Zoomed In Instant photography

Author / Editor: Barbara Stumpp / Rosemarie Stahl

In 1947, Edwin H. Land produced the prototype of the first instant photo camera. Today, the name Polaroid is synonymous with instant cameras. But despite further innovations for “taking snaps”, the system also found many friends among renowned artists.

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The master model of the Polaroid camera range: the Land Camera Model 95.
The master model of the Polaroid camera range: the Land Camera Model 95.
(Source: Polaroid)

Even today, Polaroid cameras and films are available. The history of Polaroid photography is still deeply immersed in technology today, being the first camera that allowed users to take a picture, see its results instantly and share it with someone else. Especially this last aspect directly relates to modern smartphone photography and apps like Instagram.

In the age of digital cameras, an instant image is standard — but now it is on a display. But 70 years ago, holding a picture in your hand shortly after taking it was something special. It was not really an instant picture, but it was much faster than normal photos. The stone that started this development rolling was the three-year-old daughter of the physicist, Dr. Edwin Herbert Land, who wanted to look at pictures immediately after taking them. In February 1947, her father proudly presented his invention: a bellows camera with special film. She shortly thereafter took a picture, without use of a dark room. The picture quality initially needed a bit of getting used to, but it didn't bother the fans of the instant picture.

Land's knowledge of both physics and chemistry certainly helped the emergence of the instant photo camera. Although he stopped studying chemistry at Harvard, he ended his physics studies with a PhD. Together with his physics teacher, a Mr Wheelwright, he founded a laboratory, which became the Polaroid Company in 1937. And he was diligent: as well as receiving a whole collection of honorary doctorates, he also filed 535 patents. The highly decorated Land died on 1 March 1991 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the age of 81.

1947: The prototype of Polaroid photography

The prototype presented in 1947 was a conventional bellows camera; the sensational thing here was the film. Land had come up with a quick development process, which transferred the exposed negative directly onto a positive. At first, the pictures were in black and white and sepia colours; then, in 1963, Polacolor brought colour to the image.

With the Polaroid method, after the exposure, you pull the pictures, together with the film, sideways out of the camera. When the picture is pulled out, two rollers distribute the developer paste between the positive and negative. After about 30 to 90 seconds, the positive is ready and can be removed. The negative is mostly waste and can only be used for further pictures after a great deal of effort. Initially, it was regarded as a kind of high-end toy with a low half-life. However, the camera became widely successful: Polaroid managed to sell a million cameras as early as 1956. As early as 1960, the company employed over 2,500 people.

1972: Photography without waste

The next quantum leap came in 1972: Polaroid launched a camera model that exposed five images in ten seconds, which self-developed in four minutes. The radical thing was that the image did not have to be separated from the negative and therefore less waste was produced. All of the film components were integrated in the ejected film image. The system was baptised as the SX-70.

The SX-70 was a foldable mirror reflex camera. The film produced photos of excellent quality, but unfortunately, they were only in a narrow exposure latitude, which is why even the cheapest camera version needed exposure control.

2008: The end of Polaroid and revival attempts

In 2008, Polaroid stopped the production of instant cameras and film. The reason for this was a running battle with Petters Group Worldwide and their owners for alleged fraud. But Polaroid re-launched in January 2010. As a result, films were produced once again in Enschede; however, since some of the required precursors were no longer available, the composition of the films had to be partially redeveloped. Under pressure from the success of digital cameras, Polaroid had to come up with something: Their newest effort was the Pogo printer (printing on the go), developed in 2008 for digital photo printing, which was as small as a trouser pocket. This dwarf used special paper with embedded colour crystals that were activated during the printing process. Images could be transferred to the printer via Bluetooth or USB. However, this concept was not received with much love by regular consumers and since 2010 there has been the analogue instant camera, the Polaroid 300. Today, the company offers several different kinds of cameras, films and related products.

Artists also discovered photography with Polaroid

Land himself always saw his system as an artistic medium, which is why he also brought the famous landscape photographer Ansel Adams on board. But Adams was not the only one, and the Polaroid Collection was created — a photo collection that is now at Harvard University. It contains more than 22,000 images from many well-known photographers like Helmut Newton. By the way: Andy Warhol was a Polaroid fan as well.

Considering its drawbacks, the success of Polaroid was truly remarkable: The images are two to three times more expensive than conventional photos and the film and image material is much costlier. This includes a bulky camera with what would have been considered a large ecological footprint; however, nobody cared about this at the time. The prints are very limited, one always has only one copy per photo, and then only in one format. Nevertheless, Polaroid became a success story and Land became a multi-millionaire. But, first and foremost, he remained an inventor. He was generous and allowed his employees unusual freedoms during work.