The First Cut is the Deepest: Using A Polaroid SX-70 for the First Time

Eloise Grills is currently a Journalistic Intern at Film Never Die. In this article, she details her memories growing up with Polaroid, and her experience working with the Polaroid SX-70 Pronto! for the first time.

Ever since I was little I have loved telling stories. No matter how small or grand the topic, the ability to use language to capture and convey a moment, a feeling, or an essence, is a power that I have always valued. I remember telling my Auntie a lot of stories. One day, distracted while making dinner, she was not properly listening, but continued to humour me.  When I was finished I asked her to repeat the story back to me. And of course she couldn’t. From that point on she was always very conscientious to listen carefully to my stories.

When I turned six years old, my parents bought me a Polaroid camera. I’m unsure what model it was, but like all good things in the 1990s it was big, bold, chunky, and plastic. It has remained one of my favourite presents to this day.

Strangely, or maybe not so strangely, the Polaroid camera fed into my love for writing. Formulating clever captions to fill up that white frame below the image became an obsession. I have read them back and while they have made me cringe a little, I still appreciate that the format allowed me a little space to express my little self, both through the pictures I took and through my precious words.

The Polaroid got packed away a few years later, and I forgot about it. Then, when I was around sixteen, I was completing an art project. I had made a full-scale model of Andy Kaufman, a performer from the 1970s who is rumoured to have faked his own death. I wanted to take photos of this fake Kaufman, to suggest he was alive somewhere, hoping to feed into this conspiracy theory. I remembered that I had a Polaroid, buried somewhere in one of my parent’s cupboards. It fit the assignment perfectly. The aesthetic of the Polaroid has a richly nostalgic and haunting quality that is inimitable. It medium that looks instantly historic. It also has an embedded ethos of authenticity, having been used for important records. It has been used and continues to be used for artist’s proofs, and to document modeling auditions. The images I took had exactly the qualities I was looking for. It was as though the long-dead Kaufman had awakened, and was walking around Melbourne with me.

After that, he film became less available and more expensive, until finally Polaroid stopped producing it. Having been familiar with Polaroid since I was young I was upset, thinking that the medium could very well die. When Impossible started producing a line of film for Polaroid cameras, I was relieved. Polaroid would continue to be an accessible medium. For me, and for everyone else.

Since then I hadn't touched Polaroid for a few years. Then I started interning at Film Never Die. The team’s enthusiasm for the medium was contagious, and I had the itch, like I hadn’t for years. Until, one day recently, Gary, the founder and operations manager, sent me out on a mission to Sydney Road to try my hand at a Polaroid model I’d never used before. I was to test out the Polaroid SX-70 Pronto! with a roll of Impossible PX100 Silver Shade Cool film in Black and White.

The SX-70 Pronto! was first produced in 1976. It was the first non-folding Sx-70 Camera, and looks like a smaller cousin to my chunked-out 1990s model, chiseled stylishly out of black, sharply angled plastic. It has a manual focus, which can also be altered to be automatic. In this mode, sonar is used to focus (neat!).

The PX100 Silver Shade Cool Film began to be produced after 2010. Impossible’s films are an entirely new formulation to Polaroid’s original products, as the dyes used to create Polaroid no longer existed when they came about. The film requires a higher level of care and specific conditions to work ideally. It suits temperatures of around 17-24 degrees, and cloudy conditions. It was perfect weather on the day. The film I would use has a black border, which allows the silver tones of the image to stand out.

Before I left, Gary created a duck-bill type structure out of black cardboard, to tape above where the print ejects. He explained to me that it is very important to protect the print from direct light at first to avoid overexposing the image. After it is ejected, the print needs to be held under this light shade, before being placed somewhere facedown for a few minutes in order to develop properly. It then needs to be held somewhere warm, like in a hand for the image to properly expose, he said said.

With a huge list of instructions rattling away in my mind I was as ready to go as I would ever be. Having the freedom to photograph anything I wanted was a luxury I have never before experienced. But it was also a little daunting. Every frame that I took would be printed, immediately. Every mistake I made would be etched into a print, immortalized forever.

Something about having the camera around my neck made me observe the world around me more carefully. As I exited the shop, I walked up Mile Lane, a street I have walked many times before. I noticed that on the roof of a neighbouring building there was a small wrought iron compass and model of a ship. I had never seen it before. I knew then I had found my first subject. I lined up the shot, taking much longer than I normally would, and pressed the red button on the front of the camera. Click! The machine whirred loudly as the print ejected. I balanced it on the brick ledge next to me for a few minutes, before putting it in my pocket and continuing up to my road.

When I turned the corner, I saw a small white dog. He was standing under a large tree, pawing impatiently at the ground  Usually I would have walked away but I could sense a story here. A second later I noticed a long rope hanging from the tree, twirling along with the jerky rhythm of something, or someone, up above. I looked way up and saw a man with a harness in the tree. I smiled and waved. I took a photo of the mysterious man’s dog, and of the tree with the rope before I left. The man didn’t come down while I was there. I still don’t know why he was there. But I now have photographic evidence of this strange moment, when normally I would have just walked straight past, without noticing anything at all. I put the photos in my pockets and continued on. Not wanting to risk overexposing the images, I decided to keep them there until I had finished my excursion.

I continued up to the crossing to get to Sydney road. Zooming bicyclists and passersby surrounded me, each with more intriguing faces than the last. Everything I looked there was a moment to be captured. I was overwhelmed.

I continued up the street and spotted a young woman standing with her two small jack russel terriers.  There was something endearing about the trio. The young girl was dressed in a ill-fitting tracksuit, and a beanie. There was something charmingly innocent in her cluelessly combined outfit, and her clear devotion to her dogs. I approached her and asked if I could take her photograph. Something about having the Polaroid, carrying its frame around on my neck, made me feel comfortable to do this, as I had never felt before. And I was even more surprised when she obliged. Maybe she too shared some sense of nostalgia for this technology.

I continued down the street. With my new sense of confidence I was now on a mission. I saw the sign for the iconic two dollar shop, ‘Ot Potatoes. The ‘H’ dropped off many years ago and has never been replaced. I took another photo.

I was off again, down a laneway. I passed some police interrogating a person they had pulled over. I considered photographing them but thought I had better not. I was confident, but I wasn't stupid. Distracted by the spectacle, it took me a moment to notice the structure of an abandoned building beside. It was an old structure, from the turn of the century, its insides completely removed. Probably being primed for demolition, or conversion into apartments. Just the façade remained. I lined up the shot and click! I was off to discover something new.

I zigzagged down another laneway. It was an empty, dark, cold space, and there was no one else around. It was backed onto by the yards of houses, with no one home. Out of a gap between two brick walls a stream of branches burst riotously  from a tree below. The branches were dry and leafless with the cold of winter. I took another photo.

I had one shot left. One more chance. I continued to another side street and walked up the path. Out the front of a studio, I think it was an architecture firm, there was a kind of sculpture, a structure of stacked milk crates, bound together somehow, descending from the roof of the building down. Somehow they had not fallen down. I lined up the shot, and click! However, I realized too late, when I placed the film down at the ledge, that it was the wrong side up. There was nothing to be done. It would be overexposed. I guess with Polaroid, the mistake, not just the necessity, is the mother of invention.

I headed back to the shop, my pockets brimming with mysterious prints. I returned, and Gary and I looked through the photos together. Not all of them had worked out properly. Some of the images were warped, some were out of focus, some were overexposed. But there were some gems among them. The image of the ship on top of the building had a haunting otherworldliness to it- it looked like a symbol from an ancient society, carved in iron. The image of the tree spilling out of the brick wall looked strange, eerie, like a spider being born. The picture of the abandoned building had a a creepy desolate appeal. And the image of the iconic ‘Ot Potatoes signs had a strange film grain to it, making it look like it was constructed out of mist or smoke.

No matter if the photos were technically proficient or not, there was still something magical in the process. Using Polaroid, I noticed and absorbed the world around me. I felt enveloped in it, conscious of how I could frame my vision, and the possibility in all the subjects around me. The prints are both permanent objects, and ghostly reminiscences of the experience.

There is always something eye-opening about picking up a Polaroid and using it, whether it’s for the first time or the thousandth. It is something that has a continued impact on the lives of people who use it, and is bound to continue to attract more people, to be discovered by future generations and to play a special part in making their memories, too.





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