Photography used to be a passive experience: you would take the photo, send the film off to develop and then get the prints back weeks later, long after you had forgotten taking them. Digital photography changed all that, but the digital camera was not the world’s first experience of instant photography. That came many years before in the form of the Polaroid instant camera, and the best of that breed was the Polaroid SX-70 Land Instant camera.
The Polaroid camera was invented by Edwin Land, a scientist and inventor who had developed the polarizing screens used by car lights to illuminate the road without blinding other drivers. During the war, his Polaroid corporation produced photographic equipment for the Air Force. One day in 1943, he was asked by his then 3-year old daughter why the family camera couldn’t produce photos immediately while they were on vacation. While walking in a state he later described as “stimulated by the dangerously invigorating plateau air of Santa Fe,” he came up with the process, supposedly in under an hour.
The process used a sandwich of chemicals that were kept separate in the film container. For color films, this could be up to 17 separate layers of chemicals. After the image was exposed, this sandwich was squashed between two rollers, releasing a chemical that immediately developed the negative, rather like a normal film camera. Dyes were then pressed through this negative, producing a positive image on the bottom layer: the print. This was peeled away from the negative and other chemical layers to produce the final photo, all in a matter of minutes. You can see the modern manufacturing process in this Youtube video.
The first Polaroid Land camera was launched in 1948, which used two separate rolls for the negative and positive parts of the image. You can see the process in action in this infomercial from the 1950s for the Polaroid Pathfinder. In the 1960s, Polaroid developed a way to put both layers into the same package, so the film could be stored in a single cartridge rather than in separate rolls. When the user took the photo, they pulled the film out, starting the process, then waited for a minute and peeled away the negative layer, leaving the final print. This process was further refined in the early 1970s to create a camera that just produced a final print; there was no negative and the chemicals were neutralized after the image was developed, making the process even easier. And that camera is the gadget we miss: the Polaroid SX-70 Land Camera. Edwin Land himself introduced the camera at a stockholders meeting with the arrogant boast “Photography will never be the same after today.”
But he was right: photography was never the same because the SX-70 produced photos in seconds: you just pushed the button, and out the print popped, to slowly develop in your hand. You can see the process in this orientation film made by Polaroid in 1972.
The 1970s was the heyday of the Polaroid camera, and the muted colors and square format of the photos became a hallmark of the decade. No family holiday was complete without a Polaroid snap with the location written on the bottom, and many celebrities also became attached to the camera. The SX-70 was a particular favorite of artist Andy Warhol, who took a long series of portraits with it, including iconic photos of Muhammed Ali, Dennis Hopper and John Lennon. He loved the immediacy and simplicity of the camera. And this notoriously shy artist apparently loved the fact that he didn’t have to deal with people while using the camera. “He always had a camera with him so that he didn’t have to deal directly with people,” associate professor of Art at USC Richard Meyer told the LA Times in an article about the photos. In fact, this very article was inspired by one of Warhol’s own Polaroid cameras, which is now on sale on eBay for $50,000. Mind you, that does include free shipping.
I remember the first time I came across a Polaroid camera in the late 1970s, when my father bought one, probably one of the variants of the SX-70 that were launched later in that decade, which included advanced features like a sonar focus system. My family spent a fascinating afternoon in the garden taking photos and watching them slowly develop as they came out of the front of the camera. We also worked out that if you squished the film right after it came out of the camera, the photo became distorted, a technique most famously used by Peter Gabriel on the cover of his third album.
The Polaroid camera continued to be popular through the 1980s, but rival systems (like the Fuji Instax system and a rival system from Kodak) started to take away some of the company’s market. The Kodak system resulted in an extended legal battle between the two companies that Kodak lost, and a settlement that barred the photo giant from selling instant cameras or film.
However, the writing was already on the wall for Polaroid by this time. The company had launched an instant movie system called Polavision in 1977 that was an expensive failure: the system required customized projectors to work, the film had a very low ISO of 40 (so it required lots of light to work, and the images looked dull) and it did not capture sound. As part of the fallout from this failure, Edwin Land resigned as CEO of the company in 1980 and left the company completely two years later. He died in 1991.
The company struggled on through the 1980s and early 1990s, launching products like an instant slide film called Polachrome, which could be used in any 35mm camera and developed in a small processing device that the user could buy. However, the results were mixed, as Philadelphia Time Union photographer Chuck Grassley found when he shot and developed a few rolls a couple of years ago.
Eventually, the company folded, filing for bankruptcy in 2001, then again in 2008, when the reorganized company was caught up in a massive Ponzi scheme organized by a corrupt businessman.
The huge collection of works by artists like Ansel Adams and William Wegman made using the original company’s products was also partially sold off in this bankruptcy. However, a similar collection held in Europe was kept intact and is now held by a gallery in Vienna.
The Polaroid name was bought by an investment company called PLR IP Holdings, LLC, who license it to manufacturers for products. In a somewhat odd twist, a group called The Impossible Project took over one of the original Polaroid film factories in Holland and started making the instant film again, including the large 8 by 10-inch film that was beloved by portrait artists. The US licensee of the Polaroid name is now selling this film in the US, you can now buy a refurbished Polaroid camera and Polaroid film direct from Polaroid. Just don’t call them and ask for tech support on your vintage camera, as it really isn’t the same company.
The impact of the SX-70 and other Polaroid cameras is still being felt, though. Take a quick look through online photo sharing services like Instagram and you’ll see lots of photos that share the same muted colors and soft look that made the camera famous. Search on Flickr for the Polaroid tag and you will not only see photos of these cameras but a huge number of new photos that share the same look and feel shot on cameras both old and new. The Flickr group for the SX-70 camera is also very active, with over 10,000 members.
And that’s why the SX-70 is a gadget we miss: because it changed the way that we think about photography, and made everyone an artist. If digital photography made the democratization of photography possible, the SX-70 Polaroid Land camera was one of the pebbles that started this landslide that is still sweeping the world of photography.
For more information on Edwin Land, Polaroid and the SX70, see Harry McCracken’s excellent history of the camera on Technologizer.