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Cynical Optimism: A final tribute to my dear friend, the Polaroid

By Samantha Shokin

Section: Arts

March 13, 2009

There was always something deliciously satisfying about a Polaroid snapshot. The process itself was an event—the blinding clap of flash, the moment’s anticipation, then the single square of blackened photo paper that came streaming out of a grotesquely bulky object which, by today’s standards, would be laughable to call a portable device. Somehow the act of furiously flapping a photograph in the air to get it to develop “instantly” seems ridiculously old school, and yet, longingly nostalgic.

But alas—the days of instant Polaroids are no more.

When I heard some months ago that Polaroid was getting out of the Polaroid business I was slightly devastated. According to Patrick J. Lyons of the New York Times: “The company, which stopped making instant cameras for consumers a year ago and for commercial use a year before that, said that as soon as it had enough instant film manufactured to last it through 2009, it would stop making that, too.”

Granted, this was bound to happen sooner or later. There is really no place for Polaroids in an age where cell phones are considered inferior if they can’t take pictures. But I feel like the end to Polaroids is premature, like I never got to say goodbye—never got to formally part with a dear old friend. I shutter to think—excuse the bad pun, couldn’t resist—that the lyrics to Outkast’s “Hey Ya” will make absolutely no sense to future generations. Shake it like a what? Young’uns will ask me, and I’ll just sigh in my pathetic oldfolkiness.

For all you Polaroid-enthusiasts out there: www.beforeidieiwantto.org. Check it. Browse it. Put on some music that makes you feel artsy and act like it. Because really, you can’t compare the candid quality of an instant, less-than-perfect quality photograph with today’s abundant digital ‘pix’. How many times have you deleted an unflattering photo on a digital camera? It is the perfect imperfection of an immediate print that makes one so appealing. No editing on iPhoto, no untagging on Facebook—just satisfaction in holding the tangible form of a single instant between your fingertips. And then, of course, defying its white borders with a permanent Sharpie marker.

“Summer ’95. Me+sis baking cookies.” No, it just doesn’t have the same appeal in print as it does scrawled in my five-year-old chicken scratch on the white border of a Polaroid. My relatives, as proud new parents, frantically try and document every moment of their kids’ adolescence with literally hundreds of digital photographs. But then I look at the few cherished snapshots I have in my possession and can’t help but feel that they’re so much more meaningful in their small quantity. Not to mention that everything looks so much more charmingly retro on instant film.

I think to what will happen when I decide to look through a photo album one day in the distant future. All the memories I have now will be floating around somewhere in cyber space or trapped inside someone’s cold and impersonal hard drive. I want future generations to preserve the essence of the illustrious Polaroid. I want my moments to remain captured and unedited. I miss the days when photographs weren’t abused solely for my friends on the Internet to convince me that they have bustling social lives. But mostly, I’m just nostalgic. I bid thee adieu, dear Polaroid. Andre 3000’s lyrics will never be the same again.

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