Enthusiasts worry about post-Polaroid era

Polaroid announced end of film era earlier this week
February 14, 2008 5:12:43 AM PST
When Jerry Conlogue heard Polaroid will soon stop producing its instant film, he worried about his mummies.Conlogue uses Polaroid film when he travels deep into the Peruvian jungle to take X-ray photographs of ancient mummies so he doesn't have to lug cumbersome developing chemicals. Now he and other enthusiasts who use the film for art or specialized industrial photography are left wondering where they'll go to stay stocked.

"We're incredibly despondent," said Conlogue, co-director of the Bioanthropology Research Institute at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn., where researchers frequently visit remote sites to capture X-ray images of mummies. "I don't really feel that there is going to be a replacement for it, which is a real problem."

Concord, Mass.-based Polaroid Corp. announced last week that it plans to close factories in Massachusetts as well as Mexico and the Netherlands that make film formats for industrial and consumer uses.

Polaroid instant film will be available in stores into next year, the company said. Meanwhile, Polaroid - which stopped making instant cameras over the past couple years - is seeking a partner to acquire licensing rights, in hopes that another firm will continue making the instant film and keep limited supplies available.

Polaroid introduced its first instant camera in 1948, just as the baby boom got started and parents were looking for new ways to take photos of their kids. Film packs contained the chemicals for developing images inside the camera, and photos emerged from the camera in less than a minute.

Now, some camera buffs who still use Polaroids for fun are trying to buy as much as they can.

Joe Howansky, a 23-year-old professional photo technician from Queens who has shown Polaroid shots at art galleries in New York City, said he bought $800 worth of Polaroid film at a discount warehouse club after he learned Friday that Polaroid planned to stop producing its film.

"I expected it was inevitable," Howansky said. "But I went right out to stock up."

Howansky now has enough to snap 800 Polaroid shots. While he also uses digital cameras that can yield an image within a second after snapping a photo, Howansky likes Polaroid film because he finds its nostalgic quirkiness gets his creative juices flowing.

"It has an intangible quality that fits with walking down the street, and I see something cool, and snap a photo of it," he said.

Although Polaroid instant film may seem an anachronism in an age of digital photography, it's still widely used for industrial applications.

For example, in medicine, dermatologists use Polaroid film printed with grid patterns to help measure shrinkage in scars over time, said Michael Phelan, a sales manager at Calumet Photographic in Cambridge who works with industrial photography customers.

"There is no substitute for it, and there is no other product out there that is a viable alternative," said Phelan, who said his store has received several calls in recent days from customers worried about Polaroid film supplies.

In medicine, he said, people resisted going digital in some fields, because it is so much more convenient to just snap a Polaroid. "It's easier than having to worry about files, and downloading ... Anyone can pick it up and use it, and walk away with an image in a minute," he said.

Steve Rosenthal, a retired architectural photographer, used Polaroids throughout his career to take test photos and check on lighting and composition before taking a final shot using standard film. He's also spent four decades as a hobbyist using Polaroids to snap photos of churches across New England.

The 67-year-old has enough film for 60 Polaroid shots, stored in a refrigerator at his home in Manchester-by-the-Sea, Mass. "I've got a few boxes now, and I've got to be pretty careful about how I use it now," said Rosenthal, who plans to order more film soon.

At EP Levine, a photography store in Boston, business from both instant film and regular film has shrunk with the advent of digital photography. But there's still demand for instant film, especially among photography teachers who require large-format film, said Jay Callum, the store's president.

"We will keep the inventory until the bitter end, because there are people who want it," he said. "But it's hard to imagine the photo business without Polaroid being a part of it."