ESSAY- Polaroid shuttered: The end of the little white square

It looks like instant film photography is set to go the way of the VCR and cassette player, another commercial casualty of the digital revolution. The last wheeze of analogue photography was audible in a February 8 announcement from Polaroid headquarters that the company is effectively shutting down production of its film manufacturing lines. In the end, the instant photo was not instant or versatile enough, it seems, to compete with the immediacy of the digital age.

Polaroid has now stopped making its instant film and expects supplies to run out completely in 2009. While the organization stopped manufacturing commercial type cameras almost two years ago, the slow realization that film photography has had its day will come as little consolation to the company's global workforce. Factories will close in Massachusetts, Mexico, and the Netherlands, leaving a core staff of about 150 employees at its headquarters at Concord, California.

Polaroid began by making polarized sunglasses in the 1930s and introduced its first instant camera in 1948. The company moved to cartridge film in 1963 with its 100-series camera, which became a staple of professional photographers. Many of these photographers used Polaroid to take test photos, instantly checking lighting and composition before committing an image to a negative.

Over the years, Polaroid used several well-known names to promote its cameras, including Sir Laurence Olivier and Vincent Price. Ali McGraw made her debut in a camera advertisement, while Kermit the Frog and the Muppets were the face of the firm in the 1980s. Andy Warhol was an outspoken fan of the Polaroid and used the camera many times in his work.

The Massachusetts-based company is interested in licensing its film technology to others, but if that doesn't happen, then its film supply will likely run out in 2009.

Plans include the release a new photo printer this year, weighing just 8-ounces and printing card-sized pictures.

At the height if its powers, in the 1970s, the company employed over 20,000 workers. The decision to stop production was "due to dramatic technological changes in the photographic industry," the company says, "which will see the organization transitioning from its analog instant film business into new and innovative digital instant photography technologies."

Looking to the future, the statement notes that the "company looks forward to creating instant memories for customers with exciting new digital instant and consumer electronics products." It is understood that Polaroid will belatedly focus on producing digital cameras, portable printers for mobile phones, TVs and DVD players. 

Hello, and welcome to the 21st century.

Yet perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Polaroid's demise has been the pace at which digital technology has consumed the world of film photography. Having created its name in the years following World War II, Polaroid's instant photography products went on to become a worldwide brand name. The key to its success was that film packs contained the chemicals for developing images inside the camera, and photos emerged from the camera in less than a minute. In the 1970s, in particular, a whole generation became fascinated by the ability to turn white squares of paper into cherished family memories.

By the 1980's, though, hostile takeover bids and some wayward investing meant the company was caught largely unawares by the advancement of digital photography. Polaroid's overall revenue peaked in 1991 at nearly $3 billion, yet by 2001 the company was forced into bankruptcy, and was eventually bought in 2005 for a meager $426 million. 

Yet popular culture was still enthralled– Outkast's 2003 global number one song, "Hey Ya!" featured singer Andre 3000 urging people to "Shake it like a Polaroid picture."

"Despite this, the company was just too slow to adapt," says Barney Britton of Amateur Photography Magazine, "so inevitably the future now for film photography is that it will either become a niche market, or phased out entirely as a going commercial concern."

In keeping with this, Kodak sought to increase the retail cost of its products, and many experts are now predicting that standard 35mm film will become more expensive as supplies begin to wane.

Ironically, the announcement from Polaroid has sparked a sales stampede on the once-fashionable cameras with enthusiasts rushing to snap up what's left before the supply runs out. Some industry professionals, mainly in film and medicine, who use Polaroids to check light settings or test a shot, are now concerned that alternative technology will have to be found. For example, in medicine, dermatologists use Polaroid film printed with grid patterns to help measure shrinkage in scars over time. At present, digital imaging doesn't yet provide a reliable alternative for their work, and many within these industries are now buying the remaining Polaroid products in bulk.

Others, though, have already moved with the times. Tony Murphy, a lecturer in art and digital technology, says that very few students are taught traditional film photography methods nowadays.

"For the last three years most teaching has been almost exclusively digital, and college dark rooms are rarely used," he says. "The simple fact is that now students can carry a digital darkroom under their arm, so to speak, in the form of a laptop. The whole process is more cost effective."

The key to modern teaching methods, says Murphy, is applying traditional techniques to digital technology, so that students put some considered thought behind image making. The digital methods taught are very much in line with students' everyday experience, he argues. 

"Students these days are coming from an era of technology, and most of them hardly remember film at all," Murphy says. "Their parents might have an instant camera in a drawer somewhere, but mostly these students have mobile phones with digital cameras. So they always have the ability to produce images. The student wants the fix now and doesn't want to wait one hour, or three hours, to get their results processed. Times have changed."

The company is looking to survive by gaining a belated foothold in digital photography, with plans to sell a tiny photo printer, slightly bigger than a deck of cards, that requires no ink and prints business card-sized pictures. 

As for the existing technology, Thomas Beaudoin, chief operating officer of the company, says officials are hopeful another firm might take on the patent and keep Polaroid products in stock.

"We're working very hard to find some alternatives with people who might be able to take the recipe. We can't promise anything," he said.

This story originally appeared in the Irish Times.