The ability to enjoy and experience our photographs instantly is something we take for granted today. Thanks to digital cameras with their high-definition screens and smartphones with highly advanced camera technology, taking a photo and immediately admiring our handiwork has become second nature.
However, in 1972, photographers weren’t afforded the same luxury. Professionals and keen amateurs would have to develop their own images while the rest of us sent our rolls of film away to be developed and waited a week or two for the results.
Step forward Polaroid founder Edwin H. Land, who was considered the Steve Jobs of his time - dedicated and driven with the knowledge, vision and innovative spirit to match.
Land drew gasps of amazement when he stepped on stage at the company’s annual meeting, unfolded the first SX-70 camera and fired off 10 self-developing colour photos in just five seconds.
'Why can’t we see the photos now?'
It had actually all began for instant photography in the mid-40s when Land’s three-year old daughter Jennifer asked her father: “Why can’t we see the photos now?” It was a pretty good question, and three years later, in 1948, the first Land Camera was flying off the shelves.
The Land Camera Model 95, as it was known, contained a roll of film and developing chemicals. Thanks to a highly innovative method which involved moving dyes from a negative to a positive by squeezing the film through a set of rollers, just 60 seconds after taking the shot, users could open up the back of the device and peel the negative to reveal a fully-developed black and white photo. Voila! No more visits to the lab.
However, the technology wasn’t perfect. The photos took a long time to dry and if you weren’t careful, your hands were covered in those developing chemicals. Even then, it was still one photo every couple of minutes. Hardly instant by today’s standards.
The Polaroid Model 20 ‘Swinger’ arrived in 1965 and was the first model to use film that developed outside of the camera. Its fully plastic construction allowed it to go on sale for just $19.95 (about £12) making it the first truly affordable instant camera and as a result one of the best-selling snappers ever made. The ‘’Model 20” camera was also distinctive for the “YES” message displayed below the viewfinder when exposure was set correctly and light was suitable enough to take a good photo.
Land’s crowning glory, however, came seven years later with the introduction of the SX-70, the first ever instant SLR (single-lens reflex) camera (top, left).
Land claimed the SX-70 brought an incredible 20,000 innovations to the table, and even if he was exaggerating, it was certainly an innovative device. A fully collapsible design meant the camera folded down to just an inch thick, and for the first time a Polaroid used integral colour film that was spat outside of the camera and developed without the need to peel away a negative. Photographers could watch the photo develop in seconds before their very eyes, aided by the iconic shake.
The inventor considered the SX-70 colour film as his finest achievement. As for the camera as a whole, it was a miracle of engineering and design, which few working on the project - beyond the man himself - believed would ever come together. It was to be his legacy, his most iconic invention and the pinnacle of Polaroid’s success.
The decline of Polaroid
The beginning of the end for Land came when he attempted to repeat the feat with video. The failed Polavision experiment was a massive commercial failure and resulted in Land’s resignation as CEO. He retired just two years later and instant photography headed on a downward trajectory.
After more failures, including an experiment with digital cameras (including 1996’s PDC-2000) that only served to kill its core business, the company filed for bankruptcy in 2001. It re-emerged under new ownership, but stopped selling cameras in 2007 and then controversially ceased film production in 2009.
Following a sell off of the company’s ever dwindling assets, film for Polaroid cameras re-emerged in 2010 when a group known as ‘Impossible Project’ found a company to produce the materials at an old Polaroid plant in Holland. Enthusiasts and new generations can continue to take photos with their Land Cameras and the abundance of cheaply available Swingers and SX-70s.
Polaroid itself has made a comeback, of sorts, even appointing Lady Gaga as creative director in 2010. It also launched ‘Pogo’ printers that hooked up to mobile phones and digital cameras and even the Z2300 ZINK (zero ink) 10-megapixel digital camera that prints the photos on two-by-three-inch peel-away stickers as well as enabling them to be uploaded to social media, in some ways joining two technological eras in one gadget.
Despite the best efforts of new incumbents to keep the Polaroid name alive, Land’s work and legacy lives on mostly through the generation of new tools inspired by his vision. Foremost among these is the Instagram smartphone app (and its many rivals) which allows users to apply vintage, retro filters in order to make them look like they were taken on a Polaroid camera.
The lasting impact of cameras like the SX-70 is that all these years on, people are using the latest technology to recreate their magic.
Middle photo Wikipedia. Camera Fiend