Technology of Polaroid
An Analysis of the Technology of the Polaroid Camera
Like any product in American history, the Polaroid camera has its own unique story. From the drive of its inventor to the exhausted avenues of wayward research to the personal inspiration and motivation that finally brought success, the history of the technology of the Polaroid camera is one that bears all the hallmarks of the classic American invention tale — with Harvard, the Great Depression, WWII, World Fairs, automobile manufacturers, and a little girl’s Christmas desire all playing into the mix. This paper will analyze the history of the Polaroid camera by showing how it was invented, what impact it had on society, what the current status of the technology is, and what if any future plans are in store for Polaroid.
The background story begins with Edwin Land, who, after his freshman year at Harvard, dropped out in 1926 “to pursue independent research on polarization” (“Polaroid Corporation”). Land’s efforts paid off with a prototype polarizer that led him back to Harvard three years later to team up with a physics instructor named George Wheelwright III. Together the men invested time and capital in a joint venture that “concentrated on developing polarizing material for no-glare car headlights and windshields” (“Polaroid Corporation”). When the American automobile industry failed to buy (it was the height of the Great Depression), Land and Wheelwright returned to the drawing board.
It was Eastman Kodak who first drew Land-Wheelwright into the photography business when the Kodak company ordered “photographic polarizing filters, later dubbed Polafilters” (“Polaroid Corporation”). Polafilters were made by placing “a sheet of polarizing material between two glass discs, [which] increased contrast and decreased glare in photographs taken in bright light” (“Polaroid Corporation”). The product gave Land-Wheelwright their name “Polaroid” — dubbed by a professor friend from Smith College.
From there Polaroid went on to effect sunglasses, Wheelwright left to join the war effort, and Land continued to market to the automobile industry and come up with new design technology that utilized polarizing filters, including 3-D glasses. Land received several military contracts for various Polaroid inventions, including 3-D simulations, heat-seeking missiles, infrared goggles, lenses, periscope filters, and the Polaroid Vectograph. By the end of the 1940s, however, business was once again low.
How It Was Invented
Then in 1947, everything changed. Four years earlier on Christmas Day, Land’s young daughter “asked to see the photographs her parents had taken earlier,” prompting Land to dream up the idea of “an instant, self-developing film and a camera that would process it” (“Polaroid Corporation”). On 21 February 1947, Land’s team of scientists unveiled the first working prototype at the Optical Society of America. Land presented the camera and “the image of Land peeling back the negative paper from an instantly produced picture of himself made front page news in the New York Times, was given a full page in Life magazine, and was splashed across the international press” (“Polaroid Corporation”). Nine months later, the store shelves were selling out of the five-pound camera, which sold for almost $90.00 a unit. The first film was sepia-toned. This was replaced in 1950 by black-and-white film — but the black-and-white film, to the consternation of the public, turned out to be problematic: it faded. The solution of Polaroid (since it failed to manufacture a “nonfading black-and-white film”) was to supply consumers with “sponge-tipped tubes of a liquid polymer, which the [clients] hand applied to each picture to set the image. This awkward process was not eliminated until 1963. Despite the inconvenience, demand for instant photography held.” (“Polaroid Corporation”).
Impact on Society
The impact on society was considerable. Not only did Land revolutionize the direction of photography, he also changed the way in which Americans viewed their works and recreations. Instant film, like instant everything, helped establish the American need for immediacy — an element that 20th century American philosophers held to be part of the problem with modern culture: it had no patience or interest in studying for or attaining the higher ideals (Weaver 24). It had distractions to while away its time.
But as Andrew Garn intimates, the social impact of the Polaroid camera was also distinctly technological:
When Edwin Land introduced Polaroid Instant Film in 1947, he was unaware that he would anticipate two revolutions in photography. The first was instant photography, where both photographer (and human subject) could sample their image immediately. The second was digital photography, with a different — and less expensive — type of instant image.
Garn observes that Polaroid’s instant film led the way to an even more immediate film processing technique: the digital image. “Ironically, this alternative hastened the demise of Polaroid” (Garn).
Current Status of the Technology
The current status of Polaroid technology is questionable. With the rise of digital filmmaking and photography — Polaroid, once at the height of the photography industry, has plummeted. In the 70s, Polaroid had the SX-70, “the first integrated camera and film system [that allowed] the pictures to develop outside the camera by themselves” (“Polaroid Corporation”). Kodak followed with its EK-4 and EK-6 after severing ties with Polaroid. Law suits followed. Polaroid eventually won $925 million in damages as a result of infringement by Kodak.
In the 90s, Polaroid was attempting to regain its technological footing in the industry as sales failed to mount: new frontiers were examined. Emphasis was placed on “developing youth-oriented instant cameras, such as the I-Zone Instant Pocket Camera, which was a slender camera that produced miniature instant prints. But as digital photography boomed, instant photography “was becoming technologically obsolete” (“Polaroid Corporation”).
Today, Polaroid still has its followers. The Polaroid camera has, in fact, become a kind of vintage novelty — a fad for youngsters and hipsters who want to show off a kind of flair for old school technology. Thus, campaigns like “Save the Polaroid” and “The Impossible Project” follow the latest Polaroid news: “The new licensee of the Polaroid Brand — The Summit Global Group — will re-launch the legendary Polaroid One Step Camera and is therefore commissioning The Impossible Project to develop and produce a limited edition of Polaroid branded Instant Films in the middle of 2010” (Kaps).
Art shows and exhibitions featuring Polaroid pictures are also seen sprouting up in cities across the nation, attracting alternative artists and art fans with a taste for the nostalgic style of Polaroid photos. Hiawatha Bray on the other hand reported in 2008 that “Polaroid Corp., the Massachusetts company that gave the world instant film photography, is shutting down its film manufacturing lines in the state and abandoning the technology that made the company famous.”
But this is where The Impossible Project comes in: starting off as a group of former Polaroid employees, The Impossible Project has grown into a global enterprise to preserve a part of American heritage: Polaroid.
In October 2008 The Impossible Project saved the last Polaroid production plant for integral instant film in Enschede (NL) and started to invent and produce totally new instant film materials for traditional Polaroid cameras. In 2010 Impossible saved analog instant photography from extinction by releasing various, brand new and unique instant films. Therewith Impossible prevents more than 300,000,000 perfectly functioning Polaroid cameras from becoming obsolete, changes the world of photography and keeps variety, tangibility and analogue creativity and possibilities alive. (“About Impossible”)
The Polaroid vision has now taken a new direction and is part of a vision of preservation — a backward looking program rather than a forward looking one. Yet, the Team still plans on looking forward by preserving and developing new film developing techniques.
In conclusion, the history of the technology of the Polaroid camera has been a rise and fall story: the success of Land to find his niche in the photography industry through the development of the instant film preceded newer and greater endeavors such as digital photography, which ultimately put Polaroid out of business. However, Polaroid cameras still have a special place in global society: they are part of a fabric of the immediate past, and photographers still appreciate the unique quality of the Polaroid print. Therefore, The Impossible Project continues to manufacture Polaroid film for those who love and want it.
“About Impossible.” The Impossible Project. Web. 13 July 2011.
Bray, Hiawitha. “Polaroid shutting 2 Mass. Facilities, laying off 150.” Boston Globe. 8
Feb 2008. Web. 13 July 2011.
Garn, Andrew. “Polaroid: Instant Joy.” A.M. Richard Fine Art. 2010. Web. 13 July
Kaps, Florian. “Polapremiun & The Impossible Project.” Save the Polaroid. 13 Oct
2009. Web. 13 July 2011.
“Polaroid Corporation.” Funding Universe. Web. 13 July 2011.
Weaver, Richard. Ideas Have Consequences. IL: Chicago University Press, 1984.
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