Polaroid’s showman supreme combined publicity and technology

The name Polaroid evokes the time of its prime – the 1960s and ‘70s. Here was a company that in answering a child’s question became a cultural emblem. Today, in the first of a three-part series of excerpts from The Camera Does the Rest: How Polaroid Changed Photography, by Peter Buse, we meet the scientist-showman who guided Polaroid to its glory days.

The excerpt

According to the legend, Polaroid photography started with a childish desire. It started with Jennifer’s question. Jennifer was Edwin Land’s three-year-old daughter, and she put the question to her father in December 1943. Land and his family were on holiday in Santa Fe, taking a break from Polaroid’s wartime work, and he and Jennifer had spent an afternoon seeing the sights and taking photos on Land’s Rolleiflex. Afterwards, back at the guest house, Jennifer was impatient to see the results, and asked why she could not see the photos right away. As Land told the story, and many others repeated it afterwards, the child’s impatience was a spur to invention for the father, who took up the challenge his daughter had set. He stepped back out into the late afternoon and walked around Santa Fe, thinking through each problem and obstacle, figuring out how the chemistry would work, the design and mechanics of the camera. By the end of the walk, Land said, he had more or less answered all the basic questions and had started planning the creation of one-step photography in Polaroid’s labs. As luck would have it, his patent lawyer, Donald Brown, was also in town, so Land sought him out at his hotel and dictated to him the fundamentals of the system. From the question being posed to its full solution being expressed, perhaps six hours had passed, give or take.

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The Camera Does the Rest: How Polaroid Changed Photography

Read the second excerpt: Polaroid’s showman supreme combined publicity and technology

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It is the sort of story that makes historians of technology throw their hands up in despair. A near perfect example of the “Eureka” school of invention, it comes complete with the solitary inventor, the flash of inspiration, and the solution fully formed. But even in Land’s own telling, while he confirms the role of his daughter, he actually underplays the “lightbulb” moment. Instead, he emphasises the three years of hard collective work that followed, as well as the conditions that existed beforehand at Polaroid to allow the discovery, particularly the competence in advanced research developed by the company through its years of work on polariser technology, and including the work it was doing for the US military at that very moment, producing, among other things, combat goggles, sighting devices, and early heat-seeking missile technology.

The unveiling

Edwin Land’s choice of the Optical Society of America as the venue for a first public demonstration of his one-step camera in February 1947 made perfect sense, since up to that point, Polaroid was a company known primarily for its research in polarising filters, with only a limited foray into photography during the war with “vectograph” technology – stereoscopic prints for monitoring troop movements. Although Land and Polaroid had no photographic pedigree, what they did possess already in abundance was scientific legitimacy. By definition worshippers of science and technology, the photo-expert magazines in 1947 were almost unanimously rapturous about the invention and often just reproduced verbatim Polaroid’s own press copy about potential uses of the new camera. Camera hailed a “spectacular discovery which marks a great advance in the photographic process”, calling it an “apparent miracle”. Ralph Samuels in Minicam Photography was “convinced that this one-minute innovation is far from being just another photographic novelty”, predicting “it will render many pages of instruction in photographic handbooks as obsolete as tin-types”. US Camera gushed that “not since the close of the last century when George Eastman first promised popular-priced cameras, daylight-loading film and a processing service has any photographic development caused such a stir in the camera field”, concluding that Land’s invention was “one of the most promising innovations in photographic history”.

The showman

No one recognised better than Edwin Land the gimmick potential in the cameras he invented, and in a company where demonstration was so central a practice, Land was undoubtedly the demonstrator-in-chief. For each new camera technology or film format developed by Polaroid’s research laboratories, there was invariably a carefully choreographed public unveiling. For the biggest breakthroughs – Polacolor, 4 x 5 film, SX-70, 20 x 24 film, Polavision – Land himself took responsibility, introducing the new product at the company’s annual shareholder meetings. During the 1960s and 1970s, these annual meetings became so elaborate that Land gained a reputation as the great showman of corporate America. For one spring day each year during these decades Polaroid would convert a space among its buildings – a cafeteria, a warehouse – to accommodate audiences that steadily grew in size and hit peaks of nearly 4,000. According to reports, many who attended did so not to hear the obligatory reading of financial statements delivered on such occasions, but to see the performances of Land, who not only would reveal new inventions kept until that moment top secret, but also would prowl whatever stage he was on, holding forth about science, aesthetics, the philosophy of Polaroid Corporation, and even philosophy in general (Henri Bergson, a fellow theorist of colour vision, was a favourite).

“What is it about this meeting that brings out the stockholders in such hordes?” asked the Boston Globe in 1966. “One of the many attractive women present put it this way: ‘Well, I guess it’s a glamour company and we always expect something to happen, but – well, it’s Dr Land. He’s beautiful.’” The stages on which the headliner performed were at first small, as in the case of the slightly raised podium from which he announced advances in instant colour film in 1960, but gradually took on a grander scale, until Land was in some instances alone on a huge dais, surrounded on all sides by spectators, and equipped with a lapel microphone. Polaroid’s expert knowledge of visual technologies was fully exploited on these occasions, with massive screens, slide shows, and film projection supplementing Land’s talks. The special status of these meetings can be dated to the late 1950s when the company first staged them in-house. In a letter in the Polaroid Newsletter announcing the first such meeting in 1958, Land says that they want “to make even more of it than we have in the past”, adding that the meetings are already “unusual, possibly unique, in American industry”.

The most notable of these meetings was the sequence 1971, 1972, 1973, where the smaller, faster SX-70 system was hinted at, revealed, and then fully launched. In 1971, Land stood on stage and pulled a closed SX-70 prototype camera out of his suitcoat and showed it to the audience without opening it or explaining what it was except to suggest that “the tantalising object in his hand” would be disclosed at some future date. That disclosure was made at the 1972 meeting, when Polaroid converted 32,000 square feet of warehouse into a complete in-the-round theatre space for the occasion. The foreman for this undertaking, Bob Chapman, explained that his team built an entirely new facility, adding fans, installing theatre lighting, as well as making stages and demonstration platforms, and erecting a huge four-sided projection screen in the middle of the shareholders meeting room. Influenced by, or perhaps even in advance of some of the radical site-specific theatre of the early 1970s, this elaborate mise-en-scène was all laid out to display the SX-70 camera and film, which were still some months from the consumer shelves. The very first demonstration fell of course to Land, who was illuminated alone on stage in the darkened warehouse and took in rapid succession five pictures of his pipe on a table.

The audience were then free to circulate around 12 separate stages to observe the SX-70 at work photographing such scenes as a child’s birthday party, a painter at her easel, live ducklings in a pond, floral arrangements, and specimen slides under a microscope. In that same year Land ended up on the covers of both Time and Life demonstrating his new gimmick. The following year, with the camera now available from a limited number of suppliers, shareholders at the annual meeting were encouraged to try the device for themselves. Polaroid shipped in 12,000 tulips from Holland for this purpose, turning them into centrepieces for each table of nine spectators to test out the colour range of the film. Land himself made his way round these tables, taking pictures and discoursing on the camera and film.

A dazzling show

As an exercise in marketing and product promotion, Land’s performances at the lavish annual meetings were a great success, attracting wide coverage in a largely positive media. For reporters the meetings were a dazzling fusion of magic show and circus. Fortune magazine in 1970 said that Land “has onlookers believing in fairy godmothers who can convert pumpkins into carriages” and Time in 1972 wrote of his “now legendary appearances at Polaroid’s annual meetings, at which he stages a modern magic-lantern show”.

This was surely the appeal of Land: a genius inventor who was able to convert that genius into a charismatic stage presence, and more importantly into wondrous gadgets that anyone could use, even if they did not understand all the chemistry, optics, and mechanics behind them. For the gathered shareholders, the thrill of seeing extraordinary inventions for the first time was undoubtedly amplified by the promise they contained of thrilling dividends and stock price rises.

One of the most frequently reproduced images of Land is from the 1979 Annual Meeting where he demonstrated for the first time the ultra-fast Time-Zero SX-70 film. In this photograph Land cups the open camera in his left hand whilst holding overhead in the right an already developed print of a bunch of flowers. By this stage, the gesture and the image were immediately recognisable, having been repeated many times by the Polaroid Chairman. Whether it was a prototype SX-70 camera slipped out of his jacket in 1971, or the first SX-70 prints in 1972, or the first 20 x 24 print in 1976, Land was the master of the “here it is” gesture. Two separate writers for Modern Photography put their fingers on the meaning of this typical action when describing Land’s introduction of 20,000 speed film in 1968 and his performance at the annual meeting of 1979. At the event in 1968, a team of technicians on stage at the Sheraton Boston ballroom exposed, pulled, peeled, and mounted two oversize prints, and then, “Almost in triumph, Dr Land held them aloft.” In his regular column on instant photography, Weston Andrews in July 1979 wrote of how “the good doctor dramatically announces the new goodies, then triumphantly waves them aloft before an adoring assemblage”. These writers are surely correct to use the grand phrase “holding (or waving) aloft” and to identify the element of triumph in the act. For this is what the gesture signifies. Just as the ringmaster with outstretched hand indicates his mastery of the animal world, or the magician his control of appearances, so Land embodies in that holding aloft the triumph of commercial scientific endeavour.

Reprinted with permission from The Camera Does the Rest: How Polaroid Changed Photography, by Peter Buse, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2016 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.

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Published: September 13, 2016 04:00 AM

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