In a world of smartphones and Snapchat it’s easy to forget that at the turn of the 20th century, “instantaneous” photography simply referred to the faster emulsions and shutter speeds that allowed one to stop motion.
Photography’s perceived function at that point was largely based on memorialization and toy cameras were aggressively marketed towards children, as training devices for future memory-work. Polaroid’s introduction to the mainstream started to displace these conventions by collapsing the production and consumption of photography into one action.
The definition of “instant photography” has certainly come a long way since then. Now that images are being generated through electronic processes, the terms by which we relate to them have fundamentally changed. A new book by Peter Buse,
, takes a deep dive into Polaroid’s corporate archives to reveal the company’s transformative influence on the photographic process. The Camera Does the Rest
This book covers all of the cultural perceptions and scientific discoveries that made Polaroid something very special and leaves us with a clear sense of it’s lost pleasures, too. For Buse, Polaroid is not just an object of nostalgia, it is a catalyst undeniably linked to the massive changes we’ve seen in social rituals and imaging technology in our lifetime. These are five of Polaroid’s tech developments that have transformed the way we take snapshots.
One-Step Process: 1947
Before getting into the camera business, a reclusive inventor named Edwin Land was busy conducting research into polarizing filters in the 1930s, mostly for military goggles and 3D movie glasses. In 1947 he demonstrated his camera invention for the first time, turning popular science into spectacle and setting history on a course that would lead us to a great convergence of art and science and ultimately, selfies. His product was aimed to compete with the popular Kodak Brownie, which required sending the unit to a factory for processing and by Land’s measure, a few hundred more steps. The Land Camera years, fueled Polaroid’s meteoric rise, and their ambitious research and development would bring game-changing innovations time and again. In the not-too-distant future humans will be taking photos with their eyeballs and tweeting them with their thoughts. If Edwin Land’s goal was to remove the barriers of speed and distribution between the snapshot photographer and the successful photo, it’s suffice to say that we’ve realized his vision and then some. From: The Camera Does the Rest Polaroid Model 20 Swinger: 1965
Marketed towards the “hep person in rapport with modern thinking,” the Polaroid Swinger weighed 21oz and cost $19.95. It was made of plastic and featured a wrist strap that allowed the device to be worn as an accessory. The user could feel confident the exposure was correct when a grid of squares inside the viewfinder illuminated with the word “YES”. Largely considered a prestige item until that point, Polaroid changed their strategy to get the camera and film into drug stores instead of just department stores. This convenience turned Polaroid into a household name and a form of entertainment. It was technically this toy, their best selling mass-consumer product, that sparked a boom of vernacular photography in America. Some say it led to a mass influx of amateurs gaining interest in the medium, others would go on to give credit for the rise in home pornography and radically lowered standards of censorship. From: The Camera Does the Rest Polaroid SX-70: 1972
The SX-70 was a fully automatic, motorized unit that ejected a print from the front. This action, in a way, encouraged individuals to instantly take ownership of passing moments. “Integral” prints meant there was no longer any peeling or manually applied chemicals. After you pushed the button, time suspended for minutes or hours while the faces and contrast edges of the scene became clear, like a hallucination. One of the print’s more recognizable traits, a white margin along the bottom, often used for notations, was actually there to store a pod of chemicals (liquid opacifier, metallic dyes, potassium hydroxide) that when mechanically pushed through a roller system, ruptured and spread evenly across 17 separate layers of emulsion. The SX-70 print started with an opaque turquoise block that magically faded into more of a milky “Walden” than “Earlybird”, really. The earliest versions of Instagram clearly called back to this with filters that emulated the look. From: The Camera Does the Rest Polaroid Spectra: 1986
The Spectra was a high end system whose accessory line included special effects filters for motion, red center spot, starburst and multi-image. The robust body did away with the fragile collapsible bellows and featured a sophisticated Quintic lens and sonar autofocus. It was released with a corresponding new line of film where the image area of the print was 10% larger than that of the SX-70. By the ‘90s, this film was being touted for it’s heightened clarity, definition and reduced granularity. It would eventually adopt the name Spectra HD, for High Definition, while digital imaging resolution was still an abstract concept. From: The Camera Does the Rest Polaroid Captiva: 1991
In 1980, Polaroid was well aware of the approaching advancements in electronic imaging. Smaller, more nimble companies were quickly saturating that emerging market, but that didn’t stop the company from applying for patents to an electronic camera that used a charge coupled device (known today as the CCD sensor) and tape for data storage. On the back, they envisioned a preview screen, which gave the user options to print, reject or store the image. This feature was first manifested in the ‘90s Captiva camera as a transparent storage chamber. Instead of ejecting the print, it remained inside the camera, visible through a window. Display screens are now commonplace on all digital cameras. It’s easy to see how this design modification was the antecedent to a new mode of satisfaction, and how Polaroid’s innovations changed the very act of photographing as we know it. From: The Camera Does the Rest
Jackie Roman is a portrait and lifestyle photographer in New York, @jackieroman on Twitter.