Few companies can claim they altered the path of an entire medium but that’s exactly what Polaroid did in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s to photography. Founded by Edwin H. Land in 1937, Polaroid was the Apple of its day and Land, the original Steve Jobs. The idea factory churned out iconic products such as the SX-70, the one-step instant camera that now resides in the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York City.
In his new book, “Instant: The Story of Polaroid,” Christopher Bonanos of New York chronicles the rise and fall of the company and details how it changed the way we save memories.
What made you want to write a book about Polaroid?
In 1983, when I was 14, I got my first camera, an old one from the ’50s that I bought in a junk shop. I started using it and there is something bewitching and strange about a picture you see right away. I used it on and off through college and beyond. Then in 2008, when Polaroid announced the very end of instant film production, there was a show going on at the Whitney [Museum of American Art] on Robert Mapplethorpe’s Polaroids. I wrote a little story for New York about this sort of moment when the medium was going away but it was also being celebrated in fine arts. I called up a bunch of Polaroid artists, people like Chuck Close who work in Polaroid film, and they were really angry about having this material taken away from them. It led me to discover that there was a Polaroid cult out there of artists, enthusiasts and people who just love this old way of making pictures.
Your description of Edwin Land was reminiscent of Steve Jobs. In terms of innovation and design, was Polaroid the Apple of its day?
Land and Jobs were both just obsessed with making a product perfect. They both worked like crazy. They both really believed in locating a company at the spot where science and technology meet fine arts. And maybe most important of all they both felt that if you make a fantastic product that the world has never seen before, then the marketing and the selling will take care of itself. Land once said, “Marketing is what you do if your product is no good.”
Thirty years later they asked Jobs how much market research he was doing on whatever the Apple product was at the moment and he said, “We didn’t do any. None. It’s not the consumer’s job to know what he wants.” It’s the same philosophy. Land was one of Jobs’ first heroes and they met a few times in Cambridge. When Land was sort of nudged out of Polaroid and into retirement in 1982, Jobs was interviewed not too long after that and he said “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. This man is a national treasure.”
Land made some pretty remarkable predictions for the future. He predicted cell phone photography and Instagram.
He may not have specifically seen exactly the device you have in your hand but he came pretty close. There’s a fantastic film of Land from 1970 where he’s explaining his vision of the future of photography as he saw it when he started the business in 1937. He said we’re a long way from a camera that will be like the telephone, something you use everyday like your pencil or your eyeglasses. Then what he does is he reaches into his breast pocket and he pulls out a wallet and he says, “It would be like a wallet” and the thing is black and about 7 inches long and 3 inches wide and he holds it up in front of his eyes vertically and it looks for all the world like he’s got a cell phone in his hand. Really, the thing he wanted was almost no impediment between the photographer and having the picture available to you. In the early days of Polaroid you had to pull-tabs and throw switches and things to make the processing procedure work, his goal all along had been, you click, it does everything and then you just see your picture. Effortless. A cell phone is about as close as you’re going to get to that.
Why did famous photographers such as Ansel Adams and Walker Evans like using Polaroids so much?