For the majority of my life, my only familiarity with the iconic brand of instant-capture Polaroid cameras was derived from a line in an Outkast song and the ending credits of “Lilo and Stitch.” That is, until I received one as a gift for my 19th birthday, 12 years after the company announced it was suspending production of its devices. Now, a row of Polaroid pictures line the whiteboard mounted above my desk at home. When I look up at them, I reminisce about each of the beautifully encapsulated memories from times spent with my family, friends and partner.
Polaroid, having been driven out of the market in the early 2000s by the superior quality and accessibility of smartphone cameras and digital cameras, managed to make a comeback in 2010 with the launch of the Impossible Project: a full-scale reinvigoration of all their classic models. Because of this, I — a child of the 21st century, who was in elementary school at the time Polaroid first fell from grace — am now armed with the same instant-capture ability that once infatuated my grandparents’ generation.
Polaroid cameras are now a recognized staple of millennial birthday celebrations, graduation parties, sorority bid days and other similar events; the nearly $50 million deal to save Polaroid from bankruptcy with a following rebrand was clearly successful. But this reemergence begs the question: Why did it work so well?
Polaroid and other film cameras (like Kodak and Canon) cannot hold a candle to smartphones’ accessibility and convenience. Smartphones are quicker, and they store your photos indefinitely making them easy to view whenever you have your phone on hand. And if it was just the photo quality we were missing, there are a myriad of apps which can edit your smartphone pictures to emulate the classic styling of a Polaroid.
But there’s just something intriguing about a little black square’s ability to blossom into a priceless memory right before your eyes. That magic of creation cannot be replicated by pressing a button on your 2-inch-by-5-inch iPhone screen. Smartphone cameras may allow you to capture a moment, but film lets you own it.
My interest in this topic came about a year ago when a friend of mine who collects various movies, CDs and vinyls repeated a phrase to me that I can’t quite seem to shake.
“If you don’t hold it, you don’t own it,” he told me.
The phrase, which originated in the community of precious metals collectors, has a particular salience when examining our current state of digitized content. And especially after spending a year minimizing the time we spend outside our homes, we rely on the digital world for entertainment now more than ever.
And the saying is at least partially true. For example, you may believe that subscribing to a streaming service guarantees you access to all your favorite shows and movies, but each one of those businesses is playing a glorified game of musical chairs as they vie for coveted licensing agreements to ensure continued access. In short, digital access to media doesn’t provide the same assurance of permanence that is the hallmark of physical ownership. If you can’t hold it, you’re always at risk of it being taken away.
My first time hearing this phrase felt like a personal affront. I am not a connoisseur of collection. I traded my family’s DVD case for a Netflix subscription long ago and haven’t so much as touched a CD in a decade. But that’s not to say that I don’t recognize the appeal of holding a tangible copy of my favorite media in my hands.
I remember bolting into Blockbuster on a Friday night in elementary school, armed with $10 and a whole weekend’s worth of free time to spend on the movie of my choosing. I remember when Netflix replaced Blockbuster, offering the same arsenal of movies with the added convenience of delivering the DVD right to our door. I even remember when Netflix transitioned to a streaming service, compounding its convenience by eliminating the delivery time and offering subscribers access to their entire catalog from the comfort of their own couch.
I saw the same fate befall other beloved media giants of my childhood like GameStop, iTunes and Borders. They were each replaced with some technological innovation that digitized their merchandise and offered an infinite supply of media through the magic of some new, trendy device or application. Gone are the days of traversing through aisles lined with the little boxes, evaluating each cover and in an attempt to decipher its quality. Why ever undergo such an onerous process when a quick Google search garners the same results?
But just as inevitable as the tides of progress is the counter-cultural pushback which insists that the old way was, for some indescribable reason, better. Part of this can certainly be attributed to nostalgia. The retro “aesthetic” harkens back to a familiar sensation that we associate with youth and frivolity. But when debating the merits of digital versus physical media, there’s an entirely separate influence which often gets overlooked: the pride of ownership.
In capitalist America, ownership is conflated with power and control. Ownership is not intrinsic to the self, but instead is expressed through your relationship to others. This is why, in an era of abundant e-commerce options, people still flock to brick-and-mortar establishments to do their shopping. The social aspect of ownership cannot be overlooked.
Ownership as an expression of power on a societal level can often turn malicious, with wealthy people hoarding their resources and exploiting their workers. But it doesn’t have to be an evil thing. Ownership can simply be a means of “proof” that you are in fact dedicated to the object of your desires. Tangible, immovable proof is just more compelling than the digital alternative, prone to fluctuation.
It all comes down to purpose, motivation. Why do we feel the need to own things? Is it enjoyment, or something more nefarious like control?
When my Great Grandma passed away, my family went to inventory her things. She lived through the Great Depression, so she had a tendency to hoard everything. When you live through a traumatic economic collapse like that (or like the one many millennials and gen-Zs experienced at a young age in 2008), we cling to things that remind us of our power. Although it’s natural, that’s not a very healthy expression of ownership.
Interpersonal expressions of ownership also have a lot to do with the practice of gatekeeping. It can be alleged that if you don’t own Pink Floyd on vinyl or DVDs of the entire Star Wars franchise, then you aren’t a “real” fan. As is the case with hoarding, gatekeeping also seems like a misguided expression of ownership. Entry into that exclusive club is a matter of pride. It’s not just about owning a disk of the content, it’s about proving your identity.
Or perhaps, in the case of Polaroids, it’s about proving your experiences. Each of my Polaroid memories are codified in film. The effort I expended in taking those pictures proves their worth to me and to anyone else who sees them. Their purpose is purely for the sake of enjoyment. They’re mine, and that in and of itself is very exciting.
If you took a look around my room, your gaze might shift down from the row of Polaroids to a vintage typewriter resting atop my desk. Perhaps you’d peek in the closet to find my record player and a set of vinyls that I got from an estate sale. Above them sits my vast collection of yarn and needles — some things just can’t be digitized.
With that being said, you’d also see my computer’s web browser open to whatever streaming service I’d elected to watch the night before. We’re all complicated people with lots of different interests. Certain things require staunch proof of devotion, whereas others drift off into the cybersphere. It’s up to us to decide which of them we feel the need to own.
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