Spring 2013

Snap!

Instant: The Story of Polaroid

By Christopher Bonanos
Princeton Architectural Press, £15.99 / $24.95

In late 1943, Edwin Land went on holiday with his family to Santa Fe. Land, then 34, had been making polarising filters for sunglasses and camera lenses under the name Polaroid since 1937, but he was an indifferent photographer. Nevertheless, he snapped some pictures of his three-year-old daughter, Jennifer, with a Rolleiflex camera, only for her to ask: ‘Why can’t I see the picture now?’

As Christopher Bonanos notes in his accessible history of the Polaroid camera and the people and company behind it, the story is too neat, too perfect. Land himself later called it his ‘apocryphal true story’. But it works: not only as creation myth but as a warning. Few books can be more shadowed by future technologies than histories of photography before the advent of the digital camera – but a digital camera is an instant camera, too.

Land was a driven man, given to working all hours when an idea was upon him, going through teams of laboratory assistants and sometimes spending days without sleeping or changing his clothes. Inventions poured from him, and so did patents (Land’s policy was to patent everything, keeping numerous lawyers on staff), but his greatest talent lay in recognising how people would use his inventions. In 1965, Polaroid introduced the budget Swinger camera for young people with a commercial featuring Ali MacGraw walking down the beach to a nifty surf-rock jingle: ‘It’s more than a camera, it’s almost alive / it’s only nineteen dollars and ninety-five’. Polaroid’s more furtive uses, which were never discussed openly, were nevertheless referred to in-house as ‘intimacy’, and considered one of the camera’s main attractions.

Polaroid’s relationship with artists was another pillar of its success, beginning with Ansel Adams’ retainer of $100 a month to work with, and critique, its cameras, and continuing through the work of Andy Warhol, David Hockney, Robert Mapplethorpe, Chuck Close, Mary Ellen Mark and many others who made Polaroid central to their work. Adams’ iconic ‘El Capitan’ shots were made with a special professional Polaroid film, Type 55, which also produced large-format negatives.

Bonanos’ history is written in an easy style, covering some 70 years in less than 200 pages, rich with photographic and artistic allusions. While the author takes care to point out that there are more in-depth biographies of Land himself available, and that this is a history of the cameras and not the man, it’s hard to separate the two (indeed, Kodak executives, when enquiring about Polaroid’s activities, would always ask ‘What’s he up to?’). An occasionally gossipy tone befits a book largely based on recollections of those who were there: Polaroid employees, artist associates, business rivals and the end consumers. Where there are complex chemical processes to explain, Bonanos tends to go for summary over in-depth explanation, but he makes clear where credit for such genius lies, and how important science is to the story.

The book, designed by the Graphics Office for Princeton Architectural Press, is lavishly illustrated with full colour pages throughout, excellently reproducing many famous shots, from the moment Land unveiled the first Polaroid in public – tellingly, a self-portrait – to candid snapshots, advertising materials and product shots. It’s a shame such effort wasn’t put into the e-book edition, where the images, poorly reproduced in black and white on most e-readers, lose much of their power – another instance of digital technology killing Polaroid.

Eventually, Polaroid hit its black period of bankruptcies, culminating in the final cessation of film manufacture in 2008, which was due to managerial stagnation and a lack of invention as much as to the advent of digital photography. There are not many companies extant which unveiled their core product in the first half of the twentieth century. The success of the Impossible Project, a fan-led effort to reproduce instant film for Polaroid cameras, despite having in effect to figure out from scratch the cocktail of more than 30 ingredients involved in each exposure, proves that it was never Land’s invention that was out of time.

Over time, the shape of the classic Polaroid print, the white frame with the wide bottom border, has come to stand not just for instant photos, or even printed photographs, but for the idea of photography itself. Our very understanding of the passage of time is ingrained with the recognisable patinas of eras of photography, which technology now allows us to overlay on to the contemporary in order to reassure ourselves – perhaps hopefully, perhaps dangerously – of the stability of current technologies. Polaroid’s legacy, then, has ultimately less to do with corporate invention – notwithstanding Bonanos’ repeated and somewhat tiresome comparisons of Land to Steve Jobs – or with a transformation in the history of the photographic arts, but with how we see the world now, as something to be framed, snapped, shared, stored and set free.

In 1970, Land outlined his vision of the future of photography. ‘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 would be ‘something that was always with you.’ In so many ways, we are still living in Land’s future.

James Bridle, writer, artist, London

First published in Eye no. 85 vol. 22 2013

EYE85_cover

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions, back issues and single copies of the latest issue. You can see what Eye 85 looks like at Eye before You Buy on Vimeo.