Polaroid SX-70 Pinholes: A Blast From the Past Seen in the NOW
Content and Images Contributed by: David Gremp
Reading Richard’s blog post, “The Importance of NOW,” about his own experiences at O’Hare’s United terminal reminded me of how much fun, and instantly gratifying, Polaroid SX-70 film is to play with.
While I was in graduate school studying photography, I became deeply entrenched in my thesis project, which involved a 5×7″ camera and sheet film. As anyone who has worked with large format knows, it’s a very tedious process, from camera setup to film processing to print. So, for a change of pace, I decided to take a fun “experimental camera” class and, of course, the first thing anybody ever does in such a class is make a pinhole camera. What that camera consists of and what you put in it to record your images is just as much of a challenge as what you point it at.
I was also working in a camera store at the time, selling, among other things, the then-brand-new SX-70 camera and film. We were encouraged by Polaroid to demonstrate the process freely with customers. They even supplied a floor display with a 7′ high, bright-red, seamless background for this purpose. I grew to really love the whole integrity of the final print, with its little square glossy image encased in a rectangular mat or frame, sort of like a daguerreotype.
One thing I also learned about the SX-70 process from demonstrating it was that whenever you pulled the film pack out of the front of the camera and either stuck it back in or replaced it with a new pack, the camera automatically kicked out the top sheet, assuming – correctly – that it was either an exposed sheet of film or the protective dark slide of a new pack.
For my class pinhole assignment I was able to borrow a camera from work, buy some film and try to make a pinhole camera that could hold the film pack. When I looked around my house to find something to make a camera out of, I decided to use an empty 100-sheet box of 5×7″ film with a few pieces of cardboard taped inside to hold the SX-70 film pack securely in place. Then I cut a hole in the front of the box and taped a brass shim-stock plate with a neat little pinhole in the middle. Badda bing, badda boom. I had my camera.
Since it required a completely dark room to transfer the film pack from the SX-70 camera to my pinhole camera and back after exposing it, I was rather limited as to how far I could go from home to take pictures. I needed to return to my darkroom to process each exposed image by returning the film pack back into the SX-70 camera, which it promptly kicked out and processed my fresh print. After some testing of exposure and understanding the focal length of my home-made camera, I eventually decided that it was best to stay inside my house, place the camera on a makeshift tripod head and make exposures of about a minute or so, with maybe a few pops from my flash.
All I needed was a subject. Hmmm. I was newly married to a wonderful woman who hadn’t quite gotten sick of me photographing her yet, so I was able to bribe her into posing for me. We just went around the house from room to room, her posing, me exposing, returning to my darkroom to process and see the results, then making any necessary adjustments in camera position and exposure. There was nothing tedious about it at all, except maybe for my wife having to hold still for such long exposures.
Looking back, 38 years of marriage later, aside from it being the last time my wife willingly posed for me, I see this project as a refreshing break from my more traditional work and it still brings a smile to my face. And, thanks to Impossible Project for film and eBay as a source for Polaroid SX-70 cameras, this type of project and photographic process is still as viable and as easy-to-work-with as any in the history of the medium. A very serious toy indeed!
To see more of my work from my early photography days, don’t miss my Chicago 78/79 and Family Run series exhibits at Alibi Fine Art in Chicago, IL.
And, don’t forget to share your own personal photography project stories with us here on Parallax. I’d love to hear how you’ve interpreted the personal photography challenge.
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