Polaroid had been in the instant-photography business for a long time by 1972 when it introduced the seminal, revolutionary SX-70. At last, instant photography was one-button simple.
Earlier Polaroid cameras all involved pulling the photo out of the camera, waiting some amount of time for the image to develop, and then peeling the photo off a backing. It was a fussy, messy process, and entirely too easy to get wrong. The SX-70 changed the game. The camera ejected the photo, which developed before your eyes in a few minutes. No pulling, no peeling.
I was five when Polaroid introduced the SX-70. I remember feeling raw awe over such a magical device. I desperately wanted to hold one in my hands and to press its red button. But such things were unattainable to my working-class family; the SX-70’s $180 price tag might as well have been a million dollars. It’s equivalent to $1,000 in 2013 dollars.
That’s not to say my family didn’t value photographs. Mom saved green stamps for a long time to earn a 126 camera with a rare built-in electronic flash. She recorded family events with that camera for 20 years and has boxes full of square snapshots to prove it. But even if you could get SX-70 cameras with green stamps, the $7 ($39 in 2013) film packs would have kept Mom away.
I came upon my SX-70 last year in a small-town antique store. I talked the fellow down to $40 and walked out in sheer glee over my good fortune. Check eBay: SX-70s routinely sell for $100 and up.
Yet I hedged on buying film for it. Genuine Polaroid SX-70 film has been out of production since about 2006. The Impossible Project has been trying for years to make a good substitute. Given that they had to start from almost scratch, lacking any of Polaroid’s original formulations, that they have succeeded at all is a modern miracle. But their early efforts were far from right, remaining highly sensitive to light for several minutes after being ejected from the camera. You had to shield a print as it ejected or it would be fogged. What a pain. And the film was and is shockingly expensive, at about $25 for an eight-exposure pack. So I held off.
But then they introduced a more resilient film called Color Protection that still developed best in the dark, but it no longer needed to be shielded upon ejection. And so I tried it. When I inserted a pack into my SX-70, I was both thrilled and relieved when the camera immediately ejected the plastic cover that protected the eight exposures below. The camera worked! There’s no way to test an SX-70 without film, as the pack contains the battery that powers the camera. Polaroid engineers wanted fresh film always to mean fresh power.
I was surprised to find it difficult to frame shots with my SX-70. You have to hold the camera just right to see anything in the viewfinder, and I had some trouble with it. But with care it is possible to fill the frame, as this through-the-viewfinder photo proves. The SX-70 is an SLR; what you see is what you will get.
I had an errand to run in a little business district near my home. It’s part of a wonderful residential neighborhood full of early-20th-century houses, with cars parked at the curb. I walked the neighborhood with my SX-70 looking for colorful cars to photograph. Because most cars today are white, black, or some shade of beige. I spent a couple hours walking to find and photograph seven colorful cars.
The eighth, or rather the first, was my car in my driveway. I needed to see what kind of exposure the camera would yield. Yet impatience got the better of me and I photographed the next two cars without knowing. The original SX-70 films developed in minutes; not so films from The Impossible Project. The Color Protection film develops in 30 to 40 minutes. It’s a drag, really. But finally this shot finished developing, and I could see that it was a bit overexposed.
This Mercury Sable wagon was the first car I photographed on the street. It was especially overexposed. I helped it along some in Photoshop after I scanned it.
The SX-70 has but two controls: a focusing wheel above the shutter button, and a lighten/darken wheel opposite it along the front panel. I moved the wheel to the second tick mark on the darken side and kept shooting. I guessed right, as this photo of a Chevrolet Camaro attests.
The focusing wheel moves smoothly, and if you can get a clear image in the viewfinder it’s easy to home in on sharp focus. I’m sure my troubles with that viewfinder were made worse by my haste; I was, after all, crouching in the middle of city streets to get these images.
The lighter streak down the middle of each of these prints tells me that my SX-70 needs a cleaning. The rollers inside the camera do get dirty, and I’m sure sitting unused for who knows how long doesn’t help. A voice inside my head nagged me to clean the rollers before I used the camera, but I’m altogether too good at ignoring that voice. I like this photo of a Honda Civic for the dreamlike sky.
I am so glad I finally got to experience an SX-70, 40 years after first being dazzled by its magic. But I can’t imagine that I’ll use it again. The film is too expensive and the image quality isn’t that good. And I was surprised by how much difficulty I had with that viewfinder.
Still, the SX-70 is leagues easier to use than my favorite Polaroid camera, the large, unwieldy Automatic 250. It uses the older peel-apart films, which inherently require more care and fuss and always result in a sticky backing that has to be thrown away. But I get far sharper and better-exposed images from it.
But these SX-70 images are still magical. The colors aren’t true to life, but they’re true to the camera, and they create an appealing world into which I wish I could step. My time on the streets of Indianapolis with the SX-70 in hand seem somehow different from the images that resulted, as if the camera reached through a dimensional portal to capture the moment on a different plane.
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