I know, I know. You’re probably thinking, “Aren’t Polaroids back?” And my answer is that the new wave of instant cameras might look similar and do the similar things as an old-school Polaroid, but they are most definitely not the same.
I distinctly remember the first instant camera my dad let me play with. Not the model number—my memory isn’t that good—but the shape, heft, and weight of the thing is burned into my mind. It had a black body that was flat when closed, and then popped up when you pressed down on the top. The viewfinder was generally smudged from my grubby fingers. The flash was horribly blinding. I’m pretty sure it was a Polaroid, but after a lot of googling, there’s a distinct chance it was a Kodak. Whatever the exact camera was, I was fascinated with it because I was expressly forbidden from using it without supervision. My dad’s reason was the film was “too expensive” for childhood experimentation, and to keep me out of mischief, he rotated where he hid it in his room.
At first, I was mostly the subject of my dad’s Polaroid obsession. A master photographer, however, my dad was not. Those photos were mostly of me in embarrassing frilly dresses, looking angry and solemn in front of a white wall. I was mad I didn’t get to take photos myself, so I sure as hell wasn’t going to smile or look cute for the camera. But, when the photo was taken, my dad would let me hold the developing photo in my tiny hands. He didn’t even mind that I shake them back and forth, despite telling me multiple times I ought to let them develop face-down on a table.
Disposable cameras were our main form of family photo-taking. Generally, the Polaroid was only brought out for momentous occasions—things like birthday parties, important family gatherings, that sort of thing. Events that my parents didn’t really feel like schlepping to the One Hour Photo counter at the Genovese Drug Store down the block. I was bad at guessing which events were important enough for the Polaroid, which just furthered my obsession with such a mysterious object. Somewhere in the mid-to-late ‘90s, however, my dad was over Polaroids. He got a digital point-and-shoot and the instant camera was now mine to do with as I pleased, so long as I always returned it to my dad in mint condition when I was done and paid for the film out of my own paltry allowance.
I went mad with power. I took photos of my stuffed animals, my basement, my room, my book collection. Sometimes, just for fun, I would take pictures of my dad’s white comforter to see if anything would show up. It was a blatant waste of film, but I did it because I could. Sometimes, I’d stretch my tiny child arms out as far as I could to take unflattering proto-selfies. I took sneak attack photos of my parents, to their annoyance, and of our backyard from the kitchen window. I technically wasn’t allowed to take the Polaroid out of the house on my own, so my subject matter was fairly limited. Still, I was addicted to the process.
The fun thing was the instant, spontaneity of the resulting pictures. You could pose, sure, but chances were there’d always be someone photobombing in the background. It was hard to look good. My subjects, even the inanimate ones, generally looked like deer caught in headlights or like pale vampiric versions of themselves. Objectively speaking, these were not good photographs.
I stopped using the instant camera as much when middle school came around. By then, the novelty had kind of worn off and I was more covetous of my parents’ point-and-shoots. Plus, using my own money to buy film got old once I had to start scraping together cash to hang out with friends at the local shopping center or at the movies. Truthfully, I didn’t think much of instant cameras again until I came home from Tokyo in 2013. I hadn’t even been aware that in 2008, Polaroid had filed for bankruptcy and the OG instant camera was no more. (It has since come back from the dead.)
Around that time, a close friend of mine became obsessed with Instax cameras. She’d show up to get-togethers with one, and at some point in every hangout, we’d all have to pose for her collection. I was mostly amused and curious. The film was smaller now, and in my mind at least, seemed to develop more quickly. I still looked unflattering in all of them, but there was a new aspect to instant cameras I wasn’t prepared for.
For instance, they had sticker frames now? After each impromptu photo session, my friend would lay out an array of stickers for us to choose for our own photos. I was baffled but again, these weren’t for me so I went along with it. I took photos of the photos on my smartphone and posted them on Instagram. It felt weird.
Then about a year ago, I got the chance to review the Instax Mini LiPlay and it felt nothing like using the Polaroid of my youth. This modernized instant camera was basically a photo printer that was built for the Instagram era. Crucially, you didn’t have to take any photos with it. You technically could, but there was also the option of just printing photos from your camera roll. At the launch event, I remember perusing the “photo exhibits” from Instagram influencers whose names I have since forgotten. The photos were all so perfect. The sky was always the most brilliant shade of blue, no hair was ever out of place, and the depicted lives were so neatly manicured that it felt like these were instant photos in name only.
When I got to test the Mini LiPlay myself, there were some convenient things I liked—the ability to print multiples, for instance. But for the most part, I couldn’t enjoy the crappy, spontaneous photo-taking that seemed so fun to me as a kid. Given the option between raw candids and picture-perfect snaps, my vanity meant that 9 out of 10 times I picked the latter. My brain had been irrevocably infected by that Instagram influencer mentality. It doesn’t help that smartphone cameras and filters sort of preclude the “need” to carry around a bulky, separate device that generates the feel of crap photos. If I were immune to shame, I could theoretically carry around a vintage instant camera (or one of these very fine options we tested for an instant camera Battlemodo). But I am not immune to shame, and the hassle of dragging around a twee gadget when my smartphone is right there isn’t quite as “authentic” of an experience as you’re led to believe.
While writing this, I dug through some old photos. I found this one Polaroid of a birthday party I went to when I was either three or four years old. I don’t remember much about this party—who it was for, how I knew them, the name of the disgruntled kid in on the couch in the background, or who the airborne child on the right side of the photo is. I do remember posing for this photo, and that I demanded my mom take it with my dad’s camera because I was meeting childhood icon Barney, the Dinosaur. My face is washed out, and Barney himself looks a bit wasted and absolutely the wrong shade of purple. I like it because it was clearly a chaotic moment, I was being a total diva, my mom was not having it, and maybe the person inside the Barney suit was wondering how their life had led to that hellish moment. That memory and energy are forever preserved in this horrible faded photo, and I love it. I’m sad that modern technology and culture has sort of made it so that the only way to recreate this magic is to manufacture it.