November 27, 2017

Behind The Magic: Anatomy of a Polaroid Picture

Taking the current exhibition, ‘Instant Stories: Wim Wenders’ Polaroids as a point of departure, a panel of scientists, creatives and cultural thinkers unpacked the complex chemistry behind analog instant photography at The Photographer’s Gallery last week. Chaired by writer and author, Peter Buse, the panel included our very own Scientist and CTO: Stephen Herchen, Photographer, and writer, Kyler Zeleny, plus London-based photographer Emily-Rose England who explored Polaroid’s popularity and cultural resonance then and now and reflected on its unique ability to be both a form of rehearsal and performance in artistic practice.

The Anatomy of a Polaroid at The Photographer's Gallery, London

Creating a photograph with instant film is part imagination, part science, a dash of luck and a lot of chemistry. Make that a whole heck of a lot of chemistry. But what happens, exactly, after you press the shutter button on your Polaroid camera? What’s going on under the surface in the seconds before your image is revealed?

Time to find out.

The Anatomy of a Polaroid at The Photographer's Gallery, London
The Anatomy of a Polaroid at The Photographer's Gallery, London

So what is instant film, anyway?

Instant film is kind of a misnomer. It isn’t just film. It’s film that automatically self-develops into a photographic image. But saying that every time would be kind of a mouthful, so we just say instant film. (Instant analog film, to be precise. And instant analog film has to be VERY precise.)

Think about it: there is virtually no other situation in which a 3.1” x 3.1” sheet of plastic and chemicals turns into a perfectly (well, sometimes not-so perfectly) rendered image, right before your very eyes, without leaving the palm of your hand.

It seems simple. It looks downright easy. But the process behind it is one of the most complex chemical processes on the planet. If you’d like to delve headfirst into the science, we recommend the first 20 minutes of the recording below where our CTO Stephen Herchen explains it expertly in (almost) layman’s terms.

And whose idea was it?

It’s probably up for debate who actually thought of instant film first in the whole history of the world. But here’s our favorite version of the story.

In 1943, Edwin Land was on vacation. He had just taken a photograph of his daughter, who was 3. She, in true toddler fashion, asked why she couldn’t see the picture yet. And that question gave him an idea.

Before we go further, we should probably mention that Edwin Land was a scientist who had dropped out of Harvard to research the application of polarizing light filters. He would go on to found Polaroid, which at the time produced various polarized lens products for certain branches of the military.

Anyway. Just four years after he had accepted the challenge his daughter had (unknowingly) made, he would announce his invention: a one-step dry process for making fully developed photos approximately one minute after taking them. The first. Ever.

Of course, that film looked and acted differently than the film we make today. The film we make today is called integral film, which means one frame of it contains all the chemical layers needed to expose, develop and “fix” (aka keep from disappearing) the photo. That film was first introduced in 1972, and could instantly self-develop, even in bright daylight.

Thus, instant film.

Interesting. But how does instant film actually work?

Each frame of Polaroid Originals instant film looks like one nice, neat sheet. But it is so much more. So much more, we tell you!

The part where the image will ultimately appear is a multi-layered cake of light-sensitive components and chemical coatings. The wide part of the white frame at the bottom is keeping a small pod of reagent (basically a blend of opacifiers, alkali and white pigment) safe.

When you press the shutter button, those light-sensitive layers get exposed with your perfectly framed shot of a tree, building or face. Then, as the film sheet gets ejected from the camera front, it passes through two rollers. The rollers pop open that little pod, and spread all that reagent goodness out evenly down the center of the light-sensitive layers and the captured-image layer.

That reagent reacts with the other chemicals, launching a few different processes at once. One process develops the image. One process keeps that developing image safe from light. And the last process is a reaction with an acid layer that turns the opacifiers transparent. And when those opacifiers turn transparent, presto! Your fully developed image is revealed.

Now it’s your turn. Tag us in your fully developed photos, #PolaroidOriginals.