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In February, Polaroid announced it would close its U.S.
factories making instant film, a move that will likely leave our
collection of Polaroid cameras—ah, the leather-sided SX-70, the
kitschy Swinger, the bulky Captiva, the anime-cute Mio—stranded as
functionless design objects on a shelf. It also makes us consider
the impact of this special form of photography, the predecessor to
digital photos by chemical means.
(from left) Polaroid's SX-70, Swinger, Captiva and Mio
The Polaroid Book, 2008 edition.
Polaroid continued the great tradition of democratizing
photography started by Kodak in 1900 with its dollar Brownie and
the "you push the button, we do the rest" simplicity of
development. The fruits of such democracy are evident in every home
today, in albums and desk drawers, and online, on Flickr and its
kin. There is no more democratic form of art than the snapshot,
whose power was demonstrated in the 2007 exhibition "The Art of the
American Snapshot, 1888–1978," which originated at the National
Gallery in Washington. This past April, Taschen also published
The Polaroid Book, by longtime curator of Polaroid
exhibitions Barbara Hitchcock, suggesting the range of Polaroid
work both professional and amateur. And ironically, as Polaroid
shutters its plants, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York
has mounted a large show of Robert
Mapplethorpe's Polaroids—more than 1,500 of them—curated by
Sylvia Wolf and on display throughout the summer.
Founder Edwin Land's vision of instant photography began
famously in 1948 and was only realized in stages, culminating in
the SX-70 of 1972. Land's first inspiration for instant
photography, he said, was a request from his teenage daughter, who
wondered why she could not see family vacation snapshots right
The SX-70 on a 1972 cover of Life magazine.
Land nurtured an idealistic vision of photography. He dreamed of
a camera that would release the artist in everyone. ''My basic
faith," Land wrote, "is in the random competence of people in all
walks of life, at any level of income, of any derivation. There is
a common sense of beauty and of manual aptitudes.''
The SX-70 was the iPod of its day, celebrated on the cover of
Life magazine, and is still a wonder to handle and use. It
was one of the first devices to use integrated circuits but remains
resoundingly mechanical, in a New England clockmaker sort of
The appeal was not only in the magic of colors materializing on
the film's shiny white face but in the process of taking the
pictures. The wonderful way the camera unfolded for action was a
key part of the Polaroid experience: the way it snapped upright and
revealed its rubber bellows inside a metal frame; the urgent
grinding, motorized sound the camera made as it ejected a shot; and
the final snapping shut of the little door through which pictures
were emitted. In truth, it was hard to get a good picture with a
Polaroid. Put aside your digital for a day and go back to an SX-70,
and you'll realize how much film you once wasted at a dollar or
more a shot.
Along the way Land made sure great photographers got to use his
innovation. There are books of Polaroid work by Ansel Adams and
Walker Evans. Little SX-70 prints of signs and objects hang in
shows of Evans's work alongside the great warhorses of his WPA and
Walker Evans, untitled Polaroid prints, 1973–1974 (courtesy
Metropolitan Museum of Art).
Walker Evans understood the value of the Polaroid's immediacy.
"I feel quite rejuvenated by it," he proclaimed in 1973. "You
photograph things you wouldn't think of photographing before… It's
the first time, I think, that you can put a machine in an artist's
hands and have him rely entirely on his vision and his taste and
"Things you wouldn't think of photographing" is right. In the
selection of "mundane" subject matter and how it is framed one can
see Polaroid's legacy in the digital medium. Many ordinary things
are now "worthy" of photography that were not before.
Big Polaroid, in all its glory.
What I treasured about the SX-70 was its palette, the odd sky
blues and the rich, chocolatey browns. Every film has a palette, of
course (Fuji is famously "greener" than Kodak). The Polaroid
palette was most notable in large prints. I once visited the
Polaroid, the five-foot-high camera that produces 20-by-24-inch
images. Introduced in 1978, the large format has been famously used
by William Wegman, Timothy Greenfield Sanders and other fashion
photographers. Its film had to be prepared in a back room, the way
old glass plates had to be coated with emulsion.
Polaroid also had a long and noble design tradition. Land turned
to Walter Dorwin Teague for his first cameras, and Henry Dreyfuss
famously designed the SX-70. Dreyfuss expert Russell Flinchum
attributes Dreyfuss with personally selecting the leather for
Corporate branding for Polaroid, 1958–1977 (courtesy Paul
In the 1970s, graphic designer Paul
Giambarba blended no-nonsense sans serif type with rainbow
stripes in the company's trade dress.
More recently, Dave Laituri, Polaroid's last design chief,
described Polaroid cameras to me as "wildly complex things made
one-button simple. It's a little factory inside with mirrors and
gears." Having directed the design of the company's smaller,
bubble-faced cameras and the practically smiling Mio, he embraced
the Polaroid's playfulness. ''The Mio looks at you,'' he said when
the product was released in 2002. ''It's bright and optimistic and
has a little humor to it."
There were many practical uses for Polaroids in its day.
Continuity experts in film production, for instance, often used
Polaroids to ensure that a character's hair was combed the same way
from one day to the next or a shot-up house was consistently
bullet-ridden. Cops and insurance adjusters also relied on the
Polaroid, and it was an essential tool for forensics. At one point,
business uses accounted for half the company's revenues. (In the
1960s and early 1970s, protestors often rallied outside the
company's headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts, since Polaroid
had a lock on identification cards and driver's license photos for
years, which included the cards used by South Africa's apartheid
Robert Mapplethorpe, Untitled (invitation to Light Gallery
opening), 1973 (courtesy Whitney Museum of Art).
Stephen King meditated on the documentary quality of Polaroids
in his 2002 novel, From a Buick 8. The story's villain is a
Buick Roadmaster from hell, whose antics are recorded on Polaroid
film by highway patrolmen who take the car into custody. King
describes "that odd, flat, declamatory quality which is the sole
property of Polaroid photographs. I see a world where there's
only cause and effect, they seem to say. A world where every
object is an avatar and no gods move behind the scenes."
Sexually themed Polaroids were common—think Mapplethorpe, Carlo
Mollino, Nobuyoshi Araki and so many more. The association of
Polaroid with sexuality, of course, comes from the fact that
Polaroid skips the intrusive developer, who might be required by
law to report certain sorts of images to authorities. The legendary
Hollywood producer Robert Evans claimed to possess an archive of
intimate anatomical shots of famous actresses (he eventually
consigned those Polaroids to a bonfire one sober day).
Movie poster for the film Memento.
Polaroid has starred in movies particularly on the basis of its
autonomous, provocative nature. As early as 1958,
Polaroids—black-and-white ones, of course, in a black-and-white
film—showed up in Orson Welles's Touch of Evil. The black
690—the SX-70 successor that used faster film and had an electric
eye— figured in the 2000 film Memento, a high-concept twist
on the old film noir amnesiac theme, in which the hero is unable to
record memories of his own and so relies on the Polaroid prints he
Polaroid was both the forerunner of digital photography and the
last bastion of the "undigital"—specializing in reassuringly
physical objects, not just images—whose immediacy and objecthood
defied the easy reproducibility of the electronic image. Polaroid,
with its square format, standard module of size and proportion and
its avoidance of copy, seemingly made it an island of
trustworthiness in a sea of photographic meretriciousness.
("Brothel without walls" is how McLuhan famously described
photography in Understanding Media.)
David Hockney, Sun on the Pool, 1982, composite Polaroid.
A Polaroid was an object of a certain size and shape. It didn't
lend it self to easy reproduction the way even Instamatic film did.
A Polaroid was essentially a one-of-a-kind object, like an oil
painting or daguerreotype. Artists such as David Hockney and Chuck
Close produced innovative photography with it, and images could
then be manipulated with chemicals, as in the work of Lucas
The snapshot's squareness had an honest appeal, and Polaroid
kept with the square long after other film formats went 35mm and
rectangular. But we actually see the world in a more horizontal
format, some people objected. Maybe, but we organize more
effectively in a square, the most basic of frames. Motion pictures
and television have been pushing us toward hyped-up horizontal
formats for a century now: 35mm, borrowed from the movies by Leica,
imposed its proportions and aspect ratio on amateur photography.
Today, most digital cameras and older TV monitors are standard 4:3
Chuck Close, Self-Portrait Maquette, 1975 (courtesy SFMOMA).
"I never liked photography," says Robert Mapplethorpe in the
companion book to his Polaroids exhibition at the Whitney. "Not for
the sake of photography. I like the object. I like the photographs
when you hold them in your hand."
But like digital photography, as practiced today with cell
phones at parties, Polaroid was a highly social form of
photography. It was the original party camera, as Andy Warhol
surely knew. It also took hold with anthropologists and journalists
around the world who would make contact with locals by sharing
portraits with them.
Latter-period Polaroid film and cameras relied on the social use
of the images. The toylike i-Zone, which produced tiny, glue-backed
sticker images, was marketed to teenage girls. The i-Zone—the name
precedes iPod—came in cute colors such as Wicked Wasabi and Go
Grape Sorbet. Polaroid took pages from Swatch to turn the cameras
into highly personalized and fashion-influenced consumer products.
The i-Zone was developed with Tomy, the Japanese toy and gadget
maker, and was introduced first in Japan in 1998. But Polaroid was
slow to bring it to the United States. The low-resolution images
appalled many in the company. To sell the camera, Polaroid
persuaded the fashion designer Todd Oldham to make a dress out of
the tiny i-Zone prints and Britney Spears to wield it during
performances, snapping pics of the audience. The i-Zone was sold as
a point-of-purchase impulse item beside cash registers, like
Polaroid persisted in trying to distinguish itself from the
digital market. "Polaroid has a quality of 'instantness,'" Polaroid
marketing executive Bernice Cramer told me. ''It is different from
digital 'instantness,'" she contended. Because the images are
''more tactile and real, you get that sense of authenticity.''
Nevertheless, the convenience of digital has all but trumped the
consumer's desire for tangibility.
Two photo-transformations, using Polaroid SX-70 prints, by Lucas
Samaras (courtesy J. Paul Getty Museum).
The legacy of Polaroid remains, as proven by our cell phones and
Flickr, with its Whitmanesque feeling of democratic art. (Flickr
hosts a gallery for SavePolaroid.com, a group dedicated to keeping the
instant film alive; all the while a plugin called the Polaroid-o-nizer acts as an inferior substitute for
the original format.) Polaroid helped establish the way we choose
what is picture-worthy and how we frame those pictures. What Walker
Evans said of the SX-70, how it got us taking pictures of things we
would not have before, applies to digital today. The details of
ordinary life become extraordinary; noticing them adds to the
quality of the quotidian and celebrates the mundane. As a medium,
this sort photography also celebrates and empowers the everyday
shutterbug. I think of Polaroid every time, and it is often, that I
see a group of people, laughing and smiling, as they snap and
compare photos on their phones. They are the digital realization of
Edwin Land's dream of photography: anytime, anywhere, for
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