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!
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.
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,