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Polaroid instantly changed photography, and its legacy lives on

Sixty-five years ago Edwin Land launched the Polaroid camera, changing the way we think of both photography and technology forever.
Sixty-five years ago Edwin Land launched the Polaroid camera, changing the way we think of both photography and technology forever.

On February 21, 1947, a young man stood before a room and unveiled a brand new creation. He fired the shutter of an 8x10 camera, pulled out a sandwich of paper, ran it through a set of mechanical rollers, then set a timer. "Fifty seconds," he told the crowd. Once the clock had finished its countdown, he peeled one sheet away from the other and showed them a perfect sepia portrait of himself. The audience gasped in amazement. The next morning a press photograph of the inventor, seated behind a table in a white shirt and striped tie, holding a picture of that very same scene ran alongside a glowing editorial in The New York Times. By the following Monday it was picture of the week in Life magazine. The man's name was Edwin Land and his showpiece was the very first Polaroid image.

The instant camera that Land, a Harvard dropout, had shown to the American Optical Society was not Polaroid's first innovation. His company had already experimented with polarising filters to reduce the effects of car headlight glare and produced goggles for fighter pilots serving in the Second World War. But it was by far its most enduring and most profitable. Inspired by a simple question from Land's three-year-old daughter as to why she couldn't immediately view a set of pictures he had taken of her with his Rolleiflex while out for a family walk, it took years to realise and was the perfect embodiment of his maxim: "Don't undertake a project unless it is manifestly important and nearly impossible."

As a new book by Christopher Bonanos, Instant: The Story of Polaroid, explains, if the instant camera changed the way we think about photography forever, Land altered our relationship with technology in much the same way. More than that, his company's early triumphs provided a road map for innovators right up to the present day - most notably the late Steve Jobs, founder of Apple.

"Both companies specialised in relentless, obsessive refinement of their technologies," Bonanos writes. "Both were established close to great research universities to attract talent (Polaroid was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where it drew from Harvard and MIT; Apple has Stanford and Berkeley nearby). Both fetishised superior, elegant, covetable product design. And both companies exploded in size and wealth under an in-house visionary-godhead-inventor-genius."

By 1948, Polaroid had released the Model 95. Known as a Land Camera, it brought the same revolutionary processes its inventor had exhibited a year earlier into the hands of the everyday consumer. All its users had to do was press the shutter button, remove the negative from the back, wait for one minute, tear off a strip of protective paper and, hey presto, a fully formed photograph was revealed. It caused a near riot in stores and sold out immediately.


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Despite this reception, instant cameras were  in the beginning widely viewed by professionals as "an amateur's gadget and nothing more". However, at a later gathering of the American Optical Society, Land met someone who helped him to radically alter this opinion: the great American landscape photographer Ansel Adams. As a master technician, Adams was enthused by Land's invention, but felt that the pictures left a little to be desired. Accordingly, he offered his opinions as to how the system could be refined. On the spot Land hired him as a consultant.

This relationship coupled with Land's innate perfectionism led Polaroid to shoot for ever higher standards of image quality. The original pack film was constantly updated and eventually transformed into what Land termed "integral film", a self-contained package of negative, developer and an opaque chemical shield that would turn transparent as soon as the photograph was ready to be seen. The cameras evolved into aesthetic masterpieces such as the folding SX-70, released in 1972. In fact, the combination of these two products is what the vast majority of people think of when they think of Polaroid. A beautifully finished piece of equipment that dispenses white-bordered images at the push of a button.

By this point, the company was making billions but Land was more than a businessman. He was a true believer in his own products and wanted to realise their potential as fully as possible. At Adams's suggestion, he spent years devising the Polaroid 20x24, a large-format camera capable of producing both a huge print and corresponding negative. Beloved of Chuck Close, Richard Avedon and Mary Ellen Mark for its incredible resolution and limitless possibilities for enlargement, it represents the very peak of Polaroid imaging.

Land's fascination with photography also drove him to establish a phenomenal library of contemporary works. In order to aid the development of his products, he cultivated a number of prominent practitioners, supplying them with film in exchange for the occasional contribution to the Polaroid Collection. Over time the company's archive came to encompass pieces by the likes of Robert Frank, Andy Warhol, Walker Evans, Robert Mapplethorpe and André Kertész. It also included pictures by amateur users, community projects, schoolchildren and company employees.

And it is these vernacular contributions that offer the best illustration of Land's essential vision. Like Jobs and many more modern-day mavericks, the driving force behind his work was the idea of connecting ordinary people. As Bonanos outlines: "Watching your own face slowly appear out of the grey-green mist of developing chemicals [of a Polaroid image] is a peculiar and captivating experience ... There is no more social form of picture taking." With a little imagination, it is possible to see Land's idea of instant photography as an early precursor to image-sharing networks such as Pinterest and Flickr.

Unfortunately, unlike Jobs, Land would not get to see the ultimate realisation of his ideas. Nor would his last memories be of a company at the vanguard of technology. In 1977 the firm launched Polavision, an instant movie system that he had championed for years, against the recommendations of many of his closest advisors. Superseded by videotape before it was even released, it was a financial disaster, losing the company the better part of half a billion dollars and, worst of all, precipitating Land's resignation as chairman in March 1980.

This one event can be viewed as the start of Polaroid's decline, but it is possible that its business model of ceaseless experimentation and painstaking research and development was simply not sustainable any more. Either way, Polaroid was no longer Land's baby. In his later years he withdrew from the company, passing away in 1991 at the age of 81 - just nine weeks after the birth of the World Wide Web.

In the years following its founder's death, Polaroid followed a trajectory of declining ideas and diminishing returns. Instead of forging ahead into new worlds, such as the emerging territory of digital photography, it pursued a programme of price-cutting, rehashing old products and finding ever more creative ways to undermine its previous credibility. It even launched a design in the shape of Warner Bros's Tasmanian Devil cartoon character that spat pictures out of its mouth.

Throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, the company lost money and ran up huge debts. In 2001 Polaroid finally filed for bankruptcy. It was bought out by the investment arm of the US financial institution BankOne and sold for a $180 million (Dh662 million) profit to Petters Group Worldwide in 2005. Under the right leadership, the once-revered institution may have been salvageable, but it soon became apparent that the private equity firm in question had no interest in doing any such thing.

In February 2008, 60 years after Land launched the first instant camera, Polaroid's new owners ceased production of film. Press releases cited "marketplace conditions" and the fact that the advent of the digital camera had killed the analogue film industry, but the truth was that on their takeover the management team bought up only enough proprietary chemicals to keep the brand in production for 10 years. By that time, they figured, instant photography would have breathed its last and they could get on with their real business: breaking up the company and selling off its assets.

Enthusiasts were dismayed. Many launched a campaign to keep their favourite film going. Others bought up the remaining stock, some selling it on to fellow devotees. Among them was the Austrian entrepreneur Florian Kaps.  Fortunately he recognised something Polaroid's board did not. The reason for the premature demise of Polaroid film - the Petters team had initially calculated that it had enough materials to keep going until at least 2014 - was that people still wanted it. Even though digital had become the standard for both professional and casual photographers, analogue shooting was undergoing a quiet renaissance.

And this wasn't just down to die-hard Polaroid users. Some years previously, Fuji had cut a deal with the company allowing it to manufacture instant cameras and film for the Japanese market. Its Instax range was enjoying considerable success. More importantly, Lomography was booming. This playful style of image-making uses conventional film and  takes its name from a shoddily assembled brand of Russian-made toy camera. A growing number of hobbyists around the world had come to the realisation that while digital technology allowed anyone to produce crisp, homogenous pictures, these plastic-lensed contraptions offered images that were tangible, endearingly flawed and unique.

Kaps hit upon an idea. While production of instant film may no longer have  generated worthwhile profits for a large corporation, a boutique operation might stand a chance. He contacted Polaroid and attempted to buy the rights and machinery necessary to produce the film himself. The company said nothing, but it did invite him to the closing party for its last remaining plant in the town of Enschede, in the Netherlands.

The factory was scheduled for demolition shortly after this last hurrah and all of its machines were already supposed to have been sold off for scrap. However, chatting to the former manager, Andre Bosman, Kaps learned that the property deal had stalled and the equipment remained intact. The two men began to discuss the feasibility of resurrecting the business. Even though the real estate and machinery still existed, the big stumbling block was that the chemicals were no longer being made. Kaps was astonished to hear Bosman say that, given a little time, he might be able to come up with a new formula using readily available materials.

Over the next few days the two men managed to delay the destruction of the factory equipment long enough to buy it. This was made easier than it might have been by the fact that the Petters Group was falling apart - its owner, Tom Petters, had been arrested for running a Ponzi scheme. He was later jailed for 50 years. Kaps gladly took advantage of the situation, raising $2.6 million of start-up capital and taking out a lease on the building.

Naming their venture The Impossible Project, Kaps and Bosman started out with a skeletal staff from the old Polaroid operation. The team plugged away for several months and in March 2010 succeeded in launching two films. OK, so this new stock was only available in black and white, was nowhere near as sharp or fast as its predecessor and needed to be shielded from the light as soon as it emerged from the camera. The important thing was that it worked. The company now employs 60 people, produces an expanding range of monochrome and colour films, and has shops in Tokyo, New York, Vienna and Paris. Shifting roughly 750,000 units in the last year alone, its future looks bright.

While the latest, post-Petters owners of the Polaroid brand are now concentrating on digital imaging, The Impossible Project is not only keeping the old flame alive, it is also introducing to a new wave of users the joys of instant photography. "We do sell to established Polaroid customers," says company spokeswoman Marlene Kelnreiter. "But the majority of our buyers are between 13 and 25 years old... Young people now seem to like the idea of photography that they can touch."

As heartwarming as the instant film revival is, recent events show that the true inheritors of Land's legacy share his dedication to the pursuit of the new. In April this year the founders of the iPhone application Instagram sold their business to Facebook for $1bn. In its commercial success and its core concepts of speed and user-friendliness, mobile photography is the direct descendant of its analogue predecessor. Its predominantly square-format, retro-processed images recreate Polaroid's aesthetic and its interfaces play on a sense of nostalgia for a more tactile, organic era of photography. Instagram's branding even references Polaroid's distinctive rainbow stripes.

What is more, Land as good as predicted its existence 40 years earlier. In 1970 he made a corporate film in which he spoke of "a camera that you would use as often as your pencil or your eyeglasses ...  something that would be with you every day". Bonanos writes: "It would be effortless. Point, shoot, see. The gesture would be as simple as ... taking a wallet from your breast pocket, holding it up and pressing the button."

It is no coincidence that smartphone images have come in for much the same criticism as Polaroid did in its early days. For some purists they are quite simply not real photography either. However, many respected professionals are now embracing this medium too. The difference is the area of practice in which it is being most effectively deployed. Where Polaroid's painterly tones seduced the high-profile art crowd, the speed and ease of transmission afforded by smartphone apps has made them perfect for the fast-moving world of photojournalism.

From Michael C Brown's dispatches from the Libyan revolution to Balazs Gardi's Basetrack project, the iPhone is now almost as ubiquitous in conflict photography as it is on the pages of Facebook and Twitter. In February 2011, the New York Times photographer Damon Winter won third place in the feature story category of the Pictures of the Year international competition with a story shot entirely on such a device. Titled A Grunt's Life, it captured quotidian moments during a tour of northern Afghanistan with the 87th Infantry regiment of the US army. It is an effective and intimate piece of work, but the heavy vignetting and super-saturated colour applied by the Hipstamatic application caused a furore among traditionalists.

Benjamin Lowy, a New York-based photographer who uses smartphones extensively in his own work explains: "Years ago 5x4 photographers hated the 35mm format, then black and white photographers hated colour ... Many of the issues surrounding mobile phone photography are very similar, but the worries over nostalgic, retro effects are valid for me too."

In a wonderful case of symmetry, these concerns have ushered Lowy into a role that echoes the relationship Adams had with Polaroid, collaborating with Hipstamatic to make the application more suitable for documentary use. "Myself, Michael Brown and Damon Winter sat down together and discussed what we needed," he says. "Our idea was to create unaffected images. We wanted to silence the purists who were saying that the filters many apps apply automatically were unethical, that they were not a real representation of what we were seeing. We emailed Hipstamatic and they were very responsive and happy to work with us." Within a few months Lowy was sent a custom-made profile that conformed to these specifications. Now, after more than a year of testing and revisions, it is close to a commercial release. He has used it for everything from his ongoing coverage of Afghanistan to a recent assignment on the Democratic and Republican conventions for The New Yorker. "The idea of a camera that you can take everywhere with you is nothing new," he says. "Smartphones and apps like Hipstamatic are just the latest development and they are amazing tools that open up a lot of possibilities for us as image-makers - in the way we see and represent things, and in the way we distribute our work and tell our stories."

Were Land alive today, it is difficult to imagine him being anything other than at the forefront of such developments. He may have been the leader of a global business empire, but he was, first and foremost, a visionary genius blessed with an innate understanding of the power of the photographic image. As the physicist and philosopher Philip Morrison said of Polaroid's innovations back in 1972, they provided a means to apply "a rich texture to memory.  More than that, thoughtful use [helped to] reveal meaning in the flood of images which make up so much of human life."

Dave Stelfox is a photographer and journalist. He lives in London.

Updated: October 25, 2012 04:00 AM

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