A Polaroid Love Affair

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By Sharon SmithIt was 1977, Coney Island, late June. I was twenty-something and carrying the latest technological toy—a Polaroid SX-70 camera. I loved this image-making device and the beautiful pictures it produced. It satisfied my deepest communication needs, generating pictures out of thin air that I could instantly (10 minutes in those days) share with whoever happened to be around. I was addicted to the furry thrill of the way the camera sounded as it spit out the picture, the way people gathered to look at what was formerly invisible, the way the picture itself changed the space in which it was produced.

SX-70s were objects of curiosity and wonder and I was well aware that the camera I was carrying gave me a certain currency and cachet. It was nonetheless surprising when someone offered me $2.00 to take his picture. I threw him a shot, and then immediately went over to the local drugstore to buy more film so I could make more pictures and collect more dollar bills to pay for my expensive new habit.

At that moment, it became clear that I was jumping into a different dimension where performance, choreography, and a dash of psychic sensitivity combined with the more obvious goal of taking a good picture. I regularly drove from upstate New York to roam Coney Island’s beaches, boardwalks, and bars to explore this new world. In a few months, I probably made over 1000 Polaroid SX-70’s—300 to 400 sold or given away on location, the rest ending up in my own collection.

In 1980, I became a camera girl—a roving photographer taking instant photos of thousands of people who came to see and be seen in the trendiest nightclubs in New York City. Right away, I began to think of myself as the latest, the most “with-it” in a line of good-ole-fashioned camera girls. Girls you would have met in the Stork Club. Girls with names like Gloria, Rita, and Joan. In a seductive, slinky black dress, I cooed, “Would you like a photograph?”

Little did I know that I was beginning a 10-year cruise through Manhattan’s underground caverns: The Ritz; New York, New York; the Savoy; The Red Parrot; Studio 54; Roseland Ballroom; Merlyn’s; 4D; Area; Palladium; and others. I learned to give people exactly what they wanted—clearly focused souvenirs, truly of the moment, showing how terrific they looked on the outside, how happy they were on the inside. In return, they gave me an amazing archive of pictures of the 1980s.

Obviously, those days are over. But the pictures are still here. Intimate artifacts of the past, they are palm-sized, one-of-a-kind images with the precious quality of 19th century daguerreotypes. Concrete slivers of time grabbed from my experience, produced on the spot and preserved in plastic.

So tell me, how can a small digital image on a camera viewfinder compete with all that?