Remember 1999? SpongeBob SquarePants premiered for the first time. President Bill Clinton was impeached and acquitted. And, of course, Polaroid released its iconic Barbie camera! It was truly a time to be alive. Sure, there was Y2K, but I was 5 years old and blissfully unaware of all the drama.
In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic madness this past month, when I was scared and beginning to shelter in place, I saw an ad for a limited-edition retro Barbie Polaroid camera, inspired by the original model from ‘99. Hours later, my sisters pinged me with a link to it too. Our Barbie-filled childhoods were calling.
I needed something to lift my spirits, and that just so happened to come in bright pink, green, and purple packaging.
Barbie—who recently turned 61 and was on a 60th anniversary Totally Throwback Tour until the pandemic put it on pause—was a huge part of my late ‘90s, early ‘00s adolescence. As the youngest of four children, and about half a decade behind my siblings (who were all close in age), I spent a lot of time playing by myself. They never intentionally left me out, but they had lots of cool older-kid things to do. When I was alone, I relied on that box of Barbies. We had classic Barbies, Spice Girl Barbies—even a Beach Barbie that sat on a shelf in its original box. And we had a wonderful time together. I brushed (and poorly cut) their hair, put on fashion shows, took them swimming in the tub, and lost every tiny damn shoe they ever wore.
My love for Polaroid cameras (and all photography) came in adulthood after I found a 1977 Polaroid One Step Land Camera in an antique store. It reminded me just how fun their loud shutter noise was and the surprising gratification you get when that big square photo prints out and slowly develops before your eyes. It inspired me to begin collecting other old film cameras.
More Than Just Nostalgia
The new Polaroid 600 Barbie Throwback camera ($149) doesn't just look like an old Polaroid. It kinda is one. The camera's internals are made from original Polaroid electronics that have been refurbished and tested by Retrospekt, a vintage-product restoration company, housed in a new plastic exterior that is just slightly updated from the ‘99 version. No batteries are needed, as they’re built into each film pack. (It takes an eight-pack of 600 film in color or black and white.) Unlike some of the other instant cameras released today, it produces the full-size photos you’ll remember from yesteryear.
Snapping pictures with its exceptional shutter sound makes me feel like the cool little girl I never was back in the days of dialup internet. If I were allowed to leave my house right now, I’d tote this camera with its convenient neck strap to all the cool adult pool parties and hip bars, documenting my Hudson Valley, New York, escapades in style. (At least, that's what I keep telling myself.) Instead, I’m documenting my cats and jigsaw puzzles, but the thrill is still there.
The new Polaroid—formerly known as Polaroid Originals and the Impossible Project—has had trouble with its film quality since it first released its instant film in 2010. We noted the improvements in film quality back in 2017, but as Gear writer Scott Gilbertson wrote in March, newer Polaroid film is still sometimes plagued by grainy areas or spots that don't look fully developed. I didn't find any of that in the packs of film I tried, but I did get occasional noise, though that's kind of the draw to instant cameras for me. I long for the days when photos just captured a moment and didn't look as posed and perfected as what you see on Instagram every day. That’s what you get here.
The $150 price tag isn't cheap, and you will have to buy additional film, but for the avid Barbie fan (we are out there!) it’s a small price to pay for the instant dose of nostalgia. These cameras seem to hold up well if they’re taken care of; the 1977 model I have still works. And they look great on display, too.
Nostalgic items by design are heartwarming since they take you back to an idealized version of the past, filtering out those less-than-perfect memories. As I've gotten older and realized that the world is often a giant trash fire, it's nice to remember the innocent days when I played with Barbies in my bedroom—no smartphone notifications or never-ending newsfeed looming over my head.
I am far more fortunate than most people, but it's still a tough time. The Barbie Polaroid camera reminded me that my brain can still produce dopamine and serotonin. At least, in short, instant bursts.
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