Gone in Sixty Seconds

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 cameras.

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 away.

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 way.

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 Fortune years.

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 his mind.”

“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 Big 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 it.

Corporate branding for Polaroid, 1958–1977 (courtesy Paul Giambarba).

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 system.)

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 shoots constantly.

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 Samaras.

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 proportion.

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 Snickers bars.

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 anyone.