Books

The Rise and Fall of Polaroid

Edwin Land
Edwin Land on the cover of Life, 1972 (all images of the book are by the author for Hyperallergic)

Instant: The Story of Polaroid, an entertaining book by the New York-based writer Christopher Bonanos, follows the long and twisting career of Edwin Land and his brainchild corporation, Polaroid. A company full of highs and lows, of great inventions and unsalable products, Instant chronicles a corporation that everyone knows of but doesn’t necessarily know about. Full of anecdotes and unusual facts, Instant explores in detail Polaroid as a business and Land as a CEO, touching only briefly on the technical and artistic consequences of Land’s most remembered invention.

Cover

Even today, everyone knows what a Polaroid picture is. The danger is sometimes that Polaroid is so synonymous with instant photography that we tend to use the words interchangeably. We all, no matter how young, have memories of Polaroid’s embedded into our lives, even if a younger generation knows that familiar style, framing, color cast, and speed via Instagram or digital phone apps rather than those clunky old point-and-shoot cameras. It’s surprising that there is still a great deal of magic and appeal in a process and product that was invented shortly after the World War II, but in the face of our truly “instant” culture, instant cameras still appear to defy the rules of the photographic process.

Instant moves like a timeline through forgotten film products with futuristic names, like Type 47 and Type 55, and through cameras that have become as classic as muscle cars: SX-70, Land Camera, Highlander. Though Bonanos starts with Polaroid’s humble beginnings and follows the company’s rise to a household name, the author’s account of Land’s retirement, the bankruptcy of Polaroid and the liquidation of the company before its post-digital reinvention are the most relevant chapters of the book. Instant whets the appetite of anyone casually, not technically, interested in the history of instant photography, and offers a new look at an old company for a young generation of photo buffs.

R Mapplethorpe
Robert Mapplethorpe, Polaroid self-portrait

The myth of instant photography, like all things Polaroid, begins with Edwin Land. The story goes that on a sunny afternoon in 1943, while photographing his 3- year-old daughter on a family vacation, she asked Land a very simple question: “Why can’t I see the picture now?” Bonanos calls it the “great and irresistible founding myth of Polaroid.” Land, who would later serve as an inspiration to Steve Jobs, was an entrepreneur and idea maker rather than a businessman. He was notorious for hiring teams of specialists to dream up problems, projects, and products, and for spending an enormous amount of company resources pursuing them. Land used to say, “my whole life has been spent trying to teach people that intense concentration for hour after hour can bring out in people resources they didn’t know they had.”

Bonanos points out, though without wanting to criticize, that Land’s emphasis on ideas outweighed his interest in profits, and Polaroid’s inventions weren’t always enough over time to keep the company solvent. The eccentric creator behind the company seemed to be its greatest asset and greatest liability. While he was CEO, Polaroid struggled at times financially because of Land’s perfectionist and purist nature. After his retirement the company simply lost its visionary edge. Foreshadowing the exhaustive thinking of post-modernist creators who believe the mantra “nothing is new,” Land believed that “every significant invention … must come to a world that is not prepared for it.”

Ansel Adams El Capitan, Sunrise, Winter, Yosemite National Park, 1968
Ansel Adams El Capitan, Sunrise, Winter, Yosemite National Park, 1968

 

Artists and Instant Film

By all accounts, Polaroid, in its heyday, was an exciting and creative place to work, attracting bright young scientists and chemists, and it wasn’t long before artists found themselves similarly interested. Ansel Adams, the artist most intimately involved with Polaroid and Land over the years, was the first fine art photographer to make use of the early instant cameras. As consultant and an ambassador for Polaroid, Adams was paid to test out cameras and film, offering critiques on new and existing products as well as suggestions for possible future projects. For example, the Type 55 film that produced a negative as well as a positive print was made specifically on Adams request. In part because of his early participation and experimentation with instant photography, Polaroid began attracting artists of all stripes, from photographers to painters to conceptual makers.

Not only did artists begin to discover Polaroid, but Polaroid also began courting the artistic community. Supporting photographers who represented their products, Polaroid began making informal deals with photographers: Polaroid kept artists stocked with film in exchange for some of their best prints. At the time of the company’ dissolution in 2010, Polaroid has unofficially amassed an impressive collection. Artistic support of instant photography also greatly influenced its reputation, diminishing Polaroid camera’s reputation as “toys” by proving that ‘serious’ art by prominent artist could be made with them. Robert Mapplethorpe, Chuck Close, Andy Warhol, David Hockey, William Wegman, Mary Ellen Mark, and many others found a way to incorporate Polaroid’s into their individual aesthetic. Walker Evans, who discovered Polaroid late in his career once said of the SX-70, “I bought that thing as a toy, and I took it as a kind of challenge.”

David Levinthal
David Levinthal, American Beauties, 20×24 Polaroid, 1989-1990

Recent Polaroid history is still fresh in our memories: the long, drawn out lawsuit with Kodak over patent violations; the $925 million dollar settlement; the swiftness of the digital market takeover and Polaroid’s declaration of bankruptcy in 2001. Throughout the mid 2000s the company was bought, divided, and sold in an extremely controversial manner, with the last camera being produced in 2006 and enough chemicals stockpiled to supposedly last the next ten years. The public outcry over Polaroid’s ceased production — John Waters dramatically exclaimed, “the world is a terrible place without Polaroid” — and the countless efforts made to save the technical process coincided with a revival of all things retro and analogue. Bonanos writes, “Somehow, analogue photography had become so outré that it had turned a little bit … cool.” While Bonanos ends his book by discussing the new life of Polaroid, the young people at it’s helm and their efforts to reinvent the product, what is more interesting is the second life instant photography has today.

It’s hard to believe that instant photography could ever be seen as challenging and slow, both of which it is today, and yet the difficultly of instant cameras only adds to the appeal. Bonanos writes of digital cameras, “that eerie near-perfection leaves many people feeling a little bit numb, craving something unpredictable.” Artists using instant cameras now are not clinging to some nostalgic notion of the past, but use the unpredictability of toy cameras to capture our high-tech and fast-paced world though a much simpler lens. While high-res, digital cameras can fit into a shirt pocket, the popularity of Fujifilm instant cameras and others can’t be overlooked. The great thing about living in the 21st century is not necessary that we have amazing technology at our disposal, but we also have all that came before it to choose from. Instant photography, if not Polaroid itself, is a part of our artistic and cultural repertoire that should never be lost.

Christopher Bonanos’s Instant: The Story of Polaroid (Princeton Architectural Press, 2012) is available at Amazon and other online booksellers.

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