At the Polaroid Fotobar, set your photos free


The writer brought this photo of a puppy named Owen to the Polaroid Fotobar in Union Station and saw how it would look in a variety of styles. (Andrea Sachs/The Washington Post)
August 23, 2013

My niece and nephew were trapped inside my iPhone for weeks. If I wanted you to see Kate and Jamie on Block Island, I’d first have to scroll through images of a cronut, my foot shod in an orange shoe and a pencil from an Austin hotel. Then I’d have to hand you my phone, wait for you to remark upon the kids’ cuteness — which I know you will — and finally return the phone to my waiting palm.

But that was then, and this — the Polaroid Fotobar — is now.

The photo processing center, which opened last month in Union Station, freed Kate and Jamie like a SWAT team, swiftly transferring them from the innards of an Apple phone to the outside of white card stock. The lab also released a puppy named Owen, a family vacationing on Cape Cod and an artist playing peekaboo behind his painting of a grinning worm.

The Union Station store is the second Fotobar in the country; the first one appeared in March in Delray Beach, Fla. Orlando is next in line, part of an expansion plan that envisions 13 more stores by the end of next year. Fotobar allows photographers to print out images held captive in such e-storage cells as mobile devices, social networks and sharing sites, including Facebook and Instagram. With a few simple taps on the computer keys, Fotobar burped out my photos.

“This gives people a tangible way of sharing memories,” said Jarmel Evans, a sales associate, “instead of just passing around someone’s phone.”

Upon entering the store, I was greeted by a solicitous staff — “Have you been here before?” is the main salutation — and accosted by an array of options. I could, for instance, have my photos professionally framed or mounted on metal, stone or bamboo, or embedded in a Lucite brick. I could also slap Kate and Jamie on the fridge as a magnet or a decal, or slide them under a juice box as a coaster. The more artistically advanced ideas, however, require several days for processing and shipping. In the age of instant gratification, three days felt like a light-year.

If I wanted to walk out with the goods, I had to dismiss the wall examples and redirect my attention to the Polaroid pictures, which are created in-house. The white-trimmed squares, reminiscent of Instamatic prints, come in five sizes, from small to supersize-me. The standard finish is matte, but you can pay a few bucks more for the shiny 3-D epoxy version or the glossy, nonperishable Polaplex.

I grabbed a seat at a bank of computers and selected from the brochure the “original” size (31 / 2 by 41 / 4), which costs a dollar apiece and requires an order of at least six images. (There are no minimum purchases for the other dimensions.) I set up an account with an e-mail address and started impatiently sending myself images that materialized on the screen. At one point, I’d uploaded eight images of Owen curled up in the passenger seat of my car. Obviously, I’d missed the gentle scold, “Patience . . . it might take a few.”

I selected one and advanced to the next step, Add Text & Effects. Playing photo editor, I noodled around with position, saturation, brightness, whiteness and contrast. For effects, I decided on a Warholian treatment that evoked the pop artist’s Mao series. I sampled Owen in electric Indiglow, tobacco-brown Sepia and Aqua, which gave his brown coat a soft patina of verdigris,. After the enhancements, I added text, typing in “woof” (letter constraints require pithiness), and added the image to the cart. Then I repeated the process five more times. In total, I pulled four images from my smartphone camera, one from a text message and one from an article posted online.

“Be prepared,” Jarmel advised. “You want great, vibrant colors, and pre-crop the image, because it will print as is.”

The staff needed only about 20 minutes to complete the order, a block of time easily filled with window-shopping, a cup of coffee and a wistful glance at Amtrak’s departure board. When I returned to the store, I received a thick packet of photos wrapped in the signature striped Polaroid band.

I ripped off the paper strip and starting flipping through my pictures, a Proustian moment redolent of Kodak film and CVS. I then passed Kate, Jamie and Owen over to Jarmel, who fawned over their adorableness — as I knew he would.

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