What does the resurgence and popularity of polaroid cameras say about modern culture?
There’s something enduringly iconic about the soft-focus, white bordered polaroid photograph.
Invented in the 1940s by Edwin H. Land, polaroid cameras drastically changed photography: you could develop and view a photograph within minutes using a polaroid camera, creating a much quicker and consumer-friendly process.
The polaroid remained a popular photographic medium throughout the following decades, but saw a dramatic decline heading toward the new millennium. By the early 2000s, polaroid cameras just weren’t that cool anymore.
However, instead of dying out and becoming a historical footnote, polaroid cameras experienced a come-back during the 2010s. Old school was cool. Vintage was trendy. The social media generation, increasingly disillusioned with – but still addicted to – life online were seeking more authentic experiences.
Anyone who has had access to social media, a Netflix account or online shopping platforms over the past decade will probably have noticed something of a trend: retro, vintage, second-hand.
Just look at the popularity of shows like Stranger Things – and the retro stylisation of many subsequent shows, including The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and I Am Not Okay With This – along with the resurgence of certain fashion trends (I’m thinking of scrunchies, bright 80’s colour palettes, and vintage jackets sourced from apps like Depop and Vinted – or, in my case, stolen from Dad’s wardrobe).
People are addicted to nostalgia.
Polaroid cameras these days are sold on sites like ASOS, Skinnydip and Urban Outfitters, appealing to a Millennial and Gen Z audience. Coming in a range of pastel hues, these modern polaroid cameras are light-weight, fashionable and fully on brand for the nostalgia craze.
But is the nostalgia factor the sole appeal of owning a polaroid camera in the age of the iPhone?
We now live in a society that is used to things happening quickly. Next day delivery. Same day delivery. Messages. Emails. Social media posts. 24/7 customer helplines. Google. In the 21st century, we like things to happen NOW.
An instantly developed photograph? Sounds great!
These days, we also take LOTS of photos using our phones. Multiple shots of the same situation, same pose, same dinner plate. Phone cameras and their increasingly impressive quality allow for the pursuit of perfection; we want the best photo, the most flattering lighting, the one where everyone is looking at the lens, smiling. No double chins. No spots. No blurry shadows. Staged. Curated.
We’re a generation that struggles, but deeply desires, to live in the moment.
With a polaroid camera – and the instant, unique photos it provides us with – there’s no room for perfection. For second takes. You get what you get, chins and all.
This idea is captured (if you pardon the pun) by one of Polaroid’s own marketing slogans: ‘Right here, right now.’
It’s actually kind of freeing, in a sense. Polaroid photographs feel more important than those taken digitally, more valuable even. Polaroids aren’t left to fill up data storage on your phone. They are physical items: you can display them, collect them in a photo album, give them out as gifts to friends. There’s something a lot more tangible and immediate about this.
The physicality of a polaroid image and its more honest nature make it something of an antidote to the modern relationship between digital photography and social media. Polaroids remind us to try and live in the moment.
At least, for me, using an instax camera has made me appreciate the sheer novelty of photography again!