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Preserving Polaroids

Polaroids taken in 2019-2020

My husband bought me a Polaroid camera for Christmas this past year, and it's been super fun to capture a physical memento in a world where digital reigns. I had a slim Polaroid in high school, and I always found excuses to use it before I got my first ever SLR camera (before DSLRs!) The gratification of an instant product instead of having to take the film to the drugstore and wait for several days was always a plus. Once I got an SLR, and then took a photo class in high school, I was more interested in trying to take and develop my own photos. Now, actual photo development is almost obsolete.

Polaroid cameras are receiving a bit of a resurgence among hipsters and influencers in younger generations, but not because of the instant gratification - phone cameras now provide that. Now, Polaroids offer the opposite from the past - it takes too much time to sort through and upload photos, so most people just don't.

This is one reason my husband bought the Polaroid for me - it's an immediate and tangible documentation. That and he figured if there was actual film involved - not something you could delete like it never happened - he would have to take the photo seriously (in the majority of photos from our life together, my husband has thought it funny to ruin the picture in some way, and he has now realized that this is backfiring. There's about a decade of photos where he looks ridiculous in every. single. one.)

As I described my own instant gratification concerning my high school Polaroid earlier, it was much the same when the Polaroid camera was marketed to the public in 1948. A chemical composition patented by scientist Edwin Land in 1943, Polaroid developed out of a innocent question his daughter asked while on vacation, "why can't I see the photo right away?" This concept now seems so foreign, and almost even a distant memory when I think back to the digital cameras at the turn of the 21st century. Apparently, Land went on a long walk after his daughter asked that question, came up with the idea, the camera, the film, and the chemistry all within the hour, and set out to making it perfect. Which 5 years later it was: the cameras sold out in its first Boston retail store within minutes.

These Polaroids of members in my family were taken sometime between 1979 and 1984

Polaroids were never really meant to last forever. It's an inherently unstable medium, considering there are over 50 perfectly timed chemical reactions that happen between when the shutter opens and the image is fully developed.

Under the right conditions though, Polaroids can last well past your lifetime, and hopefully longer than that. The Polaroids in the image above were made well before I was born, perhaps almost 40 years ago, and look almost perfect - like they were taken yesterday.

Here's some tips to help keep your Polaroids fresh and like new:

1. If possible, store your Polaroids flat. Storing them on their sides, or even up and down can cause them to yellow, which can be seen especially in the lighter spots of the image.

2. Keep them in a cool dark space. Even though it's tempting to keep them on the fridge, or in a frame in your living room, direct sunlight causes fading, which can't be reversed (the same goes for any photographs!) Ultraviolet light (UV light) breaks down the emulsion in instant film, so storing it in a dark place is especially important. Even if Polaroids are kept in a dark place, they still may yellow some - it's the inherent nature of the chemicals used in the developing process.

3. Keep them out of extremely humid places, like your attic or a wet basement. This also goes for anything you cherish! Mold is a tricky bugger, and once you get mold on something, it doesn't really ever go away.

4. Don't cut up your Polaroids. While it may not matter in today's images too much, you could still be speeding up the deterioration process, since you're exposing the chemicals used to create the image in the first place. Plus, the white border helps keep it all contained, and if cut, the leftover chemicals that didn't evaporate could be released - potentially creating a big mess.

5. If you just took your photo, make sure to let it dry completely for a few weeks before storing.

6. Avoid any scrapbooks or enclosure that aren't archival. This includes magnetic albums (those albums with the sticky pages), or anything that smells like chemicals.

Happy Polaroiding!

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