Humanities Research as Experimentation: Report on final Polaroid film batch
Dr. Peter Burse
Literature, Science, Culture Symposium, University of Salford
January 15, 2010
When Sharon first asked me to take part in this symposium, I offered her two possible
contributions. One was a proper academic paper, the other the talk I am about to give
Many of you know that I have been working for the past four or five years on a
cultural history of Polaroid photography, and some of you have already seen the fruits
of that work, which has mostly consisted of digging though the Polaroid Corporate
archives in Boston, reading annual reports, company newsletters, and advertising
copy; or speculating about the relation between the original instant photography and
its replacement, amateur digital snapshooting.
The Director of my Research Institute, George McKay, has also seen me present some
of this work, and has been very supportive of it. Last year at this time he saw me
deliver a paper at the MECSSA conference in Bradford. Presenting alongside me was
a woman doing practical photographic work, which is to say, she took the audience
through the results of a series of trials she carried out in what is known as re-
photographic procedures. After the talks George approached me and suggested that
my project also might benefit from a little hands-on experimenting with my research
materials, and why don’t I make a request for a grant from the Research Institute to
buy some stocks of Polaroid film to play around with?
There was a specific context for this suggestion – I had explained in my paper that
Polaroid, which had been in dire financial straits for almost ten years, having filed for
bankruptcy protection twice, had just announced that it was discontinuing
permanently the manufacture of its famous instant film, with stocks due to run out
entirely by spring or summer of 2009. Why not buy up some of the final batch of
Polaroid film, George said, and try to find out more about its qualities and
potentialities while there was still a chance? I duly put in a claim for £150 to the
Centre for Communication, Cultural and Media Studies here at the University of
Salford, and along with about £80 of my own cash, invested in about 20 to 25 packs
of Polaroid 600 film, each one containing 10 shots, working out, therefore, at about a
pound per picture, which is at least one reason why Polaroid has gone out of business.
Of these 230 or so images, I now have exactly X left, and I’m here today to try to tell
you what I found out.
Before I do that, though, I thought I’d better say a bit about how this material is (or
isn’t) appropriate for a symposium on Literature, Science and Culture. Of these three
terms, only the third has been central to my work on Polaroid thus far, and rather than
framing what I do under the rubric of science studies, it is instead the history of
technology that has given me my key point of orientation. However, it is impossible
to study Polaroid without giving consideration to the figure of Edwin Land, founder
of Polaroid Corporation, inventor of instant photography, and the last century’s most
prolific scientist-entrepreneur, who died in 1991 in possession of the second most
patents after Thomas Edison. Indeed, it only required Sharon, who of course has
vested interests, to read a précis of my work to resituate it within the ambit of science
studies by announcing to me that what I was doing was the history of an invention. I
had not thought of it this way before, and I welcome the new perspective on my work
that it has given me. I remain to be convinced though, that it is science that I am
studying: Steven Shapin, after all, reminds us that ‘science is discovery and not
If I am not studying science, then perhaps in a modest way I have been ‘doing
science’ with my £150 grant. In Literature departments, and I’m still in one, at least
for teaching purposes, what we are good at is reading – that’s what we’ve been
trained in, if anything, even if what we read is no longer the literary text, as in my
case. For the most part my Polaroid project has consisted in continuing with these
long established reading protocols, whether it be readings of images, or of an eclectic
variety of documents to do with instant photography. But with my £150, I found
myself in a rather different situation: no longer reading, but perhaps what can be best
described as testing. To this one might add observing and recording…
In other words, I find myself turned into an empiricist! This did not come easily to
me. I was raised on a steady diet of Foucault, Derrida and Lacan, who put one on the
trail of the signifier and textuality, with a suspicion or disdain for the signified, never
minds facts, data, or some chimera called ‘observable reality’. When not downright
hostile to science, these brilliant readers and textualists kept at the very least a wary
Steven Shapin, ‘The Darwin Show’, London Review of Books 32: 1 (7 January
2010), 3-9: 5.
distance from its procedures and claims to knowledge. It’s enough to remember Levi-
Strauss’ warning that a fact is not unearthed but made.
What I’m trying to say is that finding myself with 20 plus packs of Polaroid film and
an obligation to investigate, it was not simply a question of going out and taking
them, but of finding myself in a rather different position than I am accustomed to as a
researcher, being forced to reconsider the validity of my usual practices and protocols
for the task at hand.
I don’t want to exaggerate. It’s not like I rigorously applied the scientific method
throughout the project. I had a few working hypotheses, it’s true, but there was no
experimental structure planned out in advance, nor any carefully worked out controls.
I proceeded in at best a semi-systematic way, and had no proper method for labeling,
organizing, or classifying the photographic specimens I gathered. I did learn a few
things about Polaroid photography though, and I’ll try to summarise them here.
I acquired my Polaroid 600 camera in 2005 near the start of my larger project, but I
was far from a habitual user of the camera before George’s proposal. If I wanted a
photo I would generally use my traditional SLR, or latterly, my camera phone. Why
was this? Well, apart from the sheer noisiness of the thing, which makes it impossible
to use without seeming to want to attract attention to oneself (more of which later),
my chief experience of Polaroid photography was one of disappointment. The quality
of the images, however one measures such a thing, all too often was in directly
inverse proportion to the fascination of the process and technology – the fact of an
image appearing instantaneously, developing directly in the light without outside aid.
Indeed, it is this aspect of the technology which has dominated my research – the
process, rather than actual images – because my argument has always been that it is
the process of instant photography that makes it a distinctive cultural form rather than
any specific quality of the images. As a result, I usually only brought the camera out
for theatrical purposes when I was speaking at research seminars or conferences.
(IMAGE from Salford or other talk) As you can see, nothing to write home about.
Cameras are usually described in terms of their capabilities, with mega-pixels the
current currency of photographic potency, and a huge variety of special effects
(solarising, greyscale, etc) available in the most mundane of camera phones. A
Polaroid camera, or at least one of my vintage, must be approached with an entirely
different set of expectations, because it is characterized instead by its LIMITATIONS.
For purposes of economy, I’ll identify three – depth of focus, the dimensions of the
image, and colour sensitivity.
The first of these limitations is very much in evidence in the image in the top right
hand corner of this slide, where poor Frances has become the victim of yet another
Polaroid moment. The radiator behind her is very nicely in focus, but she is halfway
to blurry blobdom. So accustomed have we become to powerful auto-focusing
electronics in our amateur cameras that it takes a recalcitrant piece of equipment like
this to remind us how unnatural is our current tyrannical regime of total focus. The
instructions for my camera, what little there are of them, claim that it can focus from
2 feet to infinity, providing the photographer with two focal settings in which to
achieve this, but experience suggests that this is something of an exaggeration. The
fact is, either the camera or the film struggle badly with any kind of image situation
which requires even a mild depth of focus. Try to take a picture of a landscape or
even the extent of a city street and you will end up with slightly foggy objects in the
foreground, with objects in the distance, such as Dunstanburgh Castle, a mere haze.
This limitation can lead to some interesting effects – if this Greek ship has been
photographed with a proper camera, it certainly would not have taken on this oddly
This first limitation is if anything made more stark by the second key limitation - the
restricted image size and its square shape. For those who still get their snapshots
developed as prints, and their number is waning, the standard size is 6’ x 4’ or 7’ x 5’,
with ample opportunity to view the image blown up on a screen with only marginal
loss of image quality. In contrast, the Polaroid image is 3’ x 3 ¼’, and with no
negative, it is frozen forever in those dimensions. A key consequence of this
restriction is that if you want your image to contain a number of things, say people,
you’re going to have to accept that they will probably have to be small (and out of
focus) as in the shots of seminar audiences or the cars on the street – and from my
perspective at least, the resulting image feels cluttered. The square shape means that
the standard advice when taking portraits – to position your subject to one side or
other of the image – goes out the door, and indeed, forces us once again to feel the
unnaturalness of another standard convention of snapshot photography, in this case
the rectangular frame inherited from painting. It is not by chance, then, that fully
centred close-ups of one or two people have historically predominated in Polaroid
Personally, I gave up pretty early in the project on photographing people, or at least
expecting much from doing so. This is mainly because of the third main limitation,
the film’s handling of colour and light. At this point I have to admit to a deficiency in
my technical vocabulary, but I hope that my examples will at least make clear what I
am trying to say. Even though Polaroid photographs have been rather unjustly
accused of a propensity for fading, much has also been made of the supposed
saturation of their colours. I’m still not confident that I know what this means, but I
guess it has to do with a rather lurid, full, quality of some brightly coloured objects
when photographed (bike, Serage).
Colour is of course a property of light, and it seems to me that Polaroid film is
especially sensitive to light, tending to exaggerate the luminosity of any already
illuminated object, hence the weird effect of the flash on people’s faces. For me the
most striking instance of this hyper-sensitivity to light is what happens to white
objects in bright sunlight. In what might be described as a reverse silhouette effect,
all textures, all nuance in the grain or surface is lost, and all that remains are
undifferentiated bleached out white shapes. My impression is that this loss of texture
is accentuated with white thanks to the image’s distinctive border, but that it operates
with all colours and may explain the widely circulated notion that Polaroid film is
highly ‘saturated’. What this means is that even on a bright but cloudy day in
Manchester, I wouldn’t advise photographing swans, unless you like the slightly
peculiar sight of an off-yellow beak floating in a pure white oval.
Therefore – a Polaroid praxis
I was probably about halfway through my stock of film when I’d determined these
three or four basic qualities as the key limitations of the form, and adjusted my
practice accordingly. I mean by this that I started to take my pictures according to
some fairly strict criteria. With irrevocably diminishing supplies each shot became
more valuable than the last, and I didn’t want to waste any on half-filled seminar
rooms. There is the further complication that in taking Polaroid pictures, you often
feel obliged to give some away – it always seemed a bit churlish to take a picture of
someone and then just pocket it for my project, so I often ended up taking two, one
for myself and one for the poser. I have even been offered money by a stranger to
take the same picture again of a display outside his shopfront when he saw me
So, what were my criteria? Well, I’d already determined them when I took the ill-
fated picture of the swan:
1) Avoid taking images where there are a number of focal planes, or, putting it more
positively, pick compositions where everything is arranged on a single plane, or at
most two. Bodies of water are ideal in this sense in that they present a single planar
surface, hence the swan.
2) To avoid cluttering the small frame, don’t put too many objects in the image. By
this point I wasn’t really thinking in terms of objects though – what I saw through my
Polaroid eyes was colours, and it was colour clutter that I was avoiding.
3) As for the colours themselves, I sought out strong but slightly faded ones, unless I
was deliberately seeking the saturation or silhouette effect.
In practice what this meant was that I spent a lot of time looking for flat things in
slighted faded but formerly bold colours (skip, no parking door, EE, orange bin)
Then in November, like a gift, an old Mercedes materialized outside my house for
two weeks before disappearing again. The combination of its squared windows
(fitting the dimensions of the picture frame), its faded paint job and its fogged
windows presented me with a near perfect surface.
There are only so many things which are available to be photographed across a single
plane, and there are only so many walls, doors one can photograph. One easy to
generate a more or less flat surface is to photograph from a position of elevation.
…or from below: statues, trees, lampposts and buildings against the sky fulfill all my
criteria – only two focal planes (sky and object); a restricted palette of colours, and
single objects which cope well with the square format. I also like clouds, especially
the ones behind el Angel Caido, the world’s only public monument to Satan in
Madrid’s Buen Retiro park.
In the end though, my favourite subject has simply become empty plastic chairs with
the occasional table thrown in. They’re generally uniformly coloured and without
notable textures, and present plenty of flat surfaces. I find them kind of spooky and
melancholic, with an expectant yet neglected look. They also share an advantage with
statues: they’re not likely to ask for a copy.
I could show you many more, but perhaps to finish I’ll just draw 4 brief conclusions.
1) In a very well known argument, Walter Benjamin once speculated in a completely
un-Freudian way that photography gives us access to an ‘optical unconscious’. He
meant by this that photographic film had the capacity to reveal, through magnification
or enlargement, details which have escaped the naked eye. Even without engaging in
micro-photography we’ve all had the experience of finding in a snapshot a person or a
fleeting detail that we did not notice when we were taking the picture and which only
the time of photographic contemplation brings into our perception. For me, this
tendency is amplified with the Polaroid image because the relation between what you
see through the viewfinder and what the image will look like is so much more tenuous
than it is with the more advanced imaging technologies that we now take so much for
granted. Many of these pictures show me things I never saw At the same time, this
intensification of the optical unconscious brought me to look at the world differently
before I took pictures, in an anticipatory abstraction of vision, bringing me to see the
world purely in terms of surfaces and colours.
2) I have shown you a series of images that I have implicitly, indeed explicitly, been
categorizing as good or bad, or at least as satisfying my photographic sensibility. I
hope it goes without saying that these are not neutral judgments, but must be
underpinned by specific aesthetic assumptions. To do this project properly, I would
have to ask very seriously what unconscious norms (in the stronger sense of the term)
have guided my image-making. Empiricism would of course be of no use in such an
3) I should have asked for more money.
4) If you insist on photographing people, I advise putting them against a wall; and
sometimes you just have to pass the camera to someone else.
Author’s Key publications on the topic:
Buse, P., 2007, ‘Photography Degree Zero: Cultural history of the Polaroid Image’,
new formations 62, pp. 29-44.
Buse, P., 2008, ‘Surely Fades Away: Polaroid photography and the contradictions of
cultural value’, Photographies 1:2, pp. 221-38.
Buse, P., 2009, ‘Polaroid, Aperture, and Ansel Adams: rethinking the industry-
aesthetic divide’, History of Photography 33: 4, pp. 357-73.
Buse, P., 2010, ‘Polaroid after digital: Technology, Cultural Form, and the social
practices of snapshot photography’ forthcoming in Continuum: Journal of Media
and Cultural Studies 24: 2, pp. 215-30.
Buse, P., 2010, ‘The Polaroid image as photo-object’ forthcoming in Journal of
Visual Culture 10: 2