NOTES Additive Color

About Additive Color:

In my one decade, years ago, of earning a living exclusively as a photographer in Boston, two of my favorite clients were Boston magazine, where I got over my reluctance to do portraits and was able meet interesting people, and Polaroid Corporation, which often let me shoot whatever caught my eye. The impressionistic images in this gallery are examples of that, but before I explain how digital technology finally allowed me to make good prints of them, here’s a little bit of background. (If you want the nuts and bolts of the technique behind them, you can skip the next few paragraphs.)

My first real assignment for Polaroid was shooting with the newly-released 8x10 Polacolor film. I took an 8x10 view camera and the bulky hardware needed to process the film to the Jersey Shore, taking pictures of what was then a decrepit but picturesque landscape—weatherbeaten storefronts, abandoned amusement parks—and doing the “postproduction” work out of the back of my station wagon.

My last assignment for Polaroid was for the introduction of the Spectra camera. Spectra film developed before your eyes, as with SX-70 film, but had a rectangular format and was of higher quality. I shot a lot of pictures with the camera for national advertising—ironically, the first and only job on which I had the budget to hire an assistant—and also took a few hundred packs of the film on a trip into Canada and the upper Midwest, during which I simply made “art” photographs that were ultimately used in the first instruction manual for the camera, among other purposes. It was the most lucrative photo assignment I’ve ever had, its proceeds providing the downpayment for my first house. And (again, ironically) it was done with what was, essentially, a point-and-shoot camera. (I confess that I “tricked” the camera a bit, for example using hand-cut gelatin filters over the flash and lens, which an amateur wouldn’t ordinarily do. So much for truth in advertising!)

In between those two assignments, I was heavily involved in the introduction of Polaroid’s 35mm instant films. The technology behind these clever emulsions was a reworking of Polavision, the company’s failed instant movie film. (In fact, my first actual assignment for Polaroid, a one-off, nonprofessional job I did when I was still in art school, was shooting hundreds of identical Polavision reels of an exhausted clown juggling balls.) The 35mm instant films were exposed in an SLR camera like regular 35mm film. The difference was that after exposing them (immediately or later on) you’d put the film cassette and a dedicated cartridge (which was loaded with the needed processing chemicals) into a small, light-tight tabletop processor, then hand-crank the film out of the cassette so that it was sandwiched with a long retaining strip. You waited a minute—I always gave it a little extra time—then cranked the film back into the cassette. (Later Polaroid brought out an electric version. I still have one, a textbook example of obsolete technology.)

One of my tasks related to the 35mm instant films’ introduction was to create a tabletop still life for a marketing campaign using Polapan, a beautifully full-toned if grainy black-and-white positive emulsion. For some reason I chose a nautical winch as my subject. I bought one from a chandlery shop on the waterfront, dismantled and degreased it, and set it up as a sort of exploded view on a sheet of clear, curved plexiglas with a lighted middle-gray background underneath. The setup created a shadowless image in which the many internal components of the winch all had a mirror image of themselves underneath. It turned out to be a nice visual, but the downside was that I had to produce over 10,000 original Polapan slides of the setup, one for every “kit” sent to a Polaroid dealer. The Polaroid technicians supplied me with 250-exposure magazines of the film, and using a rented 250-shot camera back I sat in a little studio firing my strobes over and over again. I had to make an opaque mask for my eyes so I wouldn’t go blind.

Then Polaroid gave me a couple of hundred rolls of Polachrome, the 35mm instant color slide film, to take on a trip to Britain, Holland, and Israel. The assignment was open-ended, like the one I’d done with Spectra film. I shot mostly landscapes, since that was my main interest, but the difference was that they were in color rather than my usual black and white. (Some of the black-and-white shots in this website’s Views galleries were done on the same trip.) It was a good exercise for me to get away from black and white. Like Spectra, the film also took some fussing with filters to produce the effect I wanted.

The grainy texture of the images you see in this gallery is due partly to Polachrome’s use of “additive” color technology. The system worked a lot like Autochrome, the first commercial color photographic process, in which an image was captured by a black-and-white emulsion with a layer of red-, green-, and blue-dyed starch grains sandwiched on top. The grains were translucent, allowing light mainly of their particular color to strike the film; after the film was developed, the filter layer remained in place for viewing to provide the color information, while the positive black-and-white image underneath it provided the tones.

Likewise, Polachrome incorporated a layer of tiny red, green, and blue filter elements (which were probably made of one of Polaroid’s trademark plastics, not starch), but they were arranged on a fine grid. This grid was visible but not objectionable in the projected image—the bigger problem for that purpose was the film’s high overall density, which reduced brightness—but it was quite pronounced when you tried to make prints, which I did by enlarging the film onto 8x10-inch film and contact-printing the resulting internegative on color paper. As hard as I tried, I was never satisfied with the quality of these prints, and they were too small besides. But I always liked the impressionistic quality that the grainy filter elements gave the Polachrome image.

Fast forward to the digital era, when I discovered that I could hide Polachrome’s grid pattern by adding digital “noise” to scans made from my original slides. I found I could make a 16x24-inch inkjet print from these retooled images yet still get the impressionistic feeling imparted by the film’s distinctive texture. That solution to the problem, so many years later, makes for an interesting tale of technologies—one in which a defunct analog color system that revived amateur photography’s seminal color process was given new, usable form through the power of digital imaging.