September 11, 2017

Exploring the Cultural Impact of Polaroid

Article submitted to the Polaroid Originals Magazine by Gregk Foley.

In his 2000 film Memento, Christopher Nolan tells the story of Leonard, a man tracking down the thieves who broke into his home and killed his wife years previously. It’s a classic revenge story, but with a twist; during his efforts to save his wife, Leonard was knocked down, receiving injuries that caused a form of amnesia which prevents him from creating new memories – every five minutes or so, he completely forgets where he is, what he’s doing, even why he’s doing it. As a result, Leonard develops various systems to help keep track of his life. These include tattoos that help him keep track of clues in his investigation, post-it notes stuck up around hotel rooms reminding him where he is, and a Polaroid camera, which he uses to photograph the people he meets, writing notes about them on the back of each photograph. One of the film’s most iconic shots occurs during the opening credits; a long shot of a Polaroid developing, played in reverse, the image slowly fading to grey in Leonard’s hand. Frustratingly, he even shakes the photo a few times – but in his defense, even if someone had told him he shouldn’t, he wouldn’t remember.

It’s an interesting cameo for Polaroid, because it speaks to the many different ways we know and understand the Polaroid camera. On one hand, Leonard using Polaroids to document new acquaintances and friends speaks to the way many of us use photography – to document the bonds we share in life.

But on another hand, his camera is a vital tool; a means of recording clues in his investigation – as a matter of fact, Polaroid cameras were often used in real-life police investigations because their instant nature makes them one of the only photographic mediums that cannot be manipulated, doctored, or tampered with. What you see is what you get.

On the highest level, however, Leonard’s Polaroid camera is more than a toy or a tool – it’s a part of him; his living, breathing memory. And Nolan’s use of it in his film speaks to that layered understanding of what Polaroid means in life and culture. It’s not just about the cameras and film; nor is it about the images collected through them; it’s about the truths we create through photographs (and sometimes the untruths, but I won’t spoil the film for you here).

Leonard probably would have gotten along with Rick Deckard 18 years earlier (or 19 years later, depending which universe you’re in). In Blade Runner, Harrison Ford’s character uses a complex scanning machine to analyze a photograph found at a crime scene. Gradually, the photograph is enlarged and enhanced until he has a crystal-clear image of one of the runaway replicants. As he prepares to head out into the streets, he orders the machine to give him a hard copy. The photograph it ejects? A Polaroid, complete with that iconic white frame. Turns out that in Ridley Scott’s dystopian future, when you need a physical picture, fast, there’s still nothing better than a Polaroid.

Nolan and Scott aren’t the only filmmakers to have explored this phenomenon. In the cult ‘90s coming-of-age film Clueless, Cher utters a line whilst trying on outfits that pierces the way photos alter how we view the world: “I don’t rely on mirrors, so I always take Polaroids.” Even when you’re looking at a literal mirror image of yourself, it can’t compare with a photograph of the very same moment. A Polaroid takes a single perspective, a subjective view, and transforms it into “Exhibit A”; the unquestionable truth. There’s just something about capturing a moment on a Polaroid camera that makes the whole thing… more real.

Except for when the thing you’re photographing doesn’t show up on film. In Beetlejuice, Winona Ryder has the genius idea of photographing Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis with her 600 camera to find out if the duo are really ghosts. When she can’t see their bodies beneath the two floating sheets in the photograph, she knows something strange is going on. A camera is a great tool for capturing the physical world, but if you’re taking photos of ghosts, you might have some problems.

Finally, in another Ridley Scott film, Thelma & Louise, the iconic female duo kick off their calamitous road trip by posing for a photo using a 600 camera – a moment often cited as the first instance of a “selfie” in popular culture, occurring all the way back in 1991. Anyone who’s ever tried to take a selfie with a 600 will know Susan Sarandon’s outstretched arm and backwards lean all too well, but she makes it look effortless. Hey, it’s Hollywood.

Though they might be rooted in fiction, each of these moments in cinema encapsulates what makes a Polaroid photograph so special – honesty. A Polaroid is uncompromising, candid, and impossible to recreate. And its instant nature allows you to both be in the moment, and document it at the same time. It’s true to life, in both aesthetic and application. But you were just as likely to encounter a Polaroid camera behind-the-scenes as you were on the screen. Polaroids were famously used in the fashion industry by designers and casting agents to document outfits and potential stars. Just a few years ago, three photographs of Kate Moss taken by Tom Ford during a fitting for Gucci’s Spring/Summer 1997 presentation surfaced, uniting a holy trinity of fashion names through the utility and practicality of a Spectra camera.

Photo by Tom Ford. Courtesy of 

Likewise, Polaroid cameras were often used by film directors on set as a way of testing lighting conditions before rolling the cameras, or maintaining continuity from shot-to-shot, or simply to document the process. Over the years, previously-unseen Polaroids have emerged from behind the scenes of countless cult films including The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Shining, Star Wars and, yes, Blade Runner (no sci-fi technology necessary). Often showing the actors on set, in costume but not in character, with cameras and cables scattered around them, the photos exist somewhere between reality and fiction; they allow us to see the creation of the worlds that we fell in love with on the screen.

Though we live in a world increasingly defined by digital culture, Polaroid cameras have endured for their ability to provide something no digital medium can. Just as there’s nothing like putting the needle down on a vinyl record, or reading a handwritten letter, there’s something about taking a photo with a Polaroid, hearing that click and whirr, watching the photo come to life, and bringing something into the physical world that is unlike anything else. Whether it ends up on your desk, in your wallet, or in a shoebox under the bed, that photo is all there is; a single object existing in a single place.

That’s why whenever you pull a Polaroid camera out, everybody wants a photo. But they don’t just want a photo; they want the definitive photo. They find a backdrop, grab their friends, frame the shot, strike a pose, and make it count. There’s an unspoken understanding that taking a photo with a Polaroid is about more than just creating an image. It’s about showing the world who you are – who you really are inside, whatever that means. It’s about creating your own truth, whether you’re tracking down killer robots in the year 2019, or just choosing a cute outfit to impress a boy at school.

When is a photo not a photo? When it’s a Polaroid.