Why Polaroid Inspired Both Steve Jobs and Andy Warhol

Beloved by innovators and artists alike, the camera company dissolved into history once it lost its beloved CEO. Apple should take note

Christopher Bonanos of New York chronicles the rise and fall of Polaroid. (Courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press (left); Ellen McDermott)

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Different people liked it for different reasons. Adams loved Polaroid because he was such a technician in black and white that he could really see what he was doing on the spot. If he was hauling a camera up into Yellowstone on his back or in his station wagon, it was extremely valuable to him to be able to see a picture on the spot. Other people liked it for other reasons. Andy Warhol liked the intimacy and that you could see what you got right away. Other people were impatient especially when they were learning. Mapplethorpe learned to shoot with a Polaroid camera because he was both unwilling to wait for the lab and also because a lot of his photos were so explicit that it was not a good idea to send them to the lab.

What do you consider the most iconic photographs ever taken with a Polaroid?

The Warhol portraits that you see in galleries and museums all the time of Liza Minnelli and Elizabeth Taylor are based on those silk screens, which are in turn based on Polaroid photos he shot of all these people. That was his work process. He would take about 50 portraits of anybody he was going to do a painting of and work from those to make silk screens. There are also a number of the Ansel Adams landscapes of Northern California, the ones you see of Yosemite and other famous scenes, are often shot on large format professional-grade Polaroid film. There’s that one portrait “El Capitan Winter Sunrise” from 1968 that is like nothing else. It’s a fantastic demonstration of what you can do with the right camera and a sheet of Polaroid film.

Describe the rivalry between Kodak and Polaroid that resulted in the biggest settlement ever paid out.

They had this uneasy dance for most of their lives because Kodak was, in the beginning, Polaroid’s first big customer and for many years supplied certain components of Polaroid film. Then they sort of had a falling out in the late ’60s because Kodak realized that it had been supporting not a company that was complimentary to its business but somebody who was increasingly taking market share. Kodak had also heard the first inklings of SX-70, which was going to be a blockbuster if it worked, and they suddenly thought, “Are we giving away the game here?” When SX-70 came around Kodak had a big program going to produce its own instant camera and film, which came around four years later. In 1976, Kodak introduced its instant photography line. A week and a half later Polaroid sued them for patent infringement.

They spent 14-and-a-half years in court and when the settlement came in Polaroid vs. Kodak, Polaroid won. Kodak not only had to pay the largest fine ever paid out, which was nearly a billion dollars, but also had to buy back all those cameras. If you had a Kodak instant camera in the ’80s you got a letter saying Kodak will send you a check or a couple shares of stock. The total in the end was $925 million that Kodak had to pay Polaroid and it stood as the largest ever settlement paid out in a patent case until last month when Samsung was ordered to pay Apple $1.049 billion in damages. [Samsung is appealing the decision.]

Land felt as though Kodak had come along with a clumsier, less elegant version of exactly what he’d done without advancing the game and he was a little offended. He once said, “I expected more of Eastman.” In Apple vs. Samsung, a great deal of what was driving things at the beginning was that Jobs was disgusted with Android for exactly the same reasons. It was precisely the same competitive instincts shot through with outrage at the mediocrity of it all.

What started the downfall of Polaroid?

There are a lot of different threads that sort of come together. It’s little stumbles that turn into a snowball effect. Land didn’t put a good successor in place or more accurately, he didn’t have a succession plan in place. His successors did something right and some things wrong but what was missing in the time after Land’s leadership was a big idea. They did a pretty good job of coming up with products that enhanced the technology they already had but they never quite figured out what the next thing was going to be. There were big research projects within Polaroid to work on digital cameras, to work on ink-jet printers and other technologies. A combination of conservatism and entrenched habits and a little fear of what the future without film would look like economically all snowballed together to sort of bind up the company in one business model that it had been building for a long time.

What is “The Impossible Project” and how do they hope to bring Polaroid back?


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