Books

Innovation, Loss, Genius and Stupidity: 'Instant: The Story of Polaroid'

Photo of Christopher Bonanos (partial) by © Ellen McDermott.

An engaging biography of Polaroid that provides historical and buisness insight into the company that popularized the instant photograph -- and missed the digital age.


Instant: The Story of Polaroid

Publisher: Princeton Architectural Press
Length: 192 pages
Author: Christopher Bonanos
Price: $24.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2012-09
Amazon

Instant does not conclude with a happy ending, but you already know that. Instant is a story of innovation and loss, genius and stupidity. Instant is the story of Polaroid film and the instant camera, a product that helped many children of the '60s and '70s tell their own stories before digital cameras and iPhones. It's also the story of arrogance in the face of change, of missed opportunities to evolve into the digital age written in crisp prose with a hint of nostalgia.

Christopher Bonanos, an editor at New York Times Magazine, has essentially written the biography of a technology not dissimilar from the approach Tracy Kidder used in 1981’s The Soul of a New Machine. Unlike Kidder, however, Bonanos tackles not an obscure computer, but a camera that every reader has likely seen, if not used personally.

Every person who has owned, or been touched by, a Polaroid instant camera will find something in this book to tug on a memory. It's profusely illustrated with images of Francis Ford Coppola presenting a case of Time Zero film to Akira Kuroswa—and images from Ansel Adams and Andy Warhol taken using instant film.

Steve Jobs considered Edwin Land a hero. And that connect is an apt one, because Instant’s central story isn’t photography, but innovation, with all of its setbacks, triumphs and defeats. Consider this passage, after Land made some last minute tweaks to Polacolor film: “Yet once again, it was an imperfect product. Buyers soon found that, as their color prints dried, some of the image layers shrank a bit, causing the photos to curl up tightly.” As Apple did when the iPhone 4 suffered antenna issues, Polaroid shipped a frame, a set of print mounts, that adhered to the film to keep it flat (and it's interesting that the iPhone’s current map issues often note melted or curled landscapes when rendering the 3D images — technology innovators continue to push the edges of technology and sometimes find those edges push back).

Throughout Instant, Bonanos provides insight into how Polaroid, under the guiding hand of Edwin Land, developed, manufactured and marketed technology against industry expectations and sometimes against the best advice of fellow executives. IT also makes it clear that innovation isn’t just about great ideas, but about marketing, as the company took their new technology to photographers and artists, recruiting some to their campaigns, being satisfied by others who just used the film and the cameras for their own works. And innovation is also about changing norms. With the '60s and the early '70s came the sexual revolution, and unlike conventional film, Polaroid’s products let people photograph themselves intimately and privately.

Instant also provides glimpses into the complexity of product lines, as it explores the use of large format film which most consumers would never have seen, but which produced some of Ansel Adam’s most striking images of the Yosemite Valley.

Finding a Polaroid today is nearly impossible, but taking a picture and seeing it immediately is seemingly even more magic today than when Land did it with chemicals and paper. Though the book argues, and I agree, passing around a phone doesn’t offer the same ritualized experience that came from needlessly flapping the print to better mix its chemicals and speed the process. Polaroid prints being developed feed into the same pleasure of anticipation.

Land knew that the camera would evolve. At the beginning of Chapter 5, "Ultimate Expression", Land is quoted as saying “We are still a long way from the… camera that would be, oh, like the telephone: something that you use all day long… a camera which you would use not on the occasion of parties only, or of trips only, or when grandchildren came to see you, but a camera you would use as often as your pencil or your eyeglasses.” A pretty prescient thought, given that it would be 30 years before cameras came to cellphones, an integration that made photography even more popular than the standalone camera.

But with all of the success of its film and its cameras, Polaroid suffered from expensive bets on technology that ultimately proved inferior to competitors. One example was Polarvision, shipping in 1977 for $675. Polarvision used a unique additive color system that was innovative, but not competitive with traditional film cameras like Super8. Polarvision and all consumer film quickly gave way to early magnetic recording devices like VHS that later evolved from analog to digital. Its near final breathes exhaled during a proxy fight for control that ended in leverage better spent on digital technology than on remaining an independent public company.

Instant should be read by cultural historians (novice and academic) camera buffs, optical engineers, chemists and nostalgic consumers. Perhaps most of all, it should be read by business executives caught in what Harvard professor Clayton Christensen calls the “innovators dilemma”. The story of Polaroid chronicles a company that went from innovation through dissolution, attempted resurrection, only to face bankruptcy multiple times. The Polaroid that exists today is a shell company in possession of a history that it can claim only through tenuous legal threads. You’ll have to read the final chapter of the book which interestingly, many not include Polaroid’s final chapter.

Princeton Architectural Press did a fine job with book design, delivering a volume that people can enjoy as much for its illustrations as for it story. Instant isn’t just a read, it's an experience—much more artsy than the typical business book. Instant is the kind of book people can dive into or thumb through -- one will learn something through both methods. Given that most of my business reading takes place digitally these days, I found reading Instant in print form left me feeling a bit nostalgic about the book as object, and found myself imaging how much better Instant would be in e-reader format with enhanced digital assets focused on capturing and preserving Polaroid’s analog legacy. Perhaps the next edition.

As I was writing these final thoughts I went over to a cabinet and pulled out my own Polaroid OneStep Flash camera, and although the battery in the film cartridge brought the camera to life, its spent film receptacle would not deliver the goods. I guess I'll have to just take a picture of the dog with my iPhone and apply a CameraBag filter so he appears in that iconic Polaroid frame with a somewhat random exposure and color balance. And therein lies the lesson of innovators so married to their technology that they can’t sense the world changing around them, especially when they only use a lens with fixed focus.

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