Joe Clark: Accessibility | Design | Writing

Instant legend, instant paperweight

It may border on sloganeering to call a 20-year-old consumer product an icon, but without a doubt the Polaroid SX-70, the unusual folding instant camera introduced in 1972, is indeed an icon of industrial design (and of photography, too). Trouble is, the current heir to the SX-70’s folding-instant-camera throne, the Captiva, has little of the élan of the SX-70 even though both cameras were the product of intensive research. The lesson here may be that newer does not make better, and that vulgarization is a force at play in consumer products as well as popular culture.

To be fair, the Captiva, which débuted in 1992, is aimed at a lower echelon of user than the prestigious SX-70 (FAQ). According to John Betts of Henry Dreyfuss Associates, the New York design firm that’s worked with Polaroid for more than two decades, Captivas are “party cameras.” (In Japan, home of otherworldly “English” product names, the Captiva is in fact called the JoyCam.) Polaroid’s surveys, says Betts, show that “a large proportion [of Captiva owners] will have a camcorder and almost everybody will have a 35-millimetre camera.” (A Polaroid source elucidates that only 10% of Captiva owners use it as their sole camera.)

The SX-70, on the other hand, was intended to be a fine camera, not a fun one. It also stood as a technical and aesthetic achievement on the part of Edwin Land. The widely-respected, larger-than-life Polaroid chief scientist, who died in 1991, deemed that the new camera must fit inside a suitcoat pocket; its prints had to be self-contained (no peeling apart of layers) and develop without human intervention in broad daylight.

Land’s ambitious design specs forced harried Polaroid chemists, engineers, and designers to invent entire new technologies from scratch, like automatic exposure (and, in later models, autofocusing via sonar); flat batteries (every film pack contained a battery); and developer chemicals that functioned like clockwork and, just as important, stopped working once the print was fully developed.

Then there was the industrial design of the machine. The SX-70, with its angular lines, a viewfinder that evokes the subtended angles of vision itself, and its sci-fi metamorphosis, is a charming, tangible embodiment of the dated futurism of the postwar American consumer era, which envisaged a 21st century of tidy suburban homes, ubiquitous electronics (and robots!), and at-all-angles Jetsons-like interiors.

Though the SX-70 didn’t work very well with flashbulbs, the camera otherwise took decent pictures. As Mark Olshaker wrote in his history of Polaroid, The Instant Image, “while the SX-70 does not make it substantially easier to take excellent pictures, it does make it substantially more difficult to take terrible ones.” The camera renders photos in a pastel-tinged colour palette that attracted big-name photographers, designers and artists like Charles Eames, Helmut Newton, Mary Ellen Mark, Lucas Samaras, Duane Michals, and Andy Warhol. Better yet, as Max Kozloff wrote in the photo compilation SX-70 Art, “the embryo print can be altered by outside physical means. With pencil, stylus, or other forms of alien pressure, one can curdle the contours or rubberize the space given by the SX-70.” If that weren’t enough, you can freeze or bake a developing print to mickey with the final image.

The SX-70 body shape was a successful franchise for Polaroid. The original chrome-and-leather camera (virtually handmade on the Polaroid assembly line) was later joined by a plastic-and-vinyl Model 2; by a model with sonar autofocus; by a Model 3, with a viewfinder instead of through-the-lens viewing; and by a matte-black Alpha 1 intended to appease the camera shops miffed at Polaroid’s decision to sell the SX-70 at mass-market retailers. Polaroid stopped manufacturing the SX-70 in 1982, though a sibling with strobe flash and sonar autofocus, the SLR 680, came out in 1984 and died around 1986. Since then Polaroid has evolved its instant-camera line into niches like photo-I.D. machines and vertical-market cameras like the Spectra and ProCam, aimed at insurance adjusters, construction supervisors, and the like.

But with a saturation advertising campaign and availability at nearly every photo counter in Canada for about a hundred bucks, the Captiva is surely the best-known model name in Polaroid’s history. Still, it’s yet another niche camera, but here the niche – the average consumer – is as big as the sky is wide. The Captiva is part of the company’s “handheld, family line,” says Polaroid VP Roger Clapp, who explains that Polaroid was “approaching a new segment of users” instead of “updating basically the same users that we had before.”

The big, plasticky body (5.8 cm thick when closed), whose curves and folding mechanism were created using advanced computer-aided design, fits into today’s no-straight-lines ethos. But its real claim to fame is: The pictures don’t fall out after you take them. (Engineering thesis on the topic.) Instead, they travel through 180° and reside in a little compartment at the back of the camera. This, apparently, is a feature Polaroid customers demanded.

They were not, apparently, too picky about the pictures themselves. The Captiva’s photos are tiny – a mere 7.3 by 5.5 cm compared to an SX-70’s 7.8 by 8.0 and a Spectra’s 9.1 by 7.4. Clapp states that “there was a segment of consumers who were willing to make the trade between camera size and picture size. Very few people really want a small picture... [but] because of the physics and just the way instant photography works, there’s a very direct relationship between picture size and camera size, because there is no enlargement step: What you expose in the camera is what you get.”

Though designer Betts is adamant that Captiva photos are technically superior to SX-70 shots, my eye shows that Captiva photos lean markedly toward overexposure (the built-in flash always fires), though, like the SX-70, you can fiddle with a lighten/darken control on subsequent re-shoots. The camera doesn’t handle a bright background/dark foreground combo very well (its automatic exposure gets fooled by the background) and tends to offer strong colours only in outdoor close-ups, where the colours are in fact creamy. And compared to the SX-70, it’s an ungainly clunker of a machine, one that requires you to hoist it to your eyes while resting it in the heels of both hands.

So, with its bulbous body and wee, washed-out photos, is the Captiva aimed at a photographically-naïve clientele? Says Betts: “The product was very much designed for a worldwide marketplace, and while it is safe to assume that there may be photographically-naïve users in the United States, that’s not true anywhere else. In Japan and Europe, in particular, they’re very photographically sophisticated.”

“I would prefer to say that the Captiva, as do most of our cameras, appeals to the easy-to-use market and the convenience market,” Polaroid’s Roger Clapp allows. “We intentionally don’t put a lot of adjustments into our cameras. You can [adjust] the so-called light/darken control, you can go up and down in exposure – I believe it’s 2/3 of a stop – and that’s it. And that’s basically the only thing in our cameras that the user has under his control, and that’s the way they want it.”

Or at least that’s the way Polaroid tells us we want it. The good news is that used SX-70s can be found in good condition for $40 to $180 at swap meets, via classified ads, and at better camera stores. Even an SLR 680, the next best thing, can be dug up, and film for both variants is widely available. Ironically, if you want fine photos in an instant, you may need to use a machine from the past.

Informative response

William Sommerwerck writes:

The Craptiva is a startlingly bulky camera. It’s larger than the SX-70, yet it takes smaller pictures and doesn’t have a “real” SLR viewing system (it’s more like a “lens periscope”).

The SX-70 was supposed to be a fun camera. Its elegant compactness (for the size of its image, it’s one of the smallest cameras ever designed – the Minox is huge by comparison) encourages taking it everywhere, and the ease of use makes it simple to fire off a shot or two. (That’s the theory, anyway. “A picture a day without decay” never materialized.)

The design (by Henry Dreyfuss) is not so much Jetsons as Art Deco. Note the streamlined viewfinder cap with its ridged edges, and those little “ears” on the side of the shutter housing that fill in the empty space when the camera is closed. It’s not only beautiful, but deliciously BuckRogers–campy.

The SX-70 name comes from the project number assigned to the original self-processing film and camera in 1943.

Polaroid did not “invent” auto-exposure for the SX-70. They had auto-exposure even back in the roll-film days, and the Automatic 100 was the very first camera with electronic exposure control. When introduced, Popular Photography gave it a 12-page spread! Despite its being an “amateur” camera, it was considered revolutionary (as was the SX-70).

I disagree about the quality of flash pictures. I found Flashbar shots consistently well-exposed and with little or no edge fall-off. The ITT MagicFlash electronic flash was superb – it lit the image with an evenness you’d expect only from a professional unit.

The new Platinum film is the best integral film yet. They’ve finally gotten reasonably good color saturation and an acceptably wide tonal scale. Accuracy is pretty good, too – Platinum film can render the Macbeth Color Checker chart without embarrassment.

Most people ignore the instructions and hold the camera incorrectly. After 26 years, I’ve finally figured out an even better way than Polaroid’s – rest your thumb along the erecting strut. That way you can’t possibly poke the bellows. [I do that, too.]

The Sonar and SLR 680 lost the original SX-70’s elegant compactness. (I used to tuck mine in the back pocket of my jeans, or slip it into my suit-coat pocket – when I wore suits.) Instead of the 680 or 690, I’d rather have the original, modified for 600 film, plus a compact flash unit that would snap into the Flashbar socket. But it won’t happen.

By the way, you can get the 690 for $130 from B&H Photo in New York.

The SX-70 is the most outrageously clever invention of all time.

P.S.: Serious Polaroid photographers should not overlook the pack-film cameras. I grabbed the 600 SE and all the lenses last year when they were discontinued. You can get even better pictures from pack film, because the dyes don’t have to migrate through the titanium-dioxide layer.

Originally published in 1996 ¶ Updated 1999.07.18, 2007.03.19

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