March 13, 2018

How a Toy Designer Began Restoring and Customizing SX-70 Cameras

Article submitted to the Polaroid Originals Magazine by DJ Pangburn.  

When Matt Widmann was a kid, the Polaroid SX-70 OneStep camera was a household attraction. Intrigued by its distinctive appearance and the noise it made, and with his parents’ permission, Widmann began taking photos with the SX-70. At nine years old, it wasn’t as if he was taking fine art photographs. Instead, he was rather more enamored with how it worked.

But as the years passed, digital photography took hold—first with cameras, then with smartphones. The capturing of images became more convenient, and Widmann essentially moved on with the times. However, when Polaroid ceased production of instant analogue film stock back in 2008, Widmann wondered what would happen to the instant analogue community, as well as to the cameras that would be effectively rendered obsolete.

So when Impossible Project began selling instant analogue stock back in 2010, Widmann took notice. He set out to find a working SX-70 camera and begin taking instant analogue photos with it. At the time, Widmann had no idea that this impulse would lead him to the repair and customization of Polaroid cameras through his company, 2nd Shot SX70 Service.

“There is a part of this that has a nostalgic feel to it: people remember using these cameras, so that’s where it started with me,” says Widmann. “But my actual interest in shooting film was when Fuji was making Packfilm. I found an old Polaroid Land Camera Automatic at an estate sale or flea market, and started using that with Packfilm.”

Widmann is something of a serial hobbyist. Before he got into shooting and later repairing instant analogue cameras, he restored a Volkswagen Beetle as well as a VW Bus. Upon finishing the Bug restoration, Widmann suddenly had no idea what to do with himself. At the time, he was searching for a working SX-70 camera, but an instant analogue hobby didn’t immediately reveal itself.

“Every camera I bought was broken,” recalls Widmann. “Over time, if you let things sit, they degrade; age takes over, weakening the camera’s plastics and metals. I had this graveyard of eight or nine cameras and it was sad, so I just started tinkering.”

But Widmann isn’t your average DIY hobbyist and tinkerer. Before launching the SX-70 service in 2012, he worked as a toy designer at Fisher-Price, for whom he still does some contract work. In a sense, Widmann was already primed to work on the guts and aesthetics of SX-70s.

“I was like, ‘You know what, I’ve got eight of these cameras, so let’s see if I can cobble together one and get it to work on a regular basis,’ and I did,” Widmann remembers. In short order, he resurrected another SX-70 and sold it to New York state resident who ran a mom and pop camera shop.

“This guy said, ‘I have a couple more of these, do you want to try and fix them?’” says Widmann. “I replied, ‘I guess so, but if I break them, I’m sorry—you’re going to be my guinea pig because I don’t really know what I’m doing, but if I screw them up I’ll gladly pay you for the parts.”

A number of things could be wrong with old SX-70 cameras, depending on how they were handled and stored, as well as how often they were operated. Widmann says much of his work involves removing rust and fungus from SX-70s and other models left in damp basements. Other models need minor repairs to the plastic and metal components, like the gears and motors that drive the camera’s instant development process.

Oftentimes Widmann replaces the leather skins on the camera’s bottom panel, which he gets custom-made from Aki-Asahi, a supplier in Japan. Widmann also quickly discovered that if the camera was regularly used, the constantly moving parts generally kept the unit in good shape.

“Some of the cameras need a new motor, others need some readjustments, and then there are full tear-down projects,” Widmann explains. “Those are the ones I like doing because they’re often from customers who have a camera that is very special to them for sentimental reasons; like it was their grandmother’s camera, and the grandmother used it to take pictures of the kids growing up.”

But in repairing SX-70 cameras, Widmann and other service people are at the mercy of available parts. He constantly scours the internet for units beyond repair, which contain parts that can serve as the guts or “donors,” as he calls them, for restoration projects.

After his first SX-70 restoration projects, Widmann began posting photos and video of his work and process on Instagram. This not only brought in more business for his classic SX-70 restorations but led Widmann down the path of custom designs.

“[The custom projects] are where you really start having fun, and it makes it really unique for the customers,” says Widmann. “At my old job we used to do kitbash stuff, where you basically take parts from all kinds of products and make them into a new one and flash them up a bit. I wanted to differentiate myself a bit from a business standpoint, and I wanted to add some flash to an SX-70, so I just tore it down and painted it.”

“I love the art side of the product, so this was a nice chance to get back in touch with fine arts photographers and make a unique expression for customers,” he adds. “The custom skins can be taken on and off, but the paint is permanent and relatively one of a kind. I did a glow-in-the-dark camera, which to this day is my absolute favorite product I’ve done.”

Widmann’s Instagram posts also brought him into a Polaroid and instant analogue community that he didn’t really know existed. The social media platform is now a way to connect with artists who use the cameras. But the work has also been a means of reconnecting with his own artistic background, and fusing it with his skills as a toy designer and DIY tinkerer.

“The repair part is so non-subjective: the camera either works or it doesn’t, and you can’t really make aesthetic changes on the camera,” Widmann says. “But when you get into customization and start working with aesthetics, material and color, it really starts looking like a display piece.”

Within the instant analogue community or subculture, Widmann sees nostalgists and new users colliding. As a nostalgist himself, he finds it exciting to see people operate cameras they’ve never used before.

“It’s like watching someone see the movie Jaws for the first time, just to watch their reaction,” says Widmann. “The business was something to basically keep me busy at the time—I wasn’t going to get rich doing it. It was more about the preservation of what exists, and being involved in the passionate community of instant film folks… And when Polaroid Originals announced the OneStep 2, things just really kicked into high gear.”

Widmann would eventually like to make his own parts for SX-70s and other instant analogue cameras. He already has metal components fabricated for his SX-70 rebuilds, and is currently exploring 3D printing as a means of manufacturing the camera’s plastic components.

“I love working on other medium format cameras, but I don’t want to lose focus on my work with SX-70 cameras,” says Widmann. “What I’m doing now is looking at product development, and with 3D printing, I think there is great opportunity to salvage different types of cameras as well.”

“I think there will be more exploring of new ways of customization and reaching out to new customer bases,” he adds. “As long as Polaroid Originals keeps making some awesome new film stock, there is going to be interest from all sides.”

Check out more of Matt Widmann’s work at his 2nd Shot SX70 Service Instagram page.