Instant Photography Before the Digital Era

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

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.

RATING 7 / 10