I recently picked up a Mint RF70, a fully manual camera designed to accept Fuji’s Instax Wide film. After capturing a few images with it over the past few days, I’m reminded of why I love instant film so much. Yes, it’s magical watching a print develop right in front of you, but that has nothing to do with why instant film is so exceptional.
For most of our photos, their final resting place is a hard drive. They exist as data to be viewed on a display. They can be reproduced without detriment, shared, and dispersed at will. Repeatable aesthetic characteristics can be applied with the click of a mouse. Occasionally our photographs have the privilege of being printed, but considering most images, this is an anomaly. Though capable of imbuing a photograph with desirable qualities, the printing process itself is inherently one of reproduction, requiring built-in compromises for the most acceptable representation of the digital file; a translation of a translation. This is the reality for all but a very special kind of photograph: the direct positive.
Instant film produces something unique, literally. Each photograph is a true original. One of a kind. This is the antithesis to photography in a digital format. There can be no others like it by definition. Each photograph is an edition of 1. Because each photo is a one-off original, it means something to be given away. If one person possesses it, someone else does not possess it. This scarcity gives the print value regardless of its purpose as a piece of art or a sentimental memory. It’s the same reason why such great lengths are taken to preserve famous paintings. Many copies exist, but there is only one true Guernica. And while I understand the comparison of an Instax print to Picasso’s Guernica to be lofty, to put it mildly, the reason for the comparison is no less true.
To be fully appreciated, an instant print has to be viewed in person by being present with the physical object. This physicality is significant. It is able to be held, handed off, turned over, and viewed at an angle. It has a surface. It is a non-trivial fact that a photograph, in its true and original form, can be held in-hand. This also gives meaning to who the photographer was, since they actually touched the photograph with their hands. It gives meaning to where the photograph was taken, since the photograph came into existence at that location — a particularly interesting aspect for landscapes or travel images. Even its storage requires more attention than a digital file requiring actual, literal, honest-to-god space that nothing else can occupy lest the true original be damaged. There are no backups. No 3-2-1. The original exists, or it does not.
And then there are the aesthetics. Just as in negative and slide film, the emulsions’ formula plays a significant role in appearance. The age of the film plays a part too. The camera used is also a significant contributor to appearance. From processing technique, lenses available, or whether or not light leaks strike the film intentionally or otherwise. Any trait the final print has must be physically attributed at the time of capture. Even the frame around the print that once held its emulsion is a part of the final product, neatly separating the image from its three-dimensional surroundings.
It is these characteristics that make me value instant photography and other processes that yield a direct positive. Their qualities are undeniable, though the appreciation for them is certainly subjective. To me, it is refreshing to see a kind of image making that is separate from the clinical hyper-practicality of digital photography. If I were to be presented with a digital file and a direct-positive original print of the exact same image, as a piece of art I would place a higher monetary and emotional value on the instant print, and the choice would be simple.
Plus watching the image develop right in front of you is pretty neat.