A few months ago, I borrowed a Hasselblad for the sole purpose of attaching a Polaroid pack film magazine to its dignified body. Heresy, I know, especially for a first time Hasselblad user. It’s important that I tell you I am not a Polaroid user. I admire good work produced on Polaroids, but I have never felt the pull to shoot them myself. That said, I liked the concept of peeling a print away from the chemical-laden backing paper, so I decided to give it a try. I must have exposed a pack in a weekend, and they weren’t important images, but they meant a lot to me because I had put so much effort into the process itself. Thus began my love affair with peel apart film.
Even though Polaroid backs were designed primarily for proofing (checking exposure and composition before exposing a roll of film on a job), for a growing group of amateur and professional photographers, instant images made with a medium format camera have their own charm and intrinsic value. They’re still useful and artistic on their own. Once the print is digitally scanned and cropped, you have, on your computer screen, a fine scan of roughly the same caliber as that of a negative. The only difference is the reality of the physical artifact: a shiny print you can hold in your hands shortly after the exposure. It is beautiful in itself, and is the kind of object that is complete on its own. It is a tangible keepsake of that moment when you pressed the shutter, and as such, is something to cherish.
One of the reasons that I never really entertained the idea of shooting Polaroid cameras was that I wanted to have as much control over my results as I am used to with my medium format cameras. I had to be able to choose my lens, aperture (ultimately, depth of field) and shutter speed. I am a control freak, so being able to meter a scene in a way that has become an essential part of my style was another factor that led me to go the medium format route.
I never had the privilege of trying the original peel apart films made by the Polaroid corporation. I arrived late to the party, and unless some kind soul gives me a pack of extremely expired film, I probably never willi. When the Polaroid corporation stopped production of its instant film line in 2008, the Fuji corporation, which had started making pack film in the 1980s, began exporting more of it to fill the void left by Polaroid. A few years later, Fuji is still the only one making peel apart but recently announced that it was discontinuing its black and white film. The Polaroid back I borrowed from the Blue Moon Camera store stock still had a pack of film inside of it. There was a single frame left, and after exposing it, I realized that the pack was a discontinued film, the revered FP-100B. Just my luck. Not that it took me very long to fall in love with its replacement, the higher ISO FP-3000b, with its fine grain and low contrast, or the color FP-100C that produces rich greens and browns and is perfect outdoors.
I am so passionate about this new-to-me process that I have been showing it to anyone with the slightest signs of interest. Case in point: at the end of summer, I bumped into a fellow instant film shooter (I guess I am part of that group now) and over coffee at the Ace Hotel, I exposed a few frames and lent her my Mamiya 645 so that she could do the same. As I watched her expression turning from expectation to surprise to jubilation, I realized what a powerful thing that tiny print could be, even for someone used to larger prints from Polaroid Land cameras. The image above shows our cumulative efforts, minus a small pile of instant prints on the left hand side. That day, a few of us bonded over the photos, discussed their grain and tones, and also got the attention of a Leica photographer who was fascinated by the instantaneous aspect and the tones, contrast and casual beauty of the images we had just created in front of him.
You might object to the gigantic black frame around those 6×6 and 6×4.5 instant film prints. I have heard that many times, and it is the biggest reason why I am thinking of moving to a larger format: 6×7. On its own, the 6×7 format is not my favorite, but slap a Polaroid back to a Mamiya RB67 and it suddenly becomes desirable ii. With a Hasselblad, you get a square that covers a little over half of your image area. The size of the image on the print is the same as the negatives produced by the Hasselblad with a 120 film magazine. It follows that with a Mamiya 645 Pro or Super, you get an even smaller, rectangular image. And a Mamiya RB or RZ67 gives a square image that fills up over 3/4th of the print area.
The process was the real appeal for me then, and it still is the reason why I reach for my Mamiya 645 with a pack film back more often than I will pick up a 120 film back. There is nothing quite as satisfying as inserting a fresh pack in the magazine, pulling out the white tab with the frame number on it, then pulling out a fresh photo with the backing paper still on and its chemicals starting to develop the image. And still, these steps are nowhere near as enchanting as peeling the image from that backing paper, revealing your pristine image and the negative on the other side. It is such a tactile experience, and like a lot of the processes that us film people cherish, it encompasses several of our senses.
Now, for the number lovers among us, here are a few details: a Polaroid film back for your Hasselblad can be had for between $80 and $100, and we get them sporadically at the store. If you own a Hasselblad, it’s a wonderful camera accessory to ask for a birthday or Valentine’s day. A back for a Bronica SQ-A (6×6) will set you back roughly $40, one for the Mamiya RB67 approximately $100. A pack of FP-100c (color film) costs $13 and contains 10 frames. Trust me, they’re worth every penny. Now, follow me down the rabbit hole.
For inspiration, be sure to check out
- the Snap It, See It blog
- and their Instagram feed
- the Mamiya Polaroid Flickr group
- the Hasselroid and Polablad Flickr group
i Read what you want into this statement (and if you so wish, send any expired film to the store).
ii So desirable you can expect me to drool all over yours. No, I am not above that.