How did you get interested in Polaroid?

I always liked instant pictures, and a few early memories leap to mind. The Pronto! SX-70 camera we bought my dad around 1980, as (I think) a Father’s Day present. The Square Shooter 2 that my grandmother owned. My own first instant camera, a secondhand Model 900, bought for $3 when I was about 13. The subsequent twenty minutes I spent on the phone with a patient customer-service rep at Polaroid, as she walked me through how to use that camera and change the batteries. Mostly, I got the bug the same way everyone does: staring into the gray-green mist of a Polaroid picture as it develops. It’s a bewitching thing. And I have always been interested in outlier technologies, especially when they become rare and precious.

How did that lead to a book?

In 2008, the Whitney Museum of American Art was about to open a show of Robert Mapplethorpe’s Polaroid photographs. Since I edit New York magazine’s art coverage, I got a call from Stephen Soba, a friend in the press office of the Whitney, suggesting a little feature on it. I had just heard that Polaroid was quitting the instant-film business, and had the idea of doing a story about the coincidence of these two events, so I called a couple of prominent photographers to see what they had to say. It turned out that they were all furious to see a great artistic material disappearing for reasons that had less to do with obsolescence than with greed. By the time the story ran, I had discovered, and started to get sucked in. A few months later, I had a book proposal written and an agent (the hardworking Kris Dahl, of ICM) circulating it. It was a tough sell in the awful business climate of 2009, but here we are. I am delighted that Princeton Architectural Press, which produces gorgeous books about design, photography, and art, said yes. Special props to Nicola Bednarek, who acquired the book, and Dan Simon, who took it over last year and is editing it.

How did you research it?

Dozens of phone interviews, plus a whole bunch of time spent in Harvard Business School’s Baker Library, which houses Polaroid’s archives. Because of concerns about patent primacy, Polaroid was manic about recordkeeping; the policy seems to have been “save everything, and get it signed and dated.” In 2004, the company gave the whole heap (millions of pages of documents, and millions of photos, as well as tapes, records, videos, and just about every other kind of media) to HBS, where it is being slowly put in order by a staff of librarians, headed by a diligent guy named Tim Mahoney. The Polaroid archive is perhaps 20 percent sorted out now, with many years to go. (This project is likely to occupy the majority of Tim’s career.) I did not take a leave of absence from my job—I did this all on weekends, during the evenings, and with vacation time—so I had just a few frantic weeks at Harvard, reading and taking notes at top speed; fortunately, Baker Library allows researchers to work with a digital camera, so I often found myself snapping away, then reading the pages at home later on, to get the most out of my time there.

Can you still get film for a Polaroid camera?

Depends on your camera, but often, the answer is yes. Lots more about that here.

I have an old Polaroid camera. Is it worth anything?

In most cases, not much. It’s an issue of supply and demand: Polaroid photography was extremely popular, and there are a lot more cameras than there are people who want them. Exceptions are the professional models and the folding leather-covered SX-70 cameras, which each have small but intense followings. The most valuable cameras are the Model 180, 185, 190, and 195, which were marketed to professionals and have manual controls and good lenses. They typically sell in the $400-to-$500 range today, though you may luck out at a yard sale sometime.

The following models are also worth significant amounts to photographers and collectors:

SX-70 folding cameras (about $50 to $150, depending on condition and particular model)
SLR 680 and SLR 690 folding cameras (about $200, sometimes more)
Model 110/110a/110b (about $50 to $100; significantly more if they’ve been converted for today’s film)
Automatic 100/250/350/360/450 ($40 to $60; more if they’ve been reconditioned)

Most others, I’m sorry to say, are in the under-$20 range. (Your best real-world price guide is probably the Completed Auctions section of eBay.) They make nice decor, though. A friend of mine has a few lined up on her mantelpiece, and they look awesome.

Where can I learn more?

I’ve put together a basic guide to making instant pictures today here. There is, however, far more to read at the two principal Web depositories for Polaroid information. The Land List  is a very old site (1993!), and it needs some updating but is still fantastically useful. Instant Options goes it one better, incorporating the Land List’s data and bringing it up to date, and offering additional how-tos and news. Its proprietor also offers repairs and camera conversions (adapting old cameras to take film that’s available today, among other things), and I can tell you  that the man knows his shutters. You can also learn more at Flickr’s Polaroid discussion group.

Who built this Website?

The  charming, funny, and extremely talented Katie Van Syckle. She writes, she does Web stuff, she takes pictures, she waits tables, she spots and fixes my shoddy kerning. Really, you should hire her.


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