The Null Device

The end of an era

As September 2009 comes to an end, so (arguably) does an era of sorts, because that is when the last batch of Polaroid film expires. Cue the standard nostalgia for the "authenticity" of lossy, pre-digital technologies:
More significantly, though less obviously, it's the end of an era because Polaroid photography was the last technology of irreproducibility. In the digital age we expect – we assume – that every data-based artefact is infinitely reproducible. A piece of recorded music can be ripped, burned, stretched, transposed, copied, compressed and shared to our heart's content. The same goes for video. In writing, there are no longer manuscripts, only versions of files which can be edited, printed, saved (as .doc, RTF, plain text, PDF or XML, all representing the same piece of work). Photography developed rapidly into something similar, and did it first: as soon as the photographic negative arrived on the scene, photography incorporated the idea of the "original" which could be used to make multiple copies. But only the first copy, the print made from the original negative, was of the highest grade. Every generation of copy thereafter deteriorated; information was lost every time a new copy was made. Nor was any copy, any print, definitive. Anyone who has worked in a darkroom knows you can make 20 prints from one negative and every one will be slightly different, depending on the enlarger, the exposure, the manipulation, the developer, the paper, the temperature.
The article goes on to mention instant photography's place in the history of 20th-century sexual morés:
Which was, of course, another driving force behind Polaroid: no trip down to the chemist. As one commenter on The New York Times Lede blog wrote: "I bought a Polaroid circa 1986, the day I got a short note from my corner drugstore, 'Dear customer, We are returning your negatives. We regret the inconvenience, but Walgreens does not print photos from negatives of that nature.'" How many marriages did the discreet Polaroid save? How many did it undo? How many secret passions did the unmistakable clunky click WHIRRRRR document? In Britain we weren't allowed to buy the radio remote control "because of RF interference", but I suspected it was the same thinking that undid Oscar Wilde: people should under no circumstances be allowed to do what they like in their bedrooms. Phoo to that. I brought a remote control back from New York and you probably did too.
Art hipsters and retro perverts need not despair, however, as long as these people can succeed in making Polaroid-style instant film.

There are 2 comments on "The end of an era":

Posted by: Fazal Majid Wed Sep 23 06:23:27 2009

I don't see what the big deal is or the need for the "impossible project". Fuji still makes instant film.

Posted by: Greg Thu Sep 24 18:34:19 2009

Before anyone proposes a nostalgia for irreproducibility, I'd like to suggest that in the digital era it lives on, in the form of file-compression. I do a lot of audio cd-mastering, and occasionally source recordings have been brought to me in mp3 format. The culprits seem to be the new generation of home computer recording aficionados using Garageband and the like. I figure the material isn't being recorded/saved in mp3 format - in fact there's a fair chance it's being recorded at 24 bit and even a high sampling rate. But some people are saving their final mixes as mp3s. My pleas to preserve the highest bit depth and sampling rates seem not to be understood. And of course, most people copying their friends' cds save songs as mp3s. When the cd format dies, will anyone ever bother to preserve the uncompressed masters? Our theoretically-immortal digital art may be on a downward spiral after all!