Friday afternoon, end of the workweek, and my camera shop employee, Kyle, is walking out the door. I notice for the hundredth time a box in the corner of the office, and call, “Hey we’ve got to list this thing next week. Don’t let me forget.”
“What is it?” Kyle replies.
And that’s all the motivation I need to nerd out on camera stuff for the next hour. “It’s a Polaroid Polaprinter Slide Copier.” Ignoring his visible confusion, I continue. “Want to see what it does?”
He does want to see, and so do I, so I unpack the brand new Polaprinter that’s been waiting for a new home (or maybe just waiting to be used) for the last thirty-odd years, maybe more. I check the adjustment on the variable voltage switch and plug the standard 115 volt power cable into the nearest outlet. A solid click as some electro-mechanical actuation occurs deep in the belly of the angular beast, a rising capacitor whine as the built-in flash charges, a winking LED and a soft glow from the slide-viewing window; a veritable celebration of light and sound all eagerly indicating that the Polaprinter is alive and ready to work.
What is a Polaroid Polaprinter?
Made in Japan in the early 1980s by (or maybe for) local legend Polaroid (the company was based in Cambridge, MA, a quick drive from the F Stop and Casual Photophile office), the Polaroid Polaprinter is a simple but effective device for printing 35mm film slides onto prints using Polaroid Instant Pack Film and later Fujifilm Pack Film.
It works pretty simply. Mounted slides, the kind we’d get back from the lab after shooting Kodak Ektachrome or Fuji Provia or any other transparency film, are loaded into the top of the Polaroid Polaprinter, after which the Polaprinter’s flash and shutter mechanism expose the image from the slide onto light-sensitive pack film (which is loaded in the bottom of the machine in the same way that we’d load Pack Film into any other Pack Film camera). The user then pulls out the individual photo, again the same as any Pack Film camera. Pulling the print from the film holder activates a timer on the Polaprinter; thirty seconds for black-and-white film, sixty seconds for color. At the end of the set time, a delightful buzzer screams from somewhere inside the cerulean machine. Peel the print from the negative as we would with any Pack Film photo shot in any other device and a print has been made, an almost exact copy of the original slide.
Why Do I Love the Polaroid Polaprinter?
Kyle and I quickly discover that the machine works incredibly well, and as I’m using it to burn through about sixty dollars worth of Fujifilm FP100C film I can’t help but be surprised at just how thoughtful a device the Polaprinter is. The slide preview viewing window comes with an adjuster to frame the slide the way we like, necessary since the aspect ratio of a Pack Film photo isn’t the same as that of a 35mm slide. The voltage adjuster is coincidentally blocked by the power cord when plugged in, which naturally precludes the possibility that the voltage will be accidentally adjusted while the unit is powered on. The exposure and contrast adjustment knobs do their job effectively, giving quite a drastic variance between their extreme settings. The timer can clock three exposures at a time, staggering the activation of the timers automatically to the exact moment each print is pulled from the machine. It’s all surprisingly well done. Like every detail has been carefully considered.
It reminds me very much of another magical device I’ve lauded here on the site; slide projectors. I’ve said it before – shoot slide film, buy a slide projector, cover your wall in the beaming glow of slide images made during your most recent family vacation and get ready to be amazed. The Polaroid Polaprinter exudes the same sort of singular purpose and deceptive simplicity that’s present in the surprisingly impressive and absurdly inexpensive slide projectors that I keep telling anyone who’ll listen to me to buy. I won’t claim that the Polaprinter is as essential as I believe a slide projector is, or that it’s as cheap to buy and use. But I do appreciate it and what it does just as much as I appreciate projector technology.
And I don’t even mind that with that last paragraph I may have reached peak photo geek. Stop judging me. You’re here too.
Legacy of the Polaprinter
It’s interesting that I’d finally get tired of shuffling around the box that contained the Polaprinter this week, open it up, and experience the Polaprinter. It’s interesting because this week has brought two different news items from within Polaroid Originals, the company that’s the modern torchbearer of Polaroid instant photography and legal owner of the Polaroid name.
First, Polaroid Originals announced a product that’s very much a descendant of the Polaprinter. The Polaroid Lab is essentially the same thing, except that it gets its source image not from a 35mm slide but from the user’s smartphone, and exposes it onto Polaroid Originals’ modern integral film rather than the now-discontinued and criminally expensive Pack Film. We’ve not tested this device yet, but I’m fairly confident that my expectations will match with reality when the Polaroid Lab comes to market. It will, I’m sure, make pretty decent instant photos of otherwise intangible images which we can then frame, hang, or hand out to pals. It will be a cool device, if not expensive to use (much like the Polaprinter, in fact).
The sad truth, however, is that the images from the brand new Polaroid Lab will likely not be as gorgeous, saturated, contrasty, or sharp as the images from the almost-forty-years-old Polaroid Polaprinter. Pack Film really was the best instant film, and though the company Supersense is very close to bringing a new instant pack film to market, I doubt that this new film will compare to the near-perfection that was Fuji’s FP100C and FP3000B.
And I suppose I’m also feeling a bit sad and nostalgic following the second Polaroid news item of the week – that Polaroid Originals has officially discontinued all production of Spectra instant film, a larger format integral film for Polaroid Spectra cameras that had been in production since 1986. It survived Polaroid’s bankruptcy and was among the resurrected formats in the days of the Impossible Project. I loved Spectra film, and the cameras that used it. And now it’s gone. And discovering the Polaprinter years after its practical application has expired elicits similar pangs of missed opportunity.
I could argue that old things were better than new things, and lace my sentences with caveats and stipulations to head off the arguments and accusations that would rightly label me a nostalgic bore. I could squawk as I often do about the quality of mechanical cameras and characterful lenses, and drone endlessly about film grain and emulsions of suspended silver. I could end this article by floating the idea that the Polaroid Polaprinter is important and special. But, really, it’s not. It’s just an old device that works really well and does a cool thing that I find charming, useful, and fun. And sadly, having those three qualities just aren’t enough to guarantee survival in this world.