid_Big_Shot

http://filmphotographyproject.com/store/polaroid-big-shot-portrait-land-camera

http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/culturemonster/2009/03/warhol-and-his.html

Less is More: Polaroid’s “The Reporter” Plastic Wonder!

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At first glance, Polaroid’s “The Reporter” camera is just another forgettable plastic pack-film camera from the golden age and fertile mind of our favorite photographic company (sorry, Kodak).  But wait!  Don’t spend $600 on some clapped-out 180 or 360 until you give The Reporter (not the Reporter) a second or third look.  In my hunt for a daily pack-film shooter, the modestly-priced The Reporter (sic) performs surprisingly well.

Firstly, there are the benefits of the reverse macho ethic (what Stephen Potter would have called “Photographermanship”) — viz, “real men don’t use rangefinders, and only pansies use Auto Focus.”  No problem here; The Reporter lets you suffer for your art by making you focus manually always, and thereby sharpen your own organic God-Given rangefinder skills (which have atrophied since we lived in caves and stopped hunting, and being hunted by, Dinosaurs).

Yes, this is long before the introduction of Polaroid’s wonderful (unfailingly reliable, incredibly clever, and dead-accurate) sonar focusing device.  The exposure is automatic, with the usual lighten/darken wheel, 75/3000ASA switch (Fuji’s color pack film is ASA 90, but it’s close enough, and you can fine-tune if you have to).  It even takes standard double-A batteries; not some weird vintage things you have to go looking for.

Stay tuned for sample pictures, which will ultimately decide if The Reporter’s plastic lens is going to cut it, but I’d have to say meantime that the very best aspect of The Reporter is the PACKAGING.  It’s a small, light, attractive package, with a cool vintage look and nifty, easy-to-carry folding design which (heresy coming) looks neater and more unique and less awkward and primitive and erector-set-like than all those expensive pack-film cameras you’ve been saving for.

Could it be possible that a camera you can pick up on Ebay for around $25 is actually more fun, useful, and practical than something with a Zeiss-Ikon Rangefinder made in, gosh, WEST GERMANY?  You know, the place where they make LEICAS?

Hey, all you hipster-poseurs: for a REAL dyed-in-Cambridge Polaroid alumnus-fan like me, there is NOTHING better than a plastic viewfinder made in Waltham, Massachusetts.

Memories of the Polavision Player (Re-) Assembly Line, Winter 1978

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See, it was like this – I had a rough first-half of my sophomore year at Brown (beginning September 1977), and decided to “stop out” and take the second semester off. This was the cold, lonely winter of January 1978 and I was living at home with my skeptical parents and virtually nothing to do (I was supposed to be at school!). Luckily for me, my friend Chris Wetmore, who was attending some school in the Midwest, also stopped out, as did my Brown buddy Alex Viskovatoff (who was in Connecticut), so I did have some companionship.

Chris and I landed (no pun intended) some temp work on a special assembly line set up by Polaroid at one of their film warehouses in Needham, Massachusetts. This was pretty much unskilled labor, and the wages were low. At the front of the line, brand new Polavision players from Eumig in Austria were being unpacked from their boxes and partially disassembled. Then they were sent down the line to Chris and Myself (and others), who first placed a special jig on the front of the unit and then popped in a dummy Polavision cassette, which caused the unit to light up and start playing.

Our job was to adjust some thingy inside the unit, a photovoltaic cell perhaps, while paying careful attention to the numbers displayed on an LCD readout on the front of the special jig. We turned the adjuster inside the Polavision player until the numbers came within a certain range. The goal was to brighten up all the projection bulbs inside the Polavision players.

Apparently the very dense Polavision film was looking too dark for the few customers who actually bought the things, and our job was to brighten up the display. Then we sent the readjusted units down the line and they were reassembled and repacked.

There was an air of futility and desperation about the whole thing, even then. We were all going through the motions. I was happy, indeed, to go back to school in September 1978. I think there was only one person in the entire world who thought Polavision could be a success. And we all know who that person was!

Impossible’s Maddening 8 Pictures Per Pack: Thick Film, Thick Battery, or What?

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You’ve all heard about (and maybe even read) the Impossible Project’s press release (FAQ) explaining that Impossible includes only 8 integral pictures per film pack because they can no longer source the thin negative material once produced by Polaroid’s famous, now shuttered, New Bedford Massachusetts factory. Yes, the incredibly sophisticated multi-million dollar factory which took Kodak out of the equation and prompted Dr. Land to say to plant management, “Let Me Know If It Works.”

The Impossible Explanation makes sense — no reason to disbelieve it — and the fact that the post was written by a young man nicknamed “Dr. Love” makes questioning it seem, well, hateful.  But one day I opened up a pack of Impossible Film and noticed that the Impossible battery — their updated version of Polaroid’s Polapulse — was much thicker (taller, fatter) than Polaroid’s.

And so naturally I began to wonder: is it 8 pictures because the film is thicker, or 8 pictures because the battery is too fat (thick, tall), or some combination of both?  After all, if the film were TOO thick, it wouldn’t fit through the rollers, and there would be frequent if not incessant jams.  But the film seems to fit through those closely-machined rollers just fine.  So how thick is it, really…how thick CAN it be and still function?

Thick enough to account for two “lost” pictures in every Impossible film pack?

Looking into this matter has me thinking a lot about Polaroid, Impossible, the so-called Hipsters who buy this often-temperamental product, and Public Relations — a field in whose vineyards I toiled for many years.  If Impossible says “we could do it but we can’t obtain the material,” that’s different than saying “we could do it if we could build a thinner battery, but we can’t.”

So, I’ve  assembled some original Polaroid film slices and batteries, along with similar products from Impossible, and have now posted the following measurements and calculations, along with my own analysis.

Polaroid Integral Film

Developer Pod Thickness: .58mm
Top Trap: .66mm
Side Frames: .33mm
Film/Negative: .24mm

Polaroid Polapulse Battery

Thickness (Height): 3.80mm

Combined Thickness of 10 Polaroid Film Slices + Polapulse Battery: 10.4mm

Impossible Integral Film

Developer Pod Thickness: .54mm
Top Trap: .85mm
Side Frames: .39mm
Film/Negative: .34mm

Impossible Project SP-11 Battery

Thickness (Height): 4.65mm

Combined Thickness of 8 Impossible Film Slices + Impossible Battery:  11.45mm

Analysis:

In the existing packaging, 8 Impossible Film Slices plus the Impossible Battery are a bit taller than 10 original Polaroid slices plus the Polapulse Battery.

If Impossible were able to produce a battery the same size as Polaroid’s, the combined thickness of 10 Impossible Film Slices plus battery would be 12.3mm — still taller than the existing packaging, and perhaps too thick to work.  9 Film Slices plus a Polaroid-Sized battery would be 11.45mm, the same exact size as the existing 8-pack plus Impossible battery — meaning that it isn’t just the film thickness that limits Impossible, it is also the size of the battery.

The Bottom Line?

Impossible’s film is much thicker than Polaroid’s…and so is their battery.  The existing Impossible technology does indeed limit the company to a maximum of 8 pictures per pack, although it is the battery as well as the film that is limiting them.

If they could slim the battery down to 1974 Polaroid dimensions, they could probably squeeze nine pictures into a pack, and if they could slim down the film a little, too, a 10th picture wouldn’t be too tough.

Fuji’s wonderful Instax film has the benefit of not requiring a battery in the pack, but battery or no battery, it is also quite thin:

Fuji Instax Wide Integral Film

Developer Pod Thickness: .50mm
Top Trap: .68mm
Side Frames: .32mm
Film/Negative: .33mm

Had enough?  Pour some coffee, and take a gander at Polaroid’s plucky attempts to make the most of their massive investment in (and massive headaches related to) Polapulse — a Polapulse-powered, Polaroid-branded Flashlight, and likewise, a Polapulse-powered, Polaroid-branded AM/FM radio!  Just insert EMPTY film packs!

Wasn’t Polaroid Amazing?

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