December 19, 2017

The Missing Manual: All the techniques you’ve ever wanted to try with Polaroid

Ever wondered what might happen when you push the creative boundaries of our iconic white frame? Polaroid: The Missing Manual offers seasoned instant photographers, creative mavericks and vintage camera enthusiasts alike with ideas of how to re-imagine what a Polaroid photograph can be. We chatted with the book’s London-based author Rhiannon Adam about her motivation to create such a book in today’s digital world, and the techniques she would recommend for newcomers to the instant photography world.

Where did the idea for the book come about?

I’m not sure if it was an idea or a natural evolution. I had wanted to write a book about Polaroid for a very long time – I’ve been collecting Polaroid cameras and ephemera since I was a teenager and I always said I wanted to write a book. Granted, I always thought I’d write a novel, but turns out that my first text-based book is about instant photography instead! I actually first pitched a book on Polaroid in 2008, when instant photography had existed for 60 years and coincidentally that was also the year that Polaroid announced the end – we all thought that was that. That book would have been much more focused on the way that Polaroid changed the world historically and culturally than this one – back then I wasn’t so focused on writing a how-to for what I was convinced would be landfill-destined technology. I guess books are all about timing though, all those years ago, I remember that the reaction was that it was too niche a subject.

In the end, the commissioning editor for photography at Thames and Hudson, who followed my Instagram, saw a picture of mine that I had manipulated by applying toothpaste to the camera’s rollers to produce varying pressure. He wrote to me to ask if I would be interested in writing a book on Polaroid creative methods. As I had been doing so much workshop teaching, I had a lot of content already, and put together a proposal.

Since my first tentative steps towards the book a decade ago, several brilliant titles, such as those by Christopher Bonanos and Peter Buse have pretty much covered the Polaroid ‘story’ for those that are interested, so I wasn’t able to include quite as much historical context as I would have liked without repeating what they have said already – but I feel The Missing Manual contextualizes the creative methods with a good balance between the technical photographic side as well as the pop culture element which I hope will keep the title relevant for various purposes. Until this book, anything focused on the creative has old Polaroid as its center, and of course, those rules no longer apply. These days, the world of instant photography changes a lot – as you know – so it’s more difficult now to write a book focused on creative methods as I don’t have a crystal ball to see how the chemistry will adapt, or what new camera technology emerges. It would have been much easier to write this book 20 years ago when everything was stable. I remember even during the writing the I-1 was released and my editorial deadlines meant that even including it was difficult! So this book may be just the first iteration.

Who is this book for?

I’d say that this book is for anyone with even a passing interest in instant photography, or analog photography in a more general sense. I’ve tried very hard to include something for everyone – tips for the expert, little tidbits of information they may not know, and then manuals for the beginner. The artist showcases should provide inspiration to even those who think they know it all already, and for those that aren’t as familiar with the medium, this book is the walkthrough to becoming a card-carrying expert. It should be seen as a go-to resource for lovers of instant photography across all ages. It’s as much as I could fit into 240 pages! I hope it offers a different perspective that hasn’t been published in book form before, and with a level of detail that is as yet unmatched. It’s a shame that the release came just ahead of the Polaroid Originals launch – so to readers wondering at all the references to the Impossible Project – just swap them for Polaroid Originals and you’ll be good to go. The title varies in the different markets (it’s Polaroid: The Missing Manual in the UK, and Polaroid: Complete Guide to Experimental Instant Photography in the US). It’s also available in German, Italian, French, and Spanish.

Photo: Rhiannon Adam
Photo: Rhiannon Adam
Photo: Rhiannon Adam
Photo: Rhiannon Adam

Can you tell us more about the research process you went through for the extensive camera and film format guide sections?

Research is an interesting process – so different for everyone. I suppose I started with what I know, and I’m a bit of an anorak (for the non-Brits out there, that’s someone with an obsessive streak). I’ve always been this way – I like studying something in minute detail and knowing everything there is to know about a subject. I wrote my first draft by just sitting there with a blank page of Word open and writing freely. Then, of course, I filled in the nitty-gritty – fact checking again and again. Because of my ‘dog with a bone’ mentality when it comes to my obsessions, I have a huge collection of Polaroid books. I buy almost every Polaroid book I can find, even if it’s an obscure artist’s publication of 10 copies. I have an archive of all of the old Polaroid magazines, and lots of old sales catalogs and hundreds of instruction manuals too so I could see what films were released when what cameras emerged when. Then I would look up sales figures.

For the film sections, I also used Harvard’s Baker Library records to supplement resources like the Land List (which is fantastic and mostly correct but has a fair few gaps). I have been doing this a long time, so it helps that I know where to look. Sometimes I would follow Twitter threads or look through Flickr discussions, or back at comments left on Polanoid.net, or even by watching YouTube videos and following the threads below. I went to a lot of forums where I would find posts asking questions, the most common of which I made sure that I answered, and the more obscure ones I squeezed in when I could. I wanted this book to be a ‘one-stop-shop.’

Of course, I have had many years of experience of camera malfunction when I’ve least expected it, and I’ve taught a lot of workshops – so I know what people ask when they first handle a Polaroid camera, and I know how to fix routine issues out of necessity. There is no better research tool than the first-hand experience.

You also include a great selection of historical images of Edwin Land, and of Polaroid branding/packaging from decades past. How did you get access to these?

This was a bit of a challenge, but thanks to the MIT Museum, I was able to publish several early images of Land and of Polaroid. Land destroyed his personal papers, but the archive is split into two – the company and administrative records are in the care of Harvard, while the technology, including prototypes and film packaging, rests with MIT. In the writing of the book, I decided I had to go to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Polaroid began so that I could visit the archives. It was a great trip – I popped in to see John Reuter and the 20”x24” facility and had a tour of the New55 factory too.

It was absolutely worth the effort – and thanks to the MIT museum curator, Debbie Douglas, I was able to visit the MIT museum archive. Debbie dragged out boxes of prototype cameras and also a box that contained many beautiful examples of the film packaging. So I photographed many of those myself. It’s remarkably hard, for instance, to find a high-quality image of the original roll film packaging, so actually the archive was invaluable. I was also lucky that at the time I was writing the book, the MIT museum was hosting a small exhibition about Polaroid, and I was able to use some of the images that they had pulled from their archive for that purpose, including the early film test images. I didn’t have space for many, but I knew what I wanted – they had to be the key milestone images. It was a bit of a struggle to hunt them down. It’s difficult when archives are split and are so unwieldy that there hasn’t been time to index everything. It’s hard when photographers’ names aren’t listed, or when you can’t find who it was originally photographed for. You have to play detective.

Then, the best part of all, and a dream of mine – I was able to meet Paul Giambarba, Polaroid’s art director extraordinaire. Paul wrote to me many years ago asking if he could feature some of my images shot on Polaroid film on his blog. I was of course very flattered. I’ve always had an interest in graphics and design, and there is quite possibly no other logo as iconic as the Polaroid rainbow stripes. Apple comes close, but then Apple’s striped logo took its cue from Polaroid’s own. Back when I was first thinking of writing a more historical book, I had contacted a few people, like Paul, and Elsa Dorfman – I wanted to begin with a kind of Polaroid road trip, tracing the history and meeting key people along the way. Though that never happened, I knew that if I ever did write a book about Polaroid, I wanted to meet Paul. Without him, and the marketing success of Polaroid, we might not be chatting now. A great idea is just that, and every great idea needs so much more to make it into a success. Paul’s designs transformed Polaroid into an icon. He was incredibly gracious and after lunch over fish and chips, I spent a brilliant day with him and his wife at their home in Cape Cod. It was Halloween 2016, and one of my fondest memories of the book writing process. Paul kindly provided me with some images from his own archive too, and I’m delighted that he was involved. I’ll have to write another book so I have an excuse to visit!

You are, in your own right, a dedicated instant film lover and photographer. Were there other instant film artists and enthusiasts you worked with, especially to help build out the creative techniques section?

Yes, actually, it’s interesting – recently I’ve been called a “photographer and writer” in a few places, and I still can’t wrap my head around that title. I feel like a photographer through and through. As part of my own practice, instant film has always taken a central role. I’ve always been fascinated with the idea that a Polaroid is born in a place and develops on site, influenced by its environment. It seems noble and pure – for that reason no matter what sort of project I am doing, instant film always finds its way in.

To build out the creative techniques section, I didn’t approach other photographers for how-to help. That part was written through a process of me practicing each method and writing it down, then tweaking and re-doing the process and refining it. Of course there are many other photographers featured, but these were sourced after I had my rough chapters in place.

I wanted to include only work by lesser-known instant photographers. I wanted to show how experimental and creative the community is, and how such varied work can be produced. There are many instant photographers that are almost dismissed because they work with instant photography and that is seen as a ‘lesser’ medium. I wanted to show work that broke the bounds of instant photography stereotypes. I really sought out work that I believed to have merit, to be beautiful, to push the medium, to show what it is capable of. Each Polaroid image is entirely unique, and I wanted to showcase work that showed that uniqueness.

There are far too many photographers involved to mention individually, I think over 75 in total – but many instant favorites are in there like Ritchard Ton (SX-70 Manipulator), Ben Innocent, Philippe Bourgoin, Thomas Zamolo, Ina Echternach, Penny Felts, Brian Henry, Brandon Long, Dan Ryan, Toby Hancock, Patrick Winfield, Oliver Blohm, Carmen De Vos, the list goes on and on. Even if I had another 50 pages I would have had 10x too many images to fill them. In fact, my plan is to start posting all of the work in the book, and all the work I wished I could have featured on my new, dedicated, Instagram account @polaroidmissingmanual – the aim is for that account to become a kind of showcase platform for creative methods. Eventually if I can find the time, I’d like to extend it to a website that pools advice from all sorts of instant photographers. A lot of camera hacks exist but were a little too specific and niche for the book when space was at a premium, but I’d love to have a place to share this information in one place. A work in progress.

As instant photography grows in popularity again, it will only become more important to celebrate the culture of experimentation and DIY attitude that Polaroid photography necessitates.

"Dreamlands, Wastelands": Polaroid emulsion lift on paper by Rhiannon Adam

What are the three creative techniques from the book you would tell someone new to instant film photography (and manipulations) to start with?

The easiest one that opens up the most creative possibility is probably the transparency method where you peel apart the picture to leave just the image on the front plastic window. You really don’t need much more than a hairdryer. It takes a bit of practice, but the results can be beautiful when images are layered together. It’s a great starting point because the subsequent possibilities are endless.

For something a bit more abstract, try the Polaroid Decay method. There are many variables in doing this, but the method in the book focuses on simply submerging the image in water for prolonged periods of time so that the image degrades. This one is perfect for beginners as I’m sure at the start, as with learning any process, there will be many photo failures. This method allows you to turn your disasters into beautiful pieces of unique art. Of course, you can add chemicals to the water, or additional dyes to mix things up.

Roller manipulation is also very simple – of course, there is always some risk to your camera in doing this, so you have to make sure that whatever you put on the rollers of your camera is very firmly stuck! I love this method as it creates interesting pressure marks on the surface of the film. These can be in controlled shapes, or more random depending on what you use on your rollers. One of the most interesting elements of Polaroid film is that it makes use of a layered system of dyes. It is sensitive to temperature, moisture, pressure, and light. Almost all of the methods in the book can be defined by those categorizations – all of them hack one of these sensitivities to reveal the intrinsic quality of a Polaroid and the results will never be the same twice.

My favorite method is Emulsion Lifting, the method I teach the most (in fact next January I’ll be at The Photographer’s Gallery teaching it, and again in March at the V&A) – but that takes patience. Play with transparencies first, and then try lifting in your next experiments, you won’t be disappointed.

There’s a lot of evidence lately that analog photography is having a renaissance (we’re an example of this ourselves). What do you think it is about this particular cultural and historical moment that’s making this possible?

I think we live in very strange times. The difference between my childhood and that of my parents was not so different. We both had television, and read books, and played with our friends, and played board games and climbed trees.

These days the gulf  between generations and people in general is huge and getting wider. I remember trying to explain the internet to my grandmother and her just thinking it was pointless, because how would it change the way she lived her life… and it didn’t really. The technology we fill our experience with is often a barrier rather than an aid. We did well enough before it, and now we’re losing the essence of ourselves. I sometimes teach workshops in schools, and even though I consider myself to be pretty tech-savvy, my life is still focused on real-world experience, whereas the next generation seems to live half in the room and half in a digital cloud. Real life exists just to bolster a digital life and not the other way around.

Polaroid was first conceived to make life easier – to strip away unnecessary parts of the photographic process that took time – to create shared experiences. Almost to exist in spite of technology. These days, algorithms run our lives and take away the freedom of choice. I go to Amazon and it tells me to read books just like the books I already like. I go on Netflix and I’m told to watch shows it knows I will enjoy. So where is the opportunity to encounter new and unpredictable experiences? These days, we go to a birthday party, and recording it for the people who are not there seems to be more important than having fun in the moment. We go on a trip and we show off about it on our Instagram feeds. Life is global at every moment, and I think we’ve lost the ability to make real connections in real life. To feel things, to touch things. To think about each other and not just ourselves, to have empathy.

I think analog technologies, Polaroid photography included, are more important now than ever. I can’t claim that Polaroid can teach empathy, but I think that people are craving something that is missing today in so many interactions, and Polaroid helps to fill that gap. The shared experience of watching something develop, the magic of it, the way that it changes according to where it was taken does bring people together. It’s honest. It’s visceral and real. I think we need reminding that life exists off a screen and that some experiences can’t be relived in replay. It’s maybe a little ironic that Polaroid is now seen as slow photography by comparison to taking pictures on our iPhones – but instead of becoming outdated, the prevalence of digital has only cemented instant photography’s importance. We all got a little distracted by progress, and are now starting to wake up to the fact that life should be lived in three dimensions. While we still remember that, there’ll be a place for it. For me, I’ve always said that the death of Polaroid was like telling a painter that there would be “no more oil paint, but don’t worry there’s still water color and acrylic.” Some things you can’t substitute. It’s a medium in its own right, and not just ‘photography’. Like all good relationships, the more you invest, the more you will take away. There’ll be hiccups along the way, but I think we need to remember life is imperfect, humans fail, technology is fallible, and my work with Polaroid has certainly reinforced that again and again.

Photo: Rhiannon Adam

Who are your favorite artists working in instant photography today?

Read the book and find out! Just kidding. So many of my own favorites made it in there though, so have a look through the contributors’ list for a rough “Who’s Who” of instant photography today. I don’t want to write a list because I’m afraid I’ll forget someone and there are so many amazing people out there that inspire me on a daily basis. I’m lucky that my Instagram feed is filled with daily doses of inspiration from my favorite people and there are so many pushing the boundaries or those who simply have a fantastic eye. One thing I wish I could have done more of in the book would have been just to show brilliant shots – not necessarily ones that were manipulated, but there wasn’t space for that. If I had managed to include more camera hacks, I would have included people like Rommel Pecson more prominently. Or I would have loved to have included work by people like Dan Isaac Wallin who make beautiful large-format works. I also love Lukas Brinkmann’s work. I love people like Stefanie Schneider – I find the off-kilter nature of her world strangely comforting! If I could own the work by any instant photographer – or photographer working with instant photography, I have to mention Ellen Carey. She didn’t fit the brief of lesser-known photographers so I couldn’t put her in my book, but I just love her work. I’d give my right arm to own something of hers but sadly I don’t think anyone would pay enough for my right arm to make that happen! For those that don’t know her, do go and look. Her work isn’t really photography but experimental light experiments captured on instant film.

What are some of the most iconic instant photography images, and why are they so well-recognized?

Iconic images, that’s actually quite tough as it depends on who you’re talking to and then also whether its obvious that an image was taken on Polaroid or not. There are plenty of iconic Polaroid photos that are shown with the borders cropped off that no one realizes are shot with instant film! Photographers like Sarah Moon or Paolo Roversi made famous advertising campaigns and editorials that used Polaroid photos and you wouldn’t know, but you might know the pictures. Fashion photography has always embraced the Polaroid – I suppose it’s a style overwhelmingly concerned with generating a mood. So the way of getting there is less important than the mood of the image. When Polaroid was used on all professional shoots for testing, sometimes the Polaroid would end up being better than the final shot. So it can be difficult to define iconic – is a Polaroid an iconic Polaroid if it’s not known to be a Polaroid, or is it then just an iconic image that happens to be a Polaroid?

David Hockney, of course, can’t be forgotten, and all of Warhol’s work with the Big Shot camera. Then you have Guy Bourdin and Helmut Newton, and people like Robert Mapplethorpe. Many famous photographers have used the medium, and it’s sometimes hard to distinguish whether an image is iconic because it was made by someone well-known, or whether its because it was taken on Polaroid and that element adds a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’. With my list, I’d say that Hockney’s work stands out as being Polaroid specific, and Warhol’s. Hockney’s composites made the small format big and exhibition worthy – and it sat well within his oeuvre of playing with perspective and his embracing of new technology. Warhol too, his Big Shot pictures formed the basis for his paintings and screens, so the imagery is even more familiar with its reinforced again and again with every reproduction. Those pictures have an obvious consistency – the camera dictated that you had to stand at a fixed distance and move back and forth to achieve focus, so everyone is shot from virtually the same angle. The disposable Magicube flashes that the camera used resulted in images that were blown out but crisp and graphic – the images already looked like prints.

All of these artists and photographers are very well known in their own right and their Polaroids are a continuation of their other work, so I suppose you could say that having a consistent creative voice helps to make something iconic! Polaroid was also, at the time that these artists were at their height, prolific. It was dominant and released new product all of the time. It was the Instagram of their era – to embrace it was to be modern. Artists wanted to see what it could do, what the fuss was about, and Polaroid supported them through support programs to encourage boundary-pushing work. It was very reciprocal. These days we see Polaroid more as an homage to a bygone era – quaint rather than boundary-pushing. If we can move it away from that nostalgic framework there’ll be a greater space for new iconic images to be created without being seen as simply adhering to a trope, or standing as a shorthand for a kind of nostalgic legitimacy.

Instant photography was originally about making the photographic process more accessible to everyone. How do you think that tradition can continue today, in the digital age?

I’m actually not sure that instant photography can make the photographic process more accessible today. I think we all collectively understand the photographic process much better today that we ever have in history. Almost everyone carries around a camera in their pockets and uses it all the time. 25 years ago, if I said I was running a workshop to teach you how to use an instant camera, you would have laughed. You would have gone to a shop and picked one up and followed the foolproof instructions and you’d be fine. But that’s because the alternative was a more complicated process that involved film loading, and maybe a camera that required some knowledge of aperture and shutter speed. Today, you take out your phone and point it at something and there you go. An image available to billions of people worldwide created in a thousandth of a second. Polaroid can’t complete with that, and it shouldn’t try. But I do think that as a result of this flood of imagery we expose ourselves to and create daily, we have forgotten that photography is an art form that takes time and dedication to master. Polaroid can be expensive. What you have to capitalize on is the experience, that taking Polaroids is worth the cost. Sometimes when I’m teaching photography, I give students a Polaroid camera to use for an opening session. These are usually students that work almost exclusively with digital, and the attitude is often that the picture from the camera is just the beginning of a process. That framing can be adjusted after the fact, that imperfections in angle can be ironed out in post. Giving them an instant SLR like an SX-70, where each shot costs £1.90, teaches them to think about photography as having a value, that you should take time over getting it right in the first place. That quantity doesn’t equal quality. The slowing down to think, and the cost, these can be the things that make Polaroid relevant. These can be seen as barriers, but rather they are opportunities to think differently about image making. It’s a treat, an experience.

Photo: Rhiannon Adam

Want to get the New Year off to a creative start? Attend a workshop with Rhiannon for yourself at TPG in London via https://thephotographersgallery.org.uk/whats-on/events/the-social-getting-to-know-your-polaroid-camera