A Shop on Capitol Hill Where the Polaroid Rises Again
Courtesy of Rare Medium
Edwin Land, the inventor of the Polaroid, would appreciate the little storefront on a less-frequented block of Pine Street where three entrepreneurs and artists have quietly set up a gallery, studio, store, and workshop called Rare Medium. It opened last November but hasn't made much noise. As Land would say, you only need marketing if your product's no good.
In the back, they make art and fix cameras. (You can peek.) In the front, one wall is devoted to changing art shows. The other side of the store is a shop, but also a sort of museum, for Land's cameras.
Beautifully refurbished old cameras are for sale, each sitting on its own white shelf like an artifact and a sculpture. A neat, attractive graphic display running vertically down the wall near the window—generously, readable from the street—illustrates the history of the instant camera, with examples from each period. This is a place for geeking out. It's also the epicenter for instant photography in Seattle. It advertises itself as the only instant-photography-only shop in the United States.
Since 2001, Polaroid has died—but also maybe gone to heaven. The company has declared bankruptcy twice and been sold three times. (Land left in 1982.) In 2008, the company made the stunning announcement that it was no longer going to produce film. It destroyed factories full of customized equipment, and hundreds of thousands of cameras were about to be rendered useless and moldering in basements and attics when three entrepreneurs swept in and bought the last remaining plant, in a town called Enschede, in the Netherlands. They now employ 25 people in that town who produce Polaroid film—though they are still perfecting the formula—under the name The Impossible Project. Rare Medium carries that film and is an official partner of The Impossible Project, meaning it gets new films to test and toy with. (You can buy 35 mm film at Rare Medium, but it's hidden in the back of the refrigerator—the equivalent, at this store, of porn in a brown-paper package.)
A brand-new book by New York magazine editor Christopher Bonanos, Instant: The Story of Polaroid, is the first book-length treatment of Land's company and invention, from his first instant camera in 1948, which weighed more than four pounds, to the game-changing SX-70, introduced in 1972. That's the camera you think of as the Polaroid. It was a folding, single-lens reflex camera that spit out the pictures with the signature white border. Before it, you had to peel apart the Polaroid film. Afterward, bam.
In Bonanos's video book trailer for Instant, there's a film clip of Land wearing a suit, tie, and buttoned-up tan trench coat in 1970. He reaches into his right breast pocket and pulls out his wallet, then essentially predicts cell-phone cameras right there on the spot. Dreaming concretely of the future, he casually says, "You'd perhaps open the wallet, press a button, close the wallet, and have the picture."
Other historical gems include the Polaroid Swinger, a lightweight 1960s version. "Hey! Meet the Swinger," chirps a male voice in the TV advertisement. "Swing-ahhhh," the backup ladies coo. All you see are the sexy legs and crashing waves of a lady walking along the beach, the Swinger dangling from her wrist.
Many of Rare Medium's customers are nostalgic for the cameras they grew up around, but there also are young discoverers of "physical" instant photography, says Cory Verellen, the cofounder who restores the cameras. (Artist Justin Mata and writer Tali Edut are the other founders.) Verellen is 38 and was a Microsoft engineer when he picked up the Polaroid Automatic 330 Land Camera that his father had once rescued from the trash heap. (The Automatic 330 was produced between 1969 and 1971. It has a bellows, and you have to peel the film.)
The industrial-supply company where his father was a salesman had bought the camera to document its inventory. After it was rendered obsolete, the camera was headed for the dump, when Verellen's father thought his son might like to have it. But the young Verellen never used it—until about five years ago, when its time had come again. "It was just staring at me," Verellen says. "I thought, 'I'll just buy film for it, it'll be fun.' After that first pack of film, I was hooked. It's really high-resolution. These almost look like a digital print. I was just blown away by it."
Photographer friends would see his camera, think it was cool, and he'd build them one. He was an engineer, after all. Pretty soon, he left his high-stress job at Microsoft. Now he restores cameras for a living. Last week, he sold a restored $800 600 SE, a professional camera once referred to as a "press camera" because it's what journalists would tote around. It has a removable film back—you can shoot instant or negatives—and multiple lenses. Maybe someday the store will get its hands on one of the limited-edition gold-plated original SX-70s.
But for Verellen, Mata, and Edut, Rare Medium is only partly about resurrecting history. It's also about making art now. Digital photographers spend too much time in postproduction, Verellen says. "Photographers don't get into photography to edit photos," he says. He just wants to take pictures. He'll hand you yours, right after he takes it.