Of all the Black & White Films available to work with, my hands-down favorite is Polaroid Type 55 4x5 Sheets. Back in the day when most of my work was large format film-based capture, Type 55 was an indispensible tool for proofing, lighting & composition checks prior to committing the shot to color transparency film. Even though the final shot would be captured in it's full color glory, I found that the black & white polaroid proof was far better for advance evaluation of contrast & composition. Color Polaroids would often have a ghastly greenish cast to the print and the inclusion of all of the information in an off-color rendering I found to be distracting, preferring the black & white proof for this purpose. The beauty of the Type 55 film was that, in addition the to proof print, a black & white negative with superb tonal range was also produced with each shot. Not only are these negatives incredibly beautiful and full of tone when printed, but they were really excellent for checking focus when used to proof an image before committing to transparency film.
In most commercial assignment scenarios, we would toss the negative and save the print for client approval purposes and to mark our film holders to identify which holders contained which shots. In retrospect, this was such a waste because the these negatives print like a dream once you get them to the darkroom. There have been many times, however, when getting a good "55" negative was actually the goal. I have used this film for mostly personal projects and the occasional commissioned assignment when something "different" or a little more "quirky" was called for. Unfortunately, Hawaii assignments are most often all about saturated color and the opportunities to capture black & white images were/are few and far between.
One of the drawbacks to using this film was it's incredible fragility and the need to keep it moist and scratch free until you could get it back to the darkroom for clearing in a solution of sodium sulfite and then fixing, washing & drying. Until the film was dried and the emulsion hardened, these negative were very, very "soft" and easily damaged. When using this film on location, I would carry a large tupperware container and then layer each negative produced between several sheets very damp paper towels stored in the tupperware. Even this was no guarantee that the negatives were safe and would be damage free before we got back to work with them in the studio darkroom. Sometimes, the damage to the emulsions that ensued could actually be happy accidents that added to the resulting image in some way.
Now that Polaroid has discontinued the manufacture of most of it's proofing films and no company that I know of has yet stepped up to the plate to license the technology and produce new versions of these emulsions. The polaroid negative, for the time being at least, is a thing of past. While several large photographic suppliers still have some stock of this film available, it's getting harder to find and is often beyond the expiration date if you do find some. Let's hope someone takes over the recipe and begins production of new "55" stock sometime soon. I really miss it.
Both of the images above were captured on Polaroid Type 55. I have made beautiful silver gelatin prints of these two images, but for blogging purposes, these negatives were scanned on a Epson Perfection V750 Pro Scanner.
The top image was a promotional photo to be used for tour posters, etc. for the Mick Fleetwood Blues band. In our preproduction meetings prior to the shoot, Mick had mentioned seeing Irving Penn's series of tribesmen from Papua New Guinea and suggested using that work as a jumping off point for our photo session. Being a huge Penn fan, I was game, but felt we needed to twist things a bit. I suggested using Type 55 and printing the images with all the border info left intact for the quirky & retro feeling. If you look closely, you also see that I left showing the C-stands & clamps supporting the backdrop... just to twist & demystify the image a bit more.
The second image was also a commissioned assignment for a big commercial luau venture. The concept was to create menus that looked more like very old passports from different islands around Pacifica. Each passport would have the menu, program listing of the evening's performance and a very retro looking "passport photo" of polynesian performers from the show. Again, I chose the Type 55 for the retro look, as well as the distressed look that slight damage to the negative would help achieve. As it turns out, I returned to the darkroom after the shoot only to find that I was out of sodium sulfite and could not get any shipped for three days or more. I stored the negatives between damp paper towels sealed in tupperware as described above. By the time the the chemicals arrived and I retrieved the negatives for clearing, I was horrified to find that the prolonged soaking had caused the emulsions to begin dissolving and bits of emulsion were literally peeling of the film substrate as I removed them from the container. I was horrified and extremely thankful that I had the foresight to back up all the shots on TMax Sheet Film in addition to the Polaroid film.
Still... I went about clearing and fixing these damaged negatives. When I attempted to print them, I was elated to find that the damaged emulsions had bubbled up, peeled away and added a new dimension of texture to each image which further enhanced the "ancient" feel they were intended to have in the first place. That;'s what we call in this business a "happy accident".