It's Polaroid's World—We Just Live in It
The Steve Jobs of his day, Edwin Land invented not just instant photography but the culture that came with it
In 1970, Edwin Land, the founder of Polaroid and the inventor of the instant camera, stood before a movie crew in a brand-new, empty factory, laying out the idea he had been cultivating for the preceding 25 years. Though his name is largely forgotten today, Land had a surprisingly prescient view of the future.
"We are still a long way," he said, "from the...camera that would be, oh, like the telephone: something that you use all day long...a camera which you would use not on the occasion of parties only, or of trips only, or when your grandchildren came to see you, but a camera that you would use as often as your pencil or your eyeglasses." It was going to be "something that was always with you," he said; and it would be effortless. Point, shoot, see. Nothing mechanical would come between you and the image you wanted. The gesture would be as simple as—and here he demonstrated it, reaching into his coat—taking a wallet out of your breast pocket, holding it up and pressing a button.
Land's future is our present, and what he described, pretty nearly, was a smartphone. The wallet he pulled out was black and oblong, and when you see him hold it vertically in front of his eye, it's an uncannily familiar gesture. Land envisioned our being able to document our whole lives, building up an immense library—a wall-size memory bank that was, effectively, an analog Facebook page. He even went so far as to cook up instant-developing 8mm home-movie film, called Polavision. (It was a flop, arriving on the market well after video cameras had become widespread, but a remarkable technological achievement.)
In the digital age, photo-taking and sharing have become not just instant but constant. Last week, pictures of Hurricane Sandy dominated; this week, it was queued-up voters and the storm in the Northeast. For quite a few young people, an event undocumented is an event unlived. It's easy to forget that a lifetime ago, in the late 1940s, almost nobody did this.
Back then, your camera went with you only on special occasions: a picnic, a birthday, a wedding. You then mailed your film to an Eastman Kodak processing plant in Rochester, N.Y., and got your prints back in a week. When the Polaroid Land camera was introduced in 1948—made possible by a series of breakthroughs and refinements, particularly in a process known as diffusion-transfer reversal—"pictures in a minute" were an instant success: The first batch of cameras, expected to meet consumer demand for weeks, sold out in hours. By the 1970s, when Polaroid introduced the SX-70 camera and became an ubiquitous part of the American landscape, a new breed of amateur photographer was shooting a billion photos a year.
It's no wonder that Steve Jobs considered Land one of his first heroes and called him "a national treasure." A generation ago, people talked about Land in the same breath with Thomas Edison. In the digital age all pictures are instant pictures. But one of the most significant things Polaroid invented was not merely a camera-and-film system but a particular kind of casual documentary photography.
I recently visited an artist named Tom Slaughter, who had been a huge Polaroid shooter back in the '80s, and we went through some of his pictures, of which there are thousands. And what do they show? People laughing over glasses of wine on the porch. Their kids jumping into the swimming pool. Even plates of food on the table: It all looks uncannily like an Instagram feed (down to the square format, which Instagram consciously borrowed).
Land had grand ideas for his invention. Both he and Jobs believed that their creations would not only build a business but fundamentally change the basic nature of human interaction. And both companies struggled without their founders. Land retired in 1982, nudged out by Polaroid's board. His successors—despite promising moves into inkjet printing, holography and digital technologies—couldn't manage to turn those notions into irresistible products. Polaroid declared bankruptcy in 2001 and again in 2009. (The current trademark holders are putting the Polaroid name on a broad range of consumer electronics and a nifty line of pocket-size printers.)
At Polaroid's zenith, though, Land believed his technology to be a world-changer. "A new kind of relationship between people in groups is brought into being...when the members of a group are photographing and being photographed and sharing the photographs," he wrote in 1974. "It turns out that buried within us...there is latent interest in each other; there is tenderness, curiosity, excitement, affection, companionability and humor.... [W]e have a yen for and a primordial competence for a quiet good-humored delight in each other: We have a prehistoric tribal competence...in being partners in the lonely exploration of a once-empty planet."
In the words of the old jingle for the Polaroid Swinger: "It's more than a camera... It's almost alive."—Adapted from "Instant: The Story of Polaroid" by Christopher Bonanos (Princeton Architectural Press).