Why would Polaroid, a company that went bankrupt in 2001 because their product was so old-fashioned, try to relaunch its instant film cameras in 2010? And why would they hire someone so non-nostalgic as Lady Gaga to be their celebrity representative?
It's an odd marriage at first glance. A camera that produces a small sheet of paper, with its echoes of seventies family albums (all faded brown now): It seems quaint and friendly and soft compared to the shrieking serpent of sex, the personification of the unattainable and the inhumanly fashionable. Where Polaroids were soft, in every sense, Lady Gaga is the hardest of the hard.
Everyone my age remembers with, I would guess, a certain fondness, that schnieck sound that an instant camera made as it produced its magical sheet; it's the sound of a naive excitement about the wonder of technology. But Lady Gaga offends old people. The U.S. novelist Mary Gaitskill recently posted an unabashedly cranky essay about a Lady Gaga video and kids these days (on the Canadian site Ryeberg.com), saying that the pop star's hard body, model-posey, poolside world is "a picture of hell."
And yet, according to the newly revived Polaroid corporation, the 23-year-old Gaga will be the "creative director" (a word companies use to mean celebrity endorser or public face) of a new line of Polaroid products. And, to the surprise of business analysts, the new company has also announced it will relaunch some kind of instant film camera - the very thing that led to their downfall in an age of instant digital pictures. In an interview with CNNMoney.com, the CEO of Polaroid said, "We know instant film won't be the saviour for the company, but it's important to bring back the old classic. … Our customers unequivocally want this experience back, especially the art and fashion communities."
And there you have the explanation. For years - especially since the ascendancy of digital cameras - an old Polaroid camera, and the ability to find film for it, have been mandatory accessories for downtown hipsters. Art students love them. There is a vast, international gallery of instant pictures online at Polanoid.net (note the spelling), run by an Austrian enthusiast who has collected as much of the remaining SX-70 film in the world as he possibly can.
Why is this? What's so cool about a tiny and unalterable picture? The hipsters themselves claim that there is something unique about the colours and textures of a true instant (they will wax geeky about the difference between Polaroid and Kodak), and it is true that the old photos have a certain kind of rich saturation that takes at least a few minutes of Photoshopping to imitate these days. Their fixed, uncroppable frame also provides a formal restraint that artists like to have imposed on them, as they do any formal restraint (the fixed form of a sonnet, for example). Artists and grad students like to talk too about the philosophical significance of a chemical change on paper as opposed to an electronic signal; the chemical change could be said to be less mediated. And you can create weird effects by scratching or wetting the film as it develops.
All this is interesting, but there is another element in the cool factor that often goes unsaid: Instant film cameras are associated with the fashion industry. Stylists used to bring them along on shopping trips to snap clothes they could quickly show to editors and art directors; photographers used to take Polaroids while setting up a shot with a larger camera, as a kind of preview to show to the team arranging the models and dresses. Downtown people with instant film cameras were, for a couple of decades at least, visibly connected to glamour (and models).
And here's where Lady Gaga comes in: She is beloved by followers of clothing because she is such an ardent supporter of daring costume. Her videos are theatrical runway shows, and she is not afraid of the outré and avant-garde in the sartorial domain (as opposed to in her music, where she is a populist). She has been chosen as a representative of the sexually permissive, multigendered, downtown yet epically rich world of high fashion. So she's palatable to hipsters and suburban teenagers alike. And there's nothing nostalgic about her.
If I were a Polaroid marketing exec, I would make a big deal too about the role of instant film cameras in the sexual revolution. Everyone knows that people took their naughty pics with instants in the years when you had to take your camera film to a photo shop and have it scrutinized by the developer. Polaroids mean sex: There's something faintly pornographic about them, as there is with Lady Gaga. The commercial combination of high fashion, pop, art and porn reflects a liberalization of attitudes that is very modern, and not even hip, really: Amazingly, it's mainstream.