“You worked at Polaroid?” I asked the question with restrained interest and a hint of weariness.
Living where I live, it’s not unusual to run into old guys who spent their primes in the halls of Polaroid’s Cambridge digs. I’ve watched from the eastern edge of the MIT campus as countless pedestrians stream past an unnoticed sign with weathered words – Loading Dock Polaroid. Late by thirty years and with no official connection to Polaroid, I’ve even spent time at my former day job repairing scientific equipment at the brand’s old facilities. I’ve weaved through traffic innumerable times down Edwin Land Boulevard.
Yeah, the original brand is gone, but its ghosts and employees still haunt this city.
The reason that my interest was guarded is because most often when I run into a former employee they tend to have been only minor cogs in the massive machine of Polaroid. And while there’s nothing wrong with that, they don’t usually have the kind of riveting stories or insight that light a photo geek’s world on fire. This guy, though, he was the real deal. Head of security for the global brand, weekly chats with Edwin Land during the heyday of the company, stage-level seat at the famous annual company meetings.
“I’ve got a whole closet full of SX-70s.” He said with a conspiratorial lean and squint. “You know those ones? They’re the best ones. Always were. It’s the folding one – you know it?”
I told him I knew it well, and I do. It’s my favorite camera the company ever produced, and even today it’s a magical device. For someone like me, who grew up at the end of the era of blob-ish, plastic-fantastic 600 series Polaroids and who saw the birth and death of all those other Polaroid machines that never caught on, the SX70 is a stunning hindsight epiphany; a masterpiece of industrial design and consumer tech produced during the prime years of a company whose mainspring had nearly wound down by the time I entered existence.
Tough timing for me. Luckily, these things still exist.
Just days before meeting my new Polaroid pal I’d spent the weekend shooting the camera he proclaimed to be the company’s best, and the experience was as special as ever.
I breathed in the earthy smell of leather and dust, the SX70 pressed to my face as I focused the split-image mechanism, heard the heavy slap of the reflex mirror, the metallic shwink as the shutter released, the raucous noise and vibration as the motors sprung to life and squeezed the instant print through the tightly spaced rollers. In 1972 there was no camera like it in the world, and there still isn’t. And if not for one gigantic problem, the SX70 might be my favorite camera of all time.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Believe it or not, there are still diehard camera nerds who’ve never seen, held, or shot an SX70. And there’s a whole new generation of kids ready to fall in love with this classic machine – they just need an introduction. For them, here’s a primer.
First revealed by the man himself at the annual company meeting in 1972, Polaroid founder Edwin Land famously pulled the SX70 from inside his blazer, unfolded his masterpiece before those in attendance, and proceeded to shoot five instant photos in just ten seconds. Not lost on the gathered crowd, this was the only Polaroid to that date capable of fitting in a suit jacket pocket, and no other camera in the world could produce instant prints as quickly.
More than just small and fast, the SX70 was bursting with the most advanced tech of the day. Its body was so strong and durable that many people then and now believe it to be metal, a misconception spurred on by the brushed metal finish. But it’s not. The original SX70 was made of an incredibly rigid thermoplastic polymer called Polysulfone, mixed with glass fibers. The metallic finish was achieved by plating this material with a copper-nickel-chromium alloy.
The result is an exceptionally robust shell with a stunning finish. Its body image was further refined by precisely cut cow-hide leather skins, the uniformity of which another Polaroid employee told me was an obsession of Land’s (this employee’s brother owned a leatherwork shop and attempted to secure the contract to produce the skins, however, the inability to guarantee uniformity in a meeting with Land meant Polaroid sourced them elsewhere).
And mechanical and technical innovation extended deeper than the skin. Polaroid was, after all, a technology company unmatched in its era, and the internals of the SX70 illustrate this wonderfully.
The unprecedented folding SLR body configuration meant countless obstacles needed to be overcome. Its viewfinder and film plane required the invention of new and unusual reflex mirrors in order to produce both correctly oriented images to the shooter and an erect image on the film. Incredibly precise and minute plastic moldings made up a majority of the internal gearing, and a sophisticated-for-its-time electronic system controlled auto-exposure and flash control. To fit into its portable form factor, all of these parts had to be as tiny as possible – no easy task, but one that was achieved through state-of-the-art engineering.
Its lens and exposure system, the heart and mind of any camera, were also engineered to be state-of-the-art. The four-element 116mm F/8 lens was made of glass and engineered for optical excellence. Images produced via this assembly were sharp, contrasty, and imbued with deep, rich color. The auto-exposure system, capable of user compensation for lighter or darker images, was accurate and responsive, and paired with a shutter capable of speeds from 1/175th of a second to more than ten seconds ensured proper exposures in all but the wildest lighting situations.
But all of this impressive technology came at a cost; the machine was expensive at $180, and this high price limited the SX70’s success. In the first eighteen months it sold a respectable 700,000 units. It wasn’t until years later when the SX70’s technology was fitted to a less complicated, bulkier body that the Polaroid SX70 film format really took off.
But regardless of the high price, and perhaps even because of it, the SX70 must’ve been a truly covetous wonder for eyeballs surrounded by the trappings of 1973. Here was a machine that was comparatively tiny, stylish, sleek and elegant, and capable of producing a photograph instantaneously at the push of a button. No chemicals to deal with, no timers to set, no complicated processes to understand. This camera put real photography into the hands and homes of non-photographers, an ethos that still holds immense power today (ever heard of Instagram?).
Even in the era of the Fuji Instax and Leica Sofort, the SX70 is perhaps even more impactful than it was at its unveiling. In 2017, there’s nothing else like it in the wild. Take this camera into the city or bring it to a family cookout and prepare to be inundated with questions. Next, prepare to be flooded with requests for photos. Once people see it in action, hear those motors whirr, and hold a gorgeous photo, they’ll want more. And shooters will be happy to oblige, since practical use is sublime and effortless.
Peering through the viewfinder provides a massive window to the world that mostly works well. There are moments in which an indirect viewing angle can cause blackout or difficulty focusing, and users with glasses will be slightly more challenged, but once we find the sweet spot, composing and focusing is as effortless as with any other SLR. Adjust compensation for light or dark, press the shutter release, and hold still until the image ejects. That’s it. You’re a photographer. Congratulations. Fold up the camera and the compensation wheel automatically resets, a frame counter on the back of the machine tells how many shots are left in the pack, and reloading is a simple ten second process.
But that’s where the bleak shadow passes over everything so wonderful about the SX70. Real photo geeks will know where this is heading. It’s the film. Polaroid stopped making it years ago, and while the torch was relit and carried by The Impossible Project, it’s expensive. The economics break down to the hard fact that every shot we take with the SX70 costs three bucks. That’s a pretty penny. For some, this simply will not be worth it, and I understand that. With recent news that Impossible has now officially acquired the Polaroid brand (their name, intellectual property, etc.) there’s hope that the economics of instant film might change; that perhaps instant film for these classic Polaroids could somehow become less expensive. But until that happens (if ever) shooting a classic Polaroid camera will continue to be prohibitively pricey for many photo geeks and casual shooters who might otherwise love the craft.
For me, owning and shooting an SX70 is still justifiable. I limit my exposures (outside of sample shots and product testing). I make sure the image I’m making is one I’m going to want to keep. I don’t waste frames. This, it could be argued, is conducive to improving one’s photography at large. When each shot imposes a financial burden, each exposure becomes more thoughtful. Silver linings, I guess. But the truth remains – because of the high price of film, the SX70 will always be an occasional treat, a camera to be used sparingly and carefully.
A word on variations and which one to buy – the SX70 comes in a number of models, and even the original model can be found with minor variations. If the camera has a brushed metal finish, it’s the first SX70, and the one to own. The easiest way to determine the age of an original SX70 is by looking through the VF – the earliest versions lack the split-image focusing aid in the viewfinder.
The later Sonar autofocus model, while simplifying the process of taking a picture, completely ruins the aesthetic perfection of the camera. It’s hideous. Later models are made of ABS plastic, are less robust, and some even lack true SLR capability in favor of a simple viewfinder hole. They’re also black or white, which can be easily argued is not as attractive as the brushed metal finish of the classic machine. No, in 2017 the SX70 to own is the original model with the brushed metal finish, if not for aesthetic reasons and superior build quality than certainly for collectibility.
If you’d like to get your hands on one of these incredible machines, there are a few ways to do so and some things to keep in mind. These cameras are old, and unfortunately susceptible to breakdowns. That’s why it’s important to do your research before pulling the trigger on a sale.
Friends of the site, Brooklyn Film Camera, have made a career out of refurbishing and selling guaranteed SX70s. These machines have been calibrated, rebuilt, reskinned, and come with a warranty. Pretty amazing, given that these cameras are more than forty years old. Mint in Hong Kong also produces reworked SX70s with a number of bells and whistles attached, albeit at a high price. And of course, our own F Stop Cameras usually has one or two SX70s in stock.
Wherever you purchase yours, ensure it’s in good condition and guaranteed to be fully functional. Do this, and you’ll own one of the best and most interesting cameras ever made.
I mentioned to my new friend, the former Polaroid employee, that I’d spent a good deal of time with the SX70, and we shared our thoughts on it and the company that produced it. His twinkling eyes were watching me, listening and chatting, but I could see that he was seeing something else. A past that was gone, a career spent with an employer that treated people with familiarity and professional kindness, his prime. He was there at his desk, but he was elsewhere too. Perhaps at that conference in 1972, perhaps at a meeting with Mr. Land. Or maybe he was simply remembering the countless times the SX70 and other Polaroid cameras accompanied him and his family on a walk, at the beach, at Disney World, on vacation.
I left him with a handshake and the suggestion that he dig into that closet full of Polaroid gear. He said he would. I hope he did, if not to relive some of his happy past, to at least shoot a wonderful camera one more time.