by Gene Owens
I just aged another century. Polaroid is getting out of the instant film business. It's been a year since the company manufactured a camera using instant film. Now it's vanishing into the mist that has obscured such photographic artifacts as Tri-X film, blue-dot flashbulbs and hand-held light meters.
I've never owned a Polaroid, but it was the camera that launched me into news photography, not that I ever got into it that deep. The managing editor of The Augusta Chronicle entrusted a Polaroid to me back around 1958, when I was its roving reporter on the South Carolina side of the state line. I gained no fame as a photojournalist, but the folks in the mill villages would crowd around to watch an image emerge on the paper that slid out of the end of the camera. And I can still smell the faint odor of the coating I brushed on to make the image more or less permanent.
Although the quality of my photos increased immensely when I switched to conventional film, I greatly missed the instant gratification of a Polaroid. When I sent the film off to a commercial lab, it was days before I could see the results. In time, an outfit called "Photomat" established drive-up booths in shopping-center parking lots where you could drop off your film one day and pick up the finished product the next day.
The purchase of a 35-mm Nikon F in 1964 put more quality into my photography, but it was the Polaroid that proved to be an an ambassador of good will when I went exploring countries under communist rule.
In 1980, on a flight from Guangzhou to Beijing in China, I was seated beside two young Chinese men, neither of whom spoke English. One of them ran his hand along my hairy arm, then pointed to his own smooth arm and smiled. I responded by taking a picture of them with a borrowed Polaroid camera and laying the paper face-up on the food shelf in front of them. It was worth the trip to see the utter amazement on their faces as the image developed.
By 1987, when I made my next trip to China, the Polaroid was a familiar sight to citizens of the People's Republic. I was walking the streets of Beijing with my Nikon slung over my shoulder. A Chinese man appeared on the street corner opposite me and began mugging for the camera. I obliged by taking a shot. He motioned for me to open the camera and show him the photo. When I told him, as best I could in sign language, that I couldn't show him the picture, he thrust out his hand, forefinger extended.
The Polaroid was a big hit in 1983 during a visit to a farmer's market in Erevan, Armenia. The building was a cornucopia of fresh vegetables and some of the juiciest fruit I ever tasted. Brian Dickinson, my friend from Providence, R.I., who has since died of Lou Gehrig's disease, took his Polaroid into the market. Soon everyone was crowding around the group of Americans touring the place. We were not allowed to buy anything; everything was free.
My photography went steadily downhill after I gave my Nikon F to my elder son. That old Nikon had no electronic components at all. You set your aperture and shutter speed by the seat of your pants, or with the aid of a hand-held light meter. Successive Nikons came with electronic gee-gaws that tried to do your thinking for you. The camera communicated through signals in the viewfinder that required that you thumb through the owner's manual. Mostly they signaled that the camera couldn't do what you wanted it to do. To this day, I detest equipment -- especially computers -- that insist on making decisions I'd rather make for myself.
The arrival of the digital camera greased the skids under the Polaroid camera. With the digital, you could see your image instantly and go back to get another shot if you didn't like what you saw. There were no bulky film packs to carry around. And you didn't even have to wait for the image to develop. The picture was there, ready to be uploaded onto a computer disk or printed out on a photo printer.
Just before I retired from the Mobile Press-Register in Alabama, the newspaper moved from its antiquated building -- a former car dealership -- and into an ultra-modern plant. The new plant had no photo lab; the newspaper had converted to digital cameras, most of them well beyond my means. So when I shot film to accompany my columns, I had it processed at a commercial lab.
After I retired, one of my first purchases was a Sony Cybershot from Wal-Mart, which cost about what I had paid for my latest Nikon. I've used it exclusively ever since. The Nikon still sits in a cabinet somewhere in our apartment, but it needs a new battery and I have seen little reason to shell out the $20 or so that it would cost.
The digital camera is a pleasure to use. But I'm betting it wouldn't stop a pickpocket in Armenia.
Gene Owens has been around the Southern journalistic scene for 48 years. He has been senior associate editor of The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., and editorial-page editor of the Roanoke Times in Roanoke, Va.
As senior editor for Creative Services, a management consulting firm in High Point, N. C., he ghosted more than a dozen published books for professional clients. For the past nine years he has been assistant managing editor, political editor and columnist for the Mobile Register. Register readers named him their favorite local columnist, and readers of the independent regional magazine, Bay Weekly, agreed. He was runner-up in the regional Green Eyeshades competition among writers of humor columns.
He has been on the board of directors of the National Conference of Editorial Writers and was editor of The Masthead, the NCEW’s national quarterly. He is in semi-retirement in Anderson, S. C.
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Write Gene Owens at 317 Braeburn Drive, Anderson SC 29621 or e-mail him at WadesDixieCo@aol.com
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