Polachrome may be the most unusual color slide film ever produced. At the time, Polaroid flourished with over 13,000 employees worldwide for its many products and owned its niche of “instant” photography. But other camera and film manufacturers had high hopes too for the convenience of their new disc cameras in a shift toward the consumers of a mass market rather than the “amateurs” of photography. Yes, discs to easily load and unload the film. And automated processors to enable a plethora of 1-hour processing kiosks were close on the horizon.
Since Kodachrome’s invention in the 1930’s color film had employed a subtractive model where cyan, magenta, and yellow dyes were used to block their respective colors proportionally in exposure on the film layers. Essentially a B&W film adapted for color, Polachrome simply added a red, green, and blue filter layer to a negative, the additive mixing of these colors being much as our eyes work, actually with the potential too then of more accurate color representation. Indeed, this RGB model today is the basis for our TV’s, computer screens, and smart phones.
Unfortunately, Polachrome was also an extremely difficult film to print due to its density, requiring very long exposure times that were well beyond the bend of the then current darkroom technology. And especially when using the only readily available photographic paper at the time with any hope for longevity. I know, I tried. In 1982, Polaroid asked me to shoot their pre-production Polachrome for a “Beautiful Images Project” to introduce their new “instant slide film” to the world at Photokina in Cologne, then West Germany. Collaborating with a theater director and three actors we shot a somewhat surrealist scenario in places like Jordan Marsh's mannequin storage room, the Combat Zone, and my Fenway apartment in Boston. However the film was “processed” overnight at Polaroid as it was obvious that not quite perfected yet was the famous "peel" part as it often was completely unpredictable. When eventually working well, you would load the film and a processing pack into the box-like “Autoprocessor”, turn the crank one way to wed them, wait a bit, then hand crank back to return the finished film to its canister. I’ve held on to my Autoprocessor for the relic that it is.
The familiar branding of the Polaroid Color Spectrum is gone from the shelves now, and that color darkroom is pretty much done too. Very significant thresholds have been crossed in the last decade with digital printers that can print all the color subtlety available to it in a color slide, and pigment inks that achieve a 400 year life without significant fading when also using archival papers. Tonality may be exceptionally controlled even in color. For this series I have chosen a Legacy watercolor fine art paper, its slight texture to imbue the surface with a softness inherent in the original film, also matte rather than shiny at all for a greater appreciation of the unique richness of its distinctive Polaroid palette and tonality. The scans too of the original slides were made at the highest resolution to keep those additive color filter lines cleanly represented for interest ln a closer inspection of the large print. Given the fugitive nature of color dyes, they all fade and relatively soon, by reprinting this work in a pigment based medium, like oils, I feel I'm contributing to the cultural archive of a rather remarkable time in the history of photography.