Part 5: Polaroid 150
This is part 5 of an on-going series titled "My Grandfather's Cameras." I never met my paternal grandfather, Robert Diefenbach. He passed away in 1969. His small collection of cameras sat in a basement for 45 years until they were handed down to me in the spring of 2014, still loaded with film. Read more in Part 1: Argus C4, Part 2: Argus C3, Part 3: Kodak Retina, and Part 4: Kodak Tourist
This is my grandfather’s 150. It is huge. It is both complicated and simple at the same time.
My grandfather, Robert Diefenbach, could have been considered a moderately serious amateur photographer. Instant cameras aren’t exactly seen as high brow, so I wonder if he just enjoyed the instant images, or maybe my grandmother, Jean, used it.
Ideal for outdoor social events, this 1950’s era Land camera was a fantastic way of cutting out the middleman of camera shops since it had no need for film developing and film printing. Despite its intense appearance, anyone could use this camera.
Manual exposure was simplified via the Polaroid EV (exposure value) system. Instead of setting the shutter (i.e. 125th/sec) and the aperture (i.e. f8) independently, you simply selected an EV of 11, 15 or maybe 17, depending on the brightness of the scene.
No longer made in roll format, instant film is still available in sheet formats, so this lead to me researching converting the camera.
Meet my grandfather’s converted Polaroid 150, now with a 127mm manual Copal lens and 4×5 Graflok back. I had a machinist in Florida do most of the work while I sourced parts for Polaroid film back.
This camera is now a walking, talking 4×5 rangefinder. Which is nuts.
It has a ground glass for focusing, but I can also use the rangefinder for run and gun scenarios, which seems crazy if using it to shoot 4×5 sheet film.
With a Polaroid back, I was able to shoot more modern and relatively available Fujifilm instant film. And thus, problem solved.
Since the end product was positive prints and not negative film, I needed a clean and consistent method of converting the images to digital. I acquired an old enlarger from a very nice friend of my father and converted it into a copy stand. Threw in a light box, a Canon 5D and a laptop, and I had a fantastic rig for the job. Big thanks to Peter DaSilva for the advice.
For the camera, I bought 2 boxes of instant film. 10 color, 10 black and white, costing around $3.50 for each image when you broke it down. That got me nervous.
With so much on the line, what should I photograph with my grandfather’s converted Polaroid 150?
How about the NBA Finals?
During this process I has the good fortune to be assigned the NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers for AFP. Obviously, I shot the game on my digital gear, but at the same time I lugged around the 150.
I had a meager shooting position up in the seats, so I made sure to walk around and shoot some polaroids before the game. Every security guard in the building over 60 years old was stopping me, asking me to show them the camera, then tell me how their mother or father had one just like it. The amount of memories brought out just by the sight of the camera was spectacular.
In large format photography, you often only have one chance to get the shot because the process is so slow. With instant film, timing is everything. Once you pull out the print, you can’t just shoot another since you have to be watching the clock in order to separate the developer from the print at just the right time. It is cumbersome and I wish I had an assistant.
You can see why Polaroid instant photography isn’t very usable in the documentary field.
I used the black and white film for the NBA Finals because it was 3000 ISO (I know!), and thought I would need the speed there. The color film was a reasonable 100 ISO and so I saved it for family portraits.
My dad, Bill.
My sister, Christina.
My dog, Warner.
Mentor and good friend Bob Galbraith.
My wife, Sarah.
My dog, again.
My friend, Tommy, and Sarah. Children of the garden.
Shooting on Polaroids is stressful. Each print is one of a kind. You can’t replicate them, and shooting them is a time consuming process because of the developing period.
I really wish I could warrant the purchase of boxes and boxes of more Polaroid film, because the images are a social experience. Everyone who sees the camera wants to wait and see what the next print will look like.
These images don’t just fly onto a screen and then fly away, never to be seen again.
These pictures may be instant, but they also seem more permanent.