PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Books

Instant Photography Before the Digital Era

The Polaroid cameras brought instant gratification to photography long before the digital era.


The Camera Does the Rest: How Polaroid Changed Photography

Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Price: $30.00
Author: Peter Buse
Length: 320 pages
Format: Hardcover
US Publication Date: 2016-05
Affiliate
Amazon

In the era when mobile phones come equipped with built-in cameras, it’s worth remembering that it wasn’t that long ago that for most people taking photographs meant shooting with a film camera and then shipping the film to a lab for processing and printing. Film was a huge improvement in terms of convenience and cost over earlier processes -- the first surviving photograph, dating from 1836 or 1847, was captured on a metal plate coated with bitumen, and glass plates were commonly used into the 20th century -- but photographic film requires processing and printing before you can see the pictures.

The most obvious disadvantage of this process is the delay between taking the photos and being able to see them, because you can’t know on the spot if the images you recorded are any good. You also can’t share the pictures immediately, so there’s no sending the kids home from a birthday party with a photo of themselves as a keepsake, or taking a picture of yourself with a celebrity and then having him or her autograph the resulting picture on the spot.

Photographic processing and printing is also expensive, and bulk processing labs typically print everything on a roll, so you end up paying for prints that are over- or under-exposed or make a tree appear to be growing out of someone’s head as well and the good shots you actually want to keep. Finally, the quality of the prints is partially dependent on the technical abilities of some anonymous technician, and the lab may refuse to print your photos at all if, say, your taste runs toward the pornographic.

The genius of the Polaroid camera, developed by Edwin Land and introduced to the market in 1948, is that they use film that develops itself on the spot, providing the closest thing to “instant photography” available before the introduction of the digital camera. While the term “Polaroid” may be most strongly associated with amateurs taking snapshots at family or social events, Polaroid photography has been used for professional purposes as well, in fields as diverse as fashion, insurance, real estate, law enforcement, medicine, and dentistry. Some visual artists have also worked with Polaroid cameras, and they played a key role in the plots of several movies, including The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Memento (2000).

Peter Buse’s The Camera Does the Rest: How Polaroid Changed Photography is a well-researched and thorough history of Polaroid photography, covering both the technical aspects of the cameras and their film, and the influence of this technology on society. It's generously illustrated but is by no means a coffee-table book. Instead, it's a serious history and analysis of the Polaroid phenomenon, and each illustration is included to make some point. While not every reader may be interested in all aspects of this story, from the “Eureka moment” that sparked the discovery of Polaroid technology (Land’s three-year-old daughter wanted to see some vacation photos immediately) to the financial troubles which led to the company declaring bankruptcy in 2001, it’s so well written that you may find some fascination even in topics that would not normally interest you.

The Polaroid may be seen as a further development of a trend begun by the introduction of the Kodak Brownie camera around 1900: Both were technical innovations that made photography more popular by making it possible for people without specialized knowledge or skills to take acceptable photographs. Granted, the Brownie had many technical limitations, but it was cheap and sturdy and easy to use, and some great photographers like Vivian Maier got their start with a Brownie or an equivalent camera. Shooting with a Brownie could not have been simpler, and once the film was shot, the user shipped the entire camera back to Kodak, where technicians removed the roll of film, developed and printed the photographs, and loaded another roll of film before shipping the camera back to its owner. The Polaroid took the simplification of the photographic process one step further through the use of film that developed itself on the spot, so the pictures were ready to be seen within a minute or so of being taken.

Like the Brownie, consumer Polaroid models were limited in their technical capabilities, but that was exactly what many people wanted. Take the Swinger, introduced in 1965, whose very name suggests youth and fun and being “with it” in the era of Swinging London. It used a plastic lens within a lightweight plastic body and was perhaps half a step up from a simple a box camera like the Brownie, but consumers didn’t care -- they just wanted to have fun taking pictures, and the Swinger helped them to do that. The Swinger quickly became the best-selling Polaroid model and helped raise the company’s share of the American camera market share from 11 percent in 1964 to about one third by 1966. Also typical of consumer Polaroid cameras, the Swinger automated decisions that a higher-end camera would require the user to make; for instance, thanks to a semiautomatic exposure system that would cause the word “Yes” to appear in the viewfinder when the exposure was correct.

The introduction of digital cameras brought an end to the Polaroid era, and Polaroid cameras have joined vinyl records in the category of obsolete but cool technology. For instance, you can now buy apps that allow you to take a digital picture with your phone that has some of the iconic qualities of a Polaroid, right down to the wide white bottom border and distinctive frame size. The popularity of the resulting “fauxlaroids” just goes to show that some things old really are new again.

7

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

'A Peculiar Indifference' Takes on Violence in Black America

Pulitzer Prize finalist Elliott Currie's scrupulous investigation of the impacts of violence on Black Americans, A Peculiar Indifference, shows the damaging effect of widespread suffering and identifies an achievable solution.

Music

20 Songs From the 1990s That Time Forgot

Rather than listening to Spotify's latest playlist, give the tunes from this reminiscence of lost '90s singles a spin.

Film

Delightful 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' Is Good Escapism

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Bharat Nalluri's 2008 romantic comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, provides pleasant respite in these times of doom and gloom.

Film

The 10 Best Horror Movie Remakes

The horror genre has produced some remake junk. In the case of these ten treats, the update delivers something definitive.

Television

Flirting with Demons at Home, or, When TV Movies Were Evil

Just in time for Halloween, a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber presents sparkling 2K digital restorations of TV movies that have been missing for decades: Fear No Evil (1969) and its sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970).

Music

Magick Mountain Are Having a Party But Is the Audience Invited?

Garage rockers Magick Mountain debut with Weird Feelings, an album big on fuzz but light on hooks.

Music

Aalok Bala Revels in Nature and Contradiction on EP 'Sacred Mirror'

Electronic musician Aalok Bala knows the night is not a simple mirror, "silver and exact"; it phases and echoes back, alive, sacred.

Music

Clipping Take a Stab at Horrorcore with the Fiery 'Visions of Bodies Being Burned'

Clipping's latest album, Visions of Bodies Being Burned, is a terrifying, razor-sharp sequel to their previous ode to the horror film genre.

Music

Call Super's New LP Is a Digital Biosphere of Insectoid and Otherworldly Sounds

Call Super's Every Mouth Teeth Missing is like its own digital biosphere, rife with the sounds of the forest and the sounds of the studio alike.

Music

Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.

Film

15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.

Music

Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.

Music

Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.

Music

Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.

Music

Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.

Film

The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.

Music

British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.

Film

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.