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Article: In Pompeii by Michael Kempen for Eight Frames

In Pompeii by Michael Kempen for Eight Frames

Several years ago Retrospekt published a series of blogs with a simple premise: all eight photos from one pack of Polaroid film. The good, the bad, the ugly.

It was a simple framework that provided the base for a number of creative approaches. Some considered the collection of eight photos as a single unit, never sacrificing the unity of the whole for one “perfect” image. Others saw the eight photos as a record of their process to produce one or two grand images, where the winners sat amongst the byproducts of their creation: lighting experiments, poor framing and big ideas that didn’t quite work. Still others went for the long play, shooting a single pack over weeks or months and, in that time, moving through increasingly varied environments, the only connection between photos being their existence in the same pack of film.

Because it limits the number of exposures and doesn’t allow for edits and omissions, no matter what conceptual approach (or lack thereof) is used, each Eight Frames exercise provides interesting insight into what it’s like to shoot on instant film. Permanence combines with an inescapable potential for variance within the medium itself. To truly succeed with instant film is to understand the process and embrace the variables.

Today we’re bringing Eight Frames back — starting with some of my old travel photos (always be willing to be your own test subject) and then selections from our team and some friends to get things rolling, before sourcing new series from the film community at large. Each entry in the series will feature eight photos from a single film pack followed by a Q&A with the photographer about their process and approach. We hope you enjoy.

— Michael Kempen, Creative Director, Retrospekt


For this first entry in the return of Retrospekt's Eight Frames series, we look at eight images taken amongst the ruins of the ancient Roman city of Pompeii. It was famously preserved under layers of ash when the nearby Mount Vesuvius suddenly erupted in 79 AD, burying large amounts of the city for centuries. Today, the excavation site is an important — yet haunting — archeological experience documenting life in the ancient Roman world, frozen in time by sudden tragedy.

Who are you?
Michael Kempen

Where are you from?
Milwaukee, WI

How long have you been shooting on Polaroid film?
5-6 years (not including the casual use that accompanied growing up in the 90s)

Do you have a favorite, or most-frequently-used instant camera?
My black Polaroid Sonar Autofocus folding camera converted to take 600 film

What types of things do you find yourself photographing the most?
Nature/landscapes, still lifes, my wife drinking coffee, the lake by our house

What kind of camera did you use for these eight pictures?
Polaroid OneStep+

What kind of film did you use?
Black & White Polaroid i-Type film. It was more than two years out from production when I used it.

When did you take these photos?

Did you have a single concept or goal when you shot this pack?
Back in 2019 I took a stack of expired film packs with me to Italy. Using expired film isn’t a sure bet (nor is it the smartest thing to do when you’re away from home with no backup film or camera), but I needed to use it before it got any older and thought any decay or imperfections in the film would play well with the age of some of the things I hoped to photograph. I divided up the film by places we were going and allotted one pack of black and white film specifically for the day at Pompeii.

I’m not sure exactly when I decided I wanted it to be free of people. Maybe not until after I saw the first picture and realized I was actually going to be able to get semi-decent results from this old film. The first picture or two gave me a strong mid-century history book vibe, where the pictures are all black and white and a touch degraded. To keep up that timeless feel, I didn’t want to get five pictures in and then have one where someone is using their iPhone to take a selfie in front of rock.
I think the pictures make it look desolate and timeless, but in reality, there were people everywhere. I took the picture of the amphitheater as a tour group of like 30 people in matching neon pink hats were walking in behind me. You really had to play the movement of the different groups.

What is your favorite photo from this pack? Why?
Probably the one with a series of broken-off columns. I was stepping side-to-side to change the perspective ever so slightly to cut people out, waiting for the right time to take the picture. There’s probably 4-5 people I was able to hide behind those pillars. Also, if you’ve ever seen Pink Floyd’s 1972 film Live at Pompeii, being in the amphitheater is pretty cool.

Is there a photo that you wish you could retake or swap out?
There’s not many frescos left on the walls in Pompeii. Most of what survived the years have been moved or encased in glass. However there were a few relatively out in the open, and I took a picture of one about halfway through the pack. It’s not a great picture in and of itself. It’s also the only close-up in the bunch, the only one indoors (the building hasn’t had a roof in a few thousand years, but you know) and the only one to not have any sky in the shot. So it’s a mediocre picture that’s also different enough to call attention to itself.

Did you run into anything weird with this pack?
Sometimes expired film can be garbage right from the first shot, so the consistency of this pack was a pleasant surprise. There’s a clear loss of quality, but at least it's universal, which made it easier to know what to expect from shot to shot. Looking back at it now though, I don’t think it necessarily needed the “old film” effect on top of the empty feeling of the site and the black and white. Some of these could have benefited from the improved contrast and clarity of fresher film.

Where is the best place to follow your work?
@michaelkempen. I have piles of Polaroid pics that I need to sort and scan — kind of a low-priority 2022 goal to share more of them. And a lot of what I do — on film or digital — ends up around Retrospekt.