THINGS COME APART:
What’s in an analogue instant camera?
NOTES: To use a Polaroid Onestep today practically means retraining yourself – there’s no zoom, little exposure control, an old-fashioned viewfinder, and a finite amount of film. Recreating a Onestep, which was the goal of The Impossible Project, the company that first sought to reverse-engineer Polaroid film before buying the defunct brand, rechristening itself Polaroid Originals, and creating the Onestep 2 in homage to the classic, was even more difficult. Polaroid’s breakthrough was devising a darkroom the size of an index card, and its chemistry, which supported an entire supply chain of companies – most of which failed when Polaroid did – proved exceedingly difficult to recreate. And it had to be done right, because a Polaroid is the rare device that transcends function: We can tell you that when one of those magical photographs shoots out the front, and the subject emerges slowly from a fog, it’s the result of lots of impressive engineering and advanced chemistry; harder to put into words is that it’s also an apt representation of the way we recall the most important moments of our lives from the thickening mists of memory.
Appraise your subject carefully. A modern digital camera uses mirrors or a screen to help you see exactly what it sees; a Polaroid suffers from the parallax effect: Because the viewfinder (4) is offset from the camera’s lens (1), what you’ll see framing up a shot will be slightly different from the picture. Next, consider how much light you have. Polaroids want lots of it, so the flash (2) is on by default, but if you press and hold the flash inhibit button (8) while taking the picture, you can switch it off. Similarly, the trim switch (6) allows you to adjust the aperture – the opening that lets in light – and shutter speed to allow in a bit more or less light than the camera thinks it needs (like, say, if you want a washed-out picture of a day at the beach or a dim interior at a party). Once you’ve got that figured out, press the two-stage shutter button (5) halfway to activate the camera’s light meter and rangefinder (11). The light meter figures out how long it needs to leave the shutter open, and the rangefinder uses an infrared LED (12) to figure out at what distance to focus. (The amount of infrared light bounced back by the scene indicates distance.) Press the shutter button the rest of the way to snap the picture.
As light enters the camera body (7), it bounces off an angled mirror (10) and reflects down to the negative in the film cassette (15). (The negative is one layer of the thing that will ultimately pop out of the camera; the positive, a clear sheet, is another.) The image imprints on to the light-sensitive negative. Then the film (3) is ejected, pushed by a motor (13) through two rollers (9) at the front of the camera. The rollers guide the film out and, as the film passes through them, burst a pod of chemicals located on the white strip at the bottom of the picture (where you write the date or a witty caption). The chemicals develop the picture and protect it from light – they are both the darkroom and what happens inside it. To further shield the film from light in its initial seconds out in the world, when it is most vulnerable, a plastic shield (14) ejects with the film, then retracts back into the camera when you pull the picture free. At that point, it’s a waiting game while the chemicals transfer the negative image to the positive, creating a fully developed record of your life. – Kevin Dupzyk