Out-of-Production Technology Gets New Life in Louisville and Elsewhere

Beneath the wedge-shaped leather and chrome-coated exterior of the Polaroid SX-70 camera lies a collection of aspheric mirrors — a unique single lens reflex system that ensures the image in the viewfinder is the same image transferred to the film. And the film develops minutes after the picture is taken. No darkroom. No complex interchangeable lenses. No litter. No fuss. (1)

This impressive gadget edges toward miraculous when the camera isn’t in use. The entire device folds into a rectangle the size of a cigar case. It’s fantastic: a true wonder of optics and innovation. They don’t make them like this anymore.

No, they don’t make them at all.

The SX-70 has been out of production for over 30 years. But used models are readily available. An eBay search turns up dozens. But buyers should beware: Some of these cameras don’t fold properly. The mirrors inside are cracked. The viewfinders don’t have glass in them. The leather is scuffed.

The difference between a broken camera and a functional one was once just a trip to the neighborhood repairman. But parts for cameras that have been obsolete for three decades are hard to find. And people who know what to do with those parts are even scarcer.

The same digital revolution that bypassed the Polaroid company and forced many camera repair shops out of business has allowed those with the patience — and the parts — to thrive.

Instantly Possible

Among the eBay search results for used SX-70s is a service offered by fastcat99: “Polaroid SX-70 Camera Repair Service.” For a flat fee, buyers send their cameras to Michigan to be repaired, cleaned, and tested, and sent back good as new.

“I like to tinker with stuff,” says fastcat99, a.k.a. Roger Garrell, an auto executive who lives outside Detroit. Garrell never had a Polaroid camera growing up. He bought his first, an SX-70 ALPHA 1, at a garage sale in 2000. An engineer by trade, Garrell refurbished it. Three years later he sold it for $20. Soon he was open for business. 

In 2004, Garrell sold or repaired 48 cameras through eBay. Since 2009 — a year after Polaroid discontinued the instant film used in the SX-70 — Garrell has delivered at least 400 repairs or refurbs a year. An ALPHA 1 like the model he sold for $20 in 2003 now fetches $200. People want Polaroids, even though the photos are irregular, the film is expensive and the vintage look is easy to replicate. (2)

“It’s a cult. It’s art,” says Garrell. “Digital photography is great. My iPhone will take a better picture than an SX-70. But to hold the picture in your hand and watch it develop; that’s what makes it fun for people.”

Spurred by the Impossible Project’s new instant film, the cult is growing. (Maarten Muns visited the project’s operations in Holland for “Impossible Memories” in The Magazine Issue #12.) Polaroid repairs are in such high demand that Garrell has noticed new services pop up, following his business model. Garrell says the competition is friendly, as there’s plenty of demand to go around. There are also a surprising number of spare parts — collected by scavengine bits and pieces of other SX-70s. Despite its price (a premium-level $180 when it was first introduced!), Polaroid sold hundreds of thousands of units.(3)

Many collectors have stories about finding an SX-70 in an attic junk box or buying one from an unknowing yard saler who only saw the camera as obsolete. The cameras take on a new value once they reach eBay, where the small group of enthusiasts (and the even smaller group of repair technicians) seek out equipment. Garrell spends a few hours a day on eBay, searching for cameras he can either cannibalize or resurrect. And he always finds something. “The users are in the thousands,” he says. “There are way more cameras than users.”

Spinning Down the Drain

Instant photography’s resurrection may seem improbable, but vinyl enthusiasts saved pressed records from nearly falling into the abyss. At a certain point, when the economics make it impossible to mass produce an item and factories are shuttered, it may become infeasible to ever make such an item again on any affordable scale. That happened to letterpress type made for handsetting, and vinyl was on a clear trajectory to the same final resting place.

Then something peculiar happened. People started buying 45s, EPs, and LPs again in huge numbers. Sales of vinyl records have more than quadrupled since 2007. From the nadir in 1997 of a few hundred thousand sold, 4.6 million old-fashioned platters were bought in 2012. Vinyl sales are small compared to CDs or downloads, but the format grew more than digital last year, and CDs remain in precipitous decline. In certain genres, new albums are easier to find on 12″ — and are typically sold with an accompanying digital download.

Records are sitting on the edge of the mainstream. Vinyl fans are quick to promote the bigger album art and better sound. But the advantages of analog audio are best realized with analog gear. And while the big box stores may sell new turntables, good luck finding a blue polo-clad technician who knows what to do when the left channel on a second-hand Marantz receiver goes out.

That’s where Charlie Greene comes in. Greene owns Magnetic Tape Recording in Louisville, Ky. It’s a small shop with vintage stereo receivers, turntables, and speakers stacked high in narrow aisles, surrounding a desk marked “repairs.”

“I think what people like about the vintage gear is the aesthetics,” says Greene. “It has a good look to it.” Old stereos are big. They’re practically furniture. It makes sense that customers would go for wood paneling and smooth brushed metal. “And when you turn it on,” Greene adds, pausing to press the power button on a vintage receiver. “It’s pretty.” At that, the blue outline of a radio dial lights up, and the famously warm analog sound fades in.

Greene is among the many audiophiles (like me) who insist the analog stereo systems sound better (they do). And customers who want the hi-fi sound are keeping business lively at Magnetic Tape Recording. There are about 50 repair jobs in the queue at any time.

The company has always offered repairs, but Greene made the decision years ago to stay focused on vintage gear. The business was founded in 1956 and named after what was, at the time, a cutting-edge technology: magnetic tape recorders for doctors, lawyers, and other professionals giving dictation. The shop still sells portable recorders for this purpose, almost all digital. But Greene, who bought the company in 1991, says he wasn’t convinced the rest of the business should follow that lead.

“I was getting older [when digital recording technology became dominant] and I got to the point where I needed to hire a couple IT people, I needed to hire a salesman. I let that bleed off to the side because I enjoyed the stereo,” he says. “At that stage in my life, I didn’t want to invest another hundred grand or so. I decided I wanted to do something I like. We started dealing with stuff we were familiar with.”

Greene prides himself on doing business the way it was done when many of his products were new. He lives above the store, which is in a two-story iron and brick building of undetermined age. He will sometimes do simple repairs for free, such as replacing fuses in amplifiers. Parts are still available for most of the gear Greene fixes. And he has three employees, some of them younger than many of the items they service.

“Without them, the shop wouldn’t exist.” And with that, Greene turns to the back of his store and jokes that one of the technicians will have to take over the business when he retires.

Where’s the 1 Key?

No one took over Jerry Gunkel’s business when he gave it up five years ago. He repaired typewriters. “Typewriters died. Technology took over,” he says. Gunkel lives in Fort Wayne, Ind. He started fixing typewriters in 1977, but says the customers faded away as home computers proliferated. “I find a computer a better way to go. I can do everything on a computer. I can only type on a typewriter,” he says.

Gunkel says he gets calls now and then from people with broken typewriters (or journalists looking for interviews), but that’s about it for his old business. These potential customers (and reporters) have likely found Gunkel’s phone number from a webpage that lists every known typewriter repair shop in the world. The page is hosted at Xavier University. It’s maintained by Xavier professor Richard Polt. And Polt doesn’t believe typewriters are dead yet.

“Ten years ago that’s what I would’ve said,” he says. “But things have turned around.” In the last few years, Polt has watched street poets, hipsters, and others on the bleeding edge of cool dust off typewriters, devices many of them never grew up using. And he says the latest digital generation is starting to find some interest in what their parents saw as an inconvenience.

Polt writes comments on his students’ papers with a typewriter, and he says a few pupils are instantly curious. In addition to teaching, Polt volunteers typewriter repair services to Wordplay Cincy, a tutoring and writing workshop for kids in Cincinnati that sells typewriters and uses them as teaching tools.

“A lot of kids immediately like typewriters. The idea that they get an instant physical effect of their finger motions is exciting. There’s a bit of novelty value to the machines. Plus you can see how it works. You can’t see how a computer works,” says Polt.

That the typewriter resurgence hasn’t been as big as instant photography’s or vinyl’s isn’t surprising. Taking a photo on film is different than taking a digital picture. But the process is pretty much the same: aim and shoot. No matter the sound quality, enjoying a playlist on an iPhone and enjoying a side of a record is pretty much the same experience.

But writing on a typewriter isn’t the same as writing on a computer. The approach is different. There’s no rearranging. No spell-check. No easy fix for typos (and there will be typos). It’s hard for digital natives to type on a mechanical keyboard. But at the same time, there are no distractions like Twitter on typewriters. And typing too fast can jam the keys. (5)

To embrace the simplicity of the old ways is harder with typing, and while some have given up, Polt says there are enough typists willing to try to keep repair shops in metropolitan areas open and to keep typewriter sales brisk on eBay. (6)

Typewriters were meant to be serviced, because they couldn’t be upgraded. “They’re made to be durable. They can stay with you your entire life, which is rare in our age,” says Polt.

What’s the Hurry?

I’m an analog nut myself. I had a party a few months ago. I played records. I carried an SX-70 to grab snapshots of guests. (It was one Garrell repaired over a year ago.) And I labeled the food and drinks with typewritten cards produced on my Smith-Corona Galaxie Twelve.

At some point, a group of guests wanted to type more labels, so they took the dull gray hunk of metal off the shelf and loaded in new cards. The results weren’t pretty, and it wasn’t because the typists had been drinking. I took a Polaroid picture of my guests fumbling with the page return bar. The Impossible film takes longer to develop than the original film did, so I wouldn’t know if my shot turned out decently until it was too late to take it again. It didn’t turn out well, but I captured the moment, and while the photo is unclear, it still brings back memories.

Polt compares typewriter users to slow food enthusiasts. And that applies to all the analog technologies. Food goes out of season and technologies fall out of use. Sometimes they come back and sometimes it’s a bumper crop. But with technology, it’s not that the new ways don’t work.

Some people just find joy in slowing down, because there aren’t a lot of opportunities to do so anymore. Analog technology forces users to either take their time or waste their materials. And even if the result isn’t perfect, it’s something worth waiting for.

1. Charles and Ray Eames made a movie introducing the camera. It highlights many of these features. Popular Science ran a feature at the time, too.

2. Apps that mimic the analog look — Instagram, Hipstamatic, and many others — are everywhere. Polaroid is now attempting to merge the social features of Instagram with the joy of developed photos with plans for a digital camera that will take and share photos, but print them as well.

3. This Polaroid information comes from Christopher Bonanos’ book Instant: The Story of Polaroid, Peter C. Wensberg’s book Land’s Polaroid and Paul Giambarba’s blog “The Branding of Polaroid.” Wensberg and Giambarba both worked for Polaroid during the years Edwin Land was at the helm.

4. Street poets type poems on demand for strangers offering money. I interviewed one in LA, mostly because I was gawking at his typewriter.

5. After talking to Polt, I considered typing the first draft of this on a typewriter. I got through two paragraphs and quit. I love convenience. I also love technology.

6. Polt is among several typecasters, bloggers who write posts on typewriters, then post scans or photos of the page. He also plans to write a book about the resurgence of typewriters. He’s posted a typewritten outline on his blog.

This article originally appeared in The Magazine, an electronic periodical.

Gabe Bullard

Gabe Bullard is the director of news and editorial strategy.

@gbullard

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