Polaroid's Comeback: Preserving and Displaying Instant Film

Written by Mark Rogers

The introduction of digital cameras slowed a big part of the photography industry. Gone are the days of bringing rolls of film to the local shop to get them developed, and those bulky Polaroid cameras now gather dust in the closet.

But Polaroid cameras have recently been coming out of storage. Over the past few years, the company has been busy capitalizing on the recent hype for nostalgic cameras and the instant printing capabilities of its most famous product.

There have been several new instant cameras on the market, including the Fujifilm Instax, Lomography’s Lomo'Instant and, of course, Polaroid’s own line of Originals. With instant film so popular, there are now once again hundreds of these small, square-shaped photographs laying around — and your favorites should be preserved and displayed the right way.

How Instant Film Works

Unlike traditional photography, instant film has all it needs inside the camera itself. This is also why the film is more expensive than standard film — you are skipping the need for additional photographic paper, chemicals and a darkroom or a professional printer.

An instant photograph is produced when an image is projected onto a film substrate that already contains the chemicals required to develop the photograph; it’s like a mini darkroom. There are a number of different chemicals used depending on the manufacturer and the type of photograph (e.g. color or black and white), but the film generally contains the same three components: a positive sheet, a negative sheet and the chemicals, which are usually enclosed in one of the sheets in a pod. In those early-days Polaroids, they were at the thick end of the final photograph — where most people wrote down what was in the image.

Once the image is taken, the film is passed through rollers that simultaneously break open the pod containing the chemicals and press the sheets together. The chemicals are spread throughout the film, and the image develops in about one minute. Older Polaroids required that the user apply a coating after the film develops, but the book Storing, Handling and Preserving Polaroid Photographs mentions coating the photo with a type of lacquer to minimize oxygen exposure even with “coaterless” film. Since that book hasn’t been updated since 1983, however, it’s best to leave the coating off.

Preserving Instant Photographs

Just like standard photographs and prints, instant film can suffer the same damage as standard film. However, a little more care should be taken when handling the still-developing film — according to Polaroid, the more closely the photographer followed the instructions, the longer the photo will last.

Tip: Shaking the photo does not help a Polaroid develop faster. In fact, it could actually damage the developing photograph!

Before and just after the photograph develops, there are few things you should definitely not do to ensure the longevity of your final images:

  • Do not stack or handle just-processed film.
  • Do not press on the chemical pod in the film.
  • Do not cut or bend photographs.
  • Do not open film until ready to use.
  • Do not remove the (often white) border along the photograph. It serves to protect the image from airborne contaminants.
  • Do not use staples or paperclips on the photograph.

Aside from those specific rules, the standard photography preservation practices apply: keep the photos away from light, heat and moisture; most organizations maintain that Polaroids will fade in as just as much time as conventional photographs. Store the photographs in a cool, dry and dark place, such as in an acid-free photo box in print sleeves in the basement or bedroom (the attic becomes far too hot). Make sure that you do not store traditional photos or paper items such as newspaper or photocopies in direct contact with instant film, as the chemicals can interact and damage the instant photograph.

Displaying Instant Photos: How to Frame a Polaroid

You can frame instant photographs just like you would any other print, taking care to choose the right UV-filter glass or UV-filter acrylic glazing if you plan on keeping the photo around for a while. There are a few ways to do the framing itself, such as float mounting. With this technique, the instant photographs can get a little bit of added whimsy, highlighting the telltale border instead of hiding it.

You could also use the white border of the frame as the “mat board”, and frame right up until those borders for a more intimate framing style. Because Polaroids have that thicker edge at the bottom, you can also mimic the popular bottom-weighted or museum mat board style with just the Polaroid itself. For more emphasis, include a wide-edged single or double mat board, placing the photograph inside.

If you’d rather put your instant photographs on display in a more creative way, such as hung from twine and clips, there are tons of ways to do so. But keep in mind that unlike digital photographs, there is only one copy of that photograph — and no negative to print it again. Once the photograph is damaged or lost, it is gone forever. Make sure that those moments you capture are ones that you don’t mind reminiscing about only in your memory — otherwise, opt for a frame!

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