INSTANT: THE STORY OF POLAROID is a book about a very unusual company. In the 1960s and 1970s, Polaroid was what Apple is today: the coolest technology company on earth, the one with irresistible products, the one whose stock kept climbing way past the point of logic. In its heyday, Polaroid was an absolute innovation machine—a scientific think tank that periodically kicked out a fantastically profitable, covetable product. In fact, the late Steve Jobs expressly said that he modeled his company to a great extent after Polaroid.
Like Apple, Polaroid had a genius-visionary founder, a man who both served as the company’s public face and drove its creativity. Edwin Land was a Harvard dropout whose first invention—the thin celluloid filter known as a polarizer—was enough to get a little company off the ground. As that startup grew, Land’s ability as an inventor came into flower, and in 1947 he unveiled the latest in a series of extraordinary ideas: the Polaroid Land* camera system, one that produced photographs instantly. At a time when most photographers sent off their film by mail for processing, it was stunning. Instead of waiting a week, you had a photo in 60 seconds. If your picture came out lousy, you could try taking it again before the moment evaporated. Nothing else worked like this.
The world responded. By the mid-fifties, Polaroid was growing like crazy; by the sixties it seemed unstoppable. In 1972, Land launched the product that he considered the company’s crowning achievement: the SX-70 camera system. That’s the one most of us recognize as “Polaroid,” with photos that have a fat white tab at the bottom of the frame. He had bet the company on an entirely new product, one based on a murderously complex new set of technologies, and he succeeded, spectacularly. (Though it was touch-and-go the first year, as awful production problems had to be ironed out.) In 1974, a billion Polaroid photos were taken. A few years later, the company reached a billion dollars in annual sales. Eastman Kodak tried to get a piece of their action, and Polaroid sued and (after nearly fifteen years’ litigation) won. Kodak had to pay $925 million in damages, and even had to buy back all the instant cameras it had sold. Until the Apple-Samsung judgment of 2012—yet another parallel!—it was the largest patent settlement ever paid out.
Though it’s often perceived as something for snapshots only, Polaroid film—especially in its professional formats—was extraordinary stuff, and was embraced by some of the era’s great photographers. Ansel Adams loved Polaroid, and shot some of his most famous images of Yosemite National Park on Polaroid film. Walker Evans and André Kertész each adopted an SX-70 late in life, when a big traditional camera became cumbersome, and each made beautiful photographs on it. A very special and enormous camera, shooting giant images (20 by 24 inches) that have to be seen to be believed, has been used by everyone from Andy Warhol to Chuck Close to Mary Ellen Mark, and is still in operation.
And then it all came apart. In the late 1970s, Land pushed through a product line that his colleagues knew to be a dog: an instant 8-mm. movie system called Polavision. Land insisted it would take off, and it bombed. Suddenly he was fallible, after a spotless 40-year record, and in 1982, he was nudged into retirement. His two immediate successors had worked for Polaroid for decades, and they made some good choices and some less good ones. Whomever you blame, though, Polaroid’s innovation machine began to cool down, and its leaders did not have the vision to embrace two technologies—digital photography and inkjet printing—that were percolating around in its labs. Instead they doubled down on selling and refining instant film, and built up some debt fighting off a hostile takeover. When digital photography swept in and took over the entire business, in the late 1990s, Polaroid—despite twenty years’ advance notice, from within and without—got clobbered.
Since 2001, Polaroid has declared bankruptcy twice and been sold three times. One of those owners is in prison for running a $3 billion Ponzi scheme (in fact, he bought Polaroid out of bankruptcy for its cash flow and salable assets, in order to sustain the fraud). Camera production ceased in 2006; film production, in 2008.
Since that year, Polaroid’s ownership has been a joint venture between two companies, Hilco and Gordon Brothers, who rehab distressed brands. Though it seems too early to tell, they have made a few promising moves toward turning Polaroid into something interesting again, if hardly the innovation engine that Land built. A few enthusiasts, notably one called The Impossible Project, have picked up pieces of Polaroid’s analog past, and are knocking themselves out trying to re-invent instant film. (Their early products are imperfect but promising.) Fujifilm of Japan also makes film for some of Polaroid’s old instant cameras, and for its own new ones.
INSTANT is a business story, about what happens when a company loses its innovative spark. It is a fine-arts story, showcasing the amazing things people did with Polaroid film. It is a technology story, of a company that created and maintained a niche all its own for 60 years. And it is a pop-culture history, of a friendly product that millions of people absolutely adored. I like to think that it also tells a larger story, about the rise and fall of American invention and manufacturing.
INSTANT: THE STORY OF POLAROID was published by the excellent Princeton Architectural Press on September 28, 2012. It is available (as the expression goes) in all fine bookstores, at Urban Outfitters, and in a special limited edition sold only through The Impossible Project.
*The name of this site is not a coincidence.
LEGALITIESThis site is not connected with or endorsed by Polaroid or PLR IP Holdings, owners of the Polaroid trademark.
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