Learning Polaroid

Thomas Wong Matthews – Sycamore, Edmonton, 2020.

We were on a walk in the west end of Edmonton, cameras in tow. If memory serves, it was late June of 2020. I stood under a tree, trying to steady my hands and manually focus a shot of a leaf. When the photo finally developed, I realized I just took a photo that unlocked feelings of immense joy and pride. I hoped there would be more moments like that in the future and I’m happy to report: yes, there were.

Rewind a few months from that moment. During the pandemic, like a lot of people, my partner and I picked up new hobbies. Photography was something I was personally interested in my whole life and I dabbled with it a tiny bit in years past. Really wanted to give it the ol’ college try this time. When one has a blank slate, how do you start?

One thing I knew for certain is that I’ve become dispassionate towards technology in the way it has had such a pervasive effect on our society. (Odd thing to write, for someone who loves technology and works in the field.) It felt overwhelming to just jump right into modern photography so I wanted to return to simpler time. Enter the idea of a Polaroid SX-70 Land Camera, what I now believe in my heart to be one of the best cameras ever manufactured.

There are certainly a lot of antique and used stores around my city, but I can’t recall ever seeing an SX-70 for sale. In April, I did some research online, searched local Kijiji listings, and found my way to eBay. Many of the postings stated the camera was “untested” and knowing absolutely zero about these things, I was understandably nervous putting in a bid. Found a posting from Ontario, but the camera was listed as untested and had some slight damage to the frame.

I took a break from the online scavenging and decided to do some more research. Enter books! The first was “Polaroid Land Photography” written by the one and only Ansel Adams. This book was written in 1978 and from what I was told is the guide for aspiring Polaroid photographers. I also wound up picking up “The Polaroid Book” published by Taschen, which is full of inspirational shots, extraordinary art, and technical details of the various Polaroid cameras out there.

Thomas Wong Matthews – SX-70, Edmonton, 2021.

When an SX-70 camera located in Western Canada popped up on eBay (this one came with a leather carrying case!) I took notice. Again, this camera was like all the others – untested – however the initial price was pretty low. I decided to throw caution to the wind and put in a bid. It was an auction (no ‘Buy It Now’ option) and over a period of seven nerve-wracking days, I wound up placing eight bids and outbid four bidders. In the end and $127.50 later, I won! Regret creeped in, did I just spend too much for a camera?

The SX-70 arrived via Canada Post in a week or so, safe and sound due the care put into its packaging. Wait a second, I thought as I admired my new camera, I have no idea how to load the film. What did I get myself in to? Thanks to some YouTube channels and online guides, I learned both how to load it and the basics of shooting. Then, over a period of a month I blasted through a bunch of packs of film and took 60-70 photos. Colour, B&W. Some forks, books, water, trees, flowers, buildings, clouds, grass, some carrots, shadows on a bridge. A leaf.

I was happy. And learning.

I emailed the seller curious about the camera’s history, but also to thank her. As it turned out, she was an antique/collectibles dealer and obtained the camera in an estate sale for a recently deceased man. Maybe the camera had been dormant in the home for many years? It was in top shape, the most excellent of condition.

I find myself thinking sometimes about the original owner and the SX-70’s past life. I looked up the serial number and discovered this particular camera was manufactured in 1974. What did its lens see in its 46 years? Dear Benefactor: I hope you took many a delightful photo with this camera. Be rest assured, it is in a good home. I’ll take care of it.

Thomas Wong Matthews – Feeder in the Shadows, Edmonton, 2020.

The pleasure of photography is a hard topic for me to clearly express. There is a bit of magic and lots of practice required to make art. As like everything else in life, I love to be constantly learning. I have had plenty of frustratingly awful photos in the 270+ Polaroids that I have taken since the summer of 2020. But there have been some good ones and if I look hard enough I can see something in the bad ones.

What I can say is that the simple art of instant film photography is quite gratifying. I always felt that a great movie requires great cinematography. Of course, photography and cinematography have a lot in common. I find inspiration from Matthew Libatique and Emmanuel Lubezki, two cinematographers each with a respected body of work. I look at some of my photos and pretend/dream that they’re a still from a film. This keeps me driven. It’s exciting to think that the more I shoot, my quality improves. That should be true for all things in life.

I will find enjoyment looking back at my old photos of this time period. I’ll remember standing underneath that tree, focusing all my attention on a silly little leaf, and those feelings of joy and pride that came along with it.