A Portal to Memory: The Return of the Polaroid

Note: Sundial Thoughts content does not necessarily reflect the views of the Editorial team or other contributors.

On a Zoom call the other day, I was showing my grandmother photos of my time at university  from what felt like a lifetime ago. Grainy images filled her little screen — my friends and I at Regent’s Park on a picnic, a cute little snap of a dog wearing a puffer vest, and a rare sunny day in London. I saw her eyebrows jump in slow motion as the video buffered on my phone.

“Polaroids, Gabby, really? Why? I didn’t realise they still made those!”

I am aware of the irony — even my eighty-year-old Gran has gone digital.

But there is just something special about holding physical memories in my hands, flipping through glossy, slightly blurry snaps of bright smiles. Every picture bursting with riotous, unpredictable colour. I certainly preferred my polaroids to the blander, boring photos found in my phone’s camera roll. But why?

When digital cameras rose to popularity with consumers in the 1990s, my grandmother remembers being delighted, even relieved. She was always losing things: her 35mm film rolls, the negatives she had just developed, polaroids of her latest vacation. These new cameras were more convenient and certainly much simpler to operate than the polaroids and film cameras of the olden days. And once smartphones came into existence, we could suddenly do everything on our devices — call, text, and snap picture after picture. 

But sometimes, it all feels so sterilised, so devoid of life. Instagram and its famously erratic algorithm certainly does not help matters. Every day, I am confronted with an endless stream of photographs. Influencers and celebrities appear seemingly perfect on my screen; I cannot help but feel overwhelmed and stuck in a cycle of sensory overload. 

I miss the vibrancy, the serendipity of an instant photo, one you cannot edit or retake. Limited by the eight shots in each film cartridge, my Polaroid camera pushed me to relish in the creativity of the photography process, without the pressure of perfection.

Maybe that is why Polaroids have made a comeback in the digital age. They go against the ethos of Instagram’s heavily tailored feeds. The unpredictability of each photo forever preserves a moment –  with its imperfection, emotions and all. Perhaps it is also rooted in a yearning for the past, free from the pressures of social media and digital footprints. This has come alongside a trend for all things vintage: from clothes (think bell-bottom trousers, platform shoes, and Mary Janes) to tiny Tamagotchis and Lisa Frank stickers.

I am certainly not alone in this nostalgia — Fujifilm’s lovely little candy-coloured Instax cameras are cropping up everywhere these days. And Polaroid’s latest line of OneStep cameras are currently sweeping the market, as the company has merged digital technology with the iconic cameras of the past. You can even find vintage Polaroid units in thrift shops, and pre-loved, second-hand cameras have been making a comeback alongside 35mm film photography. 

It is hard to believe Polaroid declared bankruptcy twice in a single decade — once in 2001, and again in 2008. It certainly seemed like the age of the Polaroid was over. And yet, to my surprise, instant photography made a comeback. In 2008, Fujifilm’s Instax cameras entered the market and grew in popularity, eventually selling 6.6 million cameras in 2016. Polaroid followed suit with its OneStep cameras, based on the original vintage units from 1977. Instant photography is on the rise again, a monument to the vintage in a digital age. It is a trend with no signs of stalling.

But it is not just nostalgia compelling me to reach for my Polaroid. For me, it is this: touch reviving memory. Every time my hands skim over the glossy sheen of each individual photo, I am transported to the moment. I get to relive it again. 

It is a phenomenon some philosophers would call ‘the extended mind’. Philosophers Andy Clark and David J. Chalmer coined the term in a 1998 paper; they argued that humans use external mental assists, like to-do lists, as supplements to our consciousnesses, helping us process and retain information, and so in a sense, these physical objects are part of our minds. Within this framework, polaroids are extensions of our minds — perhaps they do not just evoke memory, they contain it. 

In a series of studies conducted across the United States and Europe in the 2000s, psychologists Gregory Jones and Maryanne Martin essentially asked participants what they would save from a fire. Their response? Perhaps unsurprisingly — photos, handwritten love letters and childhood stuffed toys, objects that evoked sentiment and cherished moments. All these things were picked over items of monetary value. 

They have become more than just things, transformed into portals to memories of long ago, memories not lost… just unremembered — until we pick up that letter, that polaroid photo or that plushie and are taken back to the sights and smells of a warm September day at the park, a frosty winter morning, the crackle of a fireplace. A fog of hazy memories slowly becomes clearer. This is why I have always loved the physicality of polaroids. 

Living in isolated bubbles to avoid transmission, perhaps the tangibility of photos is important now more than ever. Polaroids recreate the tactile — at least until I can hug my loved ones again.

Article by Gabby Fadullon

Tagged with: