The Afterlife of Polaroid

The Afterlife of Polaroid

The company presents a case study in photography as a phenomenon of the instantaneous.


Peter Buse, the head of the School of Performance and Screen Studies at Kingston University in London, has previously written on such non-kitschy topics as the influential poststructuralist journal Tel Quel and The Arcades Project by Walter Benjamin. The Benjamin connection is especially apropos, for as Buse explains in the introduction to The Camera Does the Rest, his new study of the Polaroid camera’s influence: “Benjamin saw the key to modern culture in the detritus it left behind—objects, locations, and architectural forms that have gone out of fashion…. Only when they are decaying or at the point of vanishing, do they begin to disclose their secrets.” Like its pre-digital contemporaries “the Sony Walkman, the Kodak slide Carousel, the cassette tape,” Polaroid is a technology whose sun has set. It casts long shadows nevertheless, and in this afterglow Buse pursues two lines of inquiry, both fascinating, though they’re not always wholly integrated into a single argument.

Buse’s first aim is to present an episodic history of the Polaroid Corporation, with an emphasis on its self-portrayal across six decades of design and advertising strategy, an account facilitated by extensive access to the now-bankrupt firm’s archives. Similar ground was covered by Christopher Bonanos in Instant (2012), but Bonanos didn’t venture into Buse’s second area of interest: a more speculative discussion of Polaroids compared with other types of photographs generated through other processes, from daguerreotypes to Instagram. Thinking with Buse about Polaroid as a company, we scan the landscape of 20th-century technical and commercial innovation, populated by figures like founder Edwin Land—“often held up as the last of the American inventor-heroes,” a link between Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs—as well as longtime company consultant Ansel Adams, who fought against the tendency, in-house and in consumers’ minds, to treat the instant image as an idiot-proof fad.

Thinking about Polaroid as a specific kind of photograph, meanwhile, we seek in Benjaminian fashion to understand what the stiff, white-bordered, black-backed picture ejected from a big, square, whirring camera can disclose about photography in general. Should we understand a photographic document as being first and foremost an artifact of memory, a light-written ghost? Or is it more important to stress its status as a material thing created from pigment, silver, emulsion, paper, plastic, glass, silicon sensors, pulses of electricity? Or is the photograph primarily an opportunity to take or make, an arena for a special type of action? The Camera Does the Rest, with its focus on doing, argues for the latter. This is not entirely convincing by the end; for as Buse himself shows, to watch the Polaroid “as it magically fade[d] up from a gray green murk” was already to watch the moment becoming history.

“Who, of a certain age, cannot recognize a Polaroid?” Buse asks, adding that the name has come to signify in a way that other brand names do not; one would not speak of “a shoebox full of Kodaks, a compromising Fuji, a cherished Ilford.” In fact, there never was just one Polaroid. The company was founded in 1937 to produce polarizing filters for military goggles and other visual-assistance hardware. A few years later, according to company lore, Land’s little daughter asked why she had to wait to see the photos her father snapped. Land took up the quest for undelayed photographic gratification, and—establishing a pattern that would govern Polaroid’s fortunes for good and ill until it filed for Chapter 11 in 2001—the firm invested years of research before launching the first instant camera in 1947. A decade later, camera and film sales accounted for 97 percent of its revenues, a dominance that lasted until the mid-1990s, when digital imaging came to the fore and the exhaustive research and development that had sustained Polaroid as nonpareil began instead to hamper its adaptability.

In the interim, the company produced cameras for customers across a wide range of economic classes and specialist knowledge, from budget-conscious amateurs to luxury-seeking dilettantes and exacting cognoscenti. This uneasy positioning between cheap-and-easy and cutting-edge could take on a gendered cast as well as a class-conscious one; Land reminded his designers in the 1950s that their product “must be kept simple, mother-proof,” and in 1965 the Swinger model was pitched to teenagers by a bikini-clad Ali McGraw, who spent more time in TV ads twirling the jaunty plastic box by its wrist strap than she did pressing its shutter. Type 55 film, conversely, was developed in 1958 for (presumptively male) professional photographers like Adams, who insisted on having a viable negative; the classic Polaroid print, with its integral negative and rip-off sheath, was positive-only, one-of-a-kind. The Captiva, Polaroid’s final design innovation, debuted in 1992: It incorporated a transparent reservoir into which new prints ejected, in part to protect them while the operator worked, but also to serve as a perversely after-the-fact analog variant of the preview screen already standard in digital cameras.

* * *

The most famous Polaroid camera was the SX-70, announced in 1972 via a promotional film commissioned from Charles and Ray Eames, and advertised on television by Sir Laurence Olivier. (He stipulated that the spots air only in the United States.) Land envisioned a high-end clientele, and the collapsible camera’s exterior panels were surfaced in cowhide. The SX-70 was a status symbol, but it was also a truly ingenious apparatus for color photography, which in the early 1970s was not yet widely accepted as an aesthetic pursuit. This ultimate point-and-shoot thus solicited unorthodox exploration. Buse notes that “Curious SX-70 users popped them in toasters or freezers to see how they would respond. They scratched the image while it was still developing, added thumb-prints and painted on it,” or squeezed its molten dyes into abstractions. Andy Warhol shot with an SX-70, as did David Hockney, André Kertész, Robert Mapplethorpe, Lucas Samaras, and—more surprisingly—Walker Evans and Minor White. Polaroid embraced its role as patron and, spurred on by Adams, developed a generous Artist Support Program, distributing free film and equipment, as well as invitations to experiment with a massive 20-by-24-inch camera in a dedicated studio near the company’s corporate headquarters in Cambridge, down the street from MIT. Adjacent was a gallery for display of the Polaroid Collections, including photographs by Chuck Close, Mary Ellen Mark, John Waters, Carrie Mae Weems, and William Wegman. In the 1980s, in collaboration with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the company deployed a gargantuan 40-by-80-inch camera to print facsimiles of paintings, and Polaroid remained a sustaining advertiser for the fine-art photography magazine Aperture (which was edited by White) for 40 years.

All the while, of course, friends were laughing over instant snapshots passed around at parties, and shutterbugs whose tastes would have shocked the drugstore photo-finisher were shooting and sharing explicit pictures in bedrooms. Polaroid systems manufactured ID cards, documented crime scenes, assisted real-estate agents and insurance adjustors, monitored film-set continuity, and expanded the reaches of micrography. How, then, did the business go so wrong?

Polaroid, explains Buse, did not “sleepwalk into the digital era”; it saw what was coming and, “as early as 1980, when the OneStep was the world’s best-selling camera, and Polaroid was reaping the benefits of simplified SX-70 technology, the company applied for patents for an electronic camera.” Yet its perfectionistic research culture slowed production, and while the firm was “accustomed to holding a monopoly over instant photography, protected by a wall of patents, [it] held no such advantage in digital imaging.” When the digital PDC-2000 finally launched in 1996, more than 40 competitors had already entered the market. Worse, Polaroid had doubled down on a “doomed hard-copy wager”: Convinced that users of all stripes would always desire a physical print to hold, the company concentrated on developing scanners and other peripherals to relay the image from virtual to tangible to replicable—precisely the intermediate steps that networked data had rendered obsolete.

Polaroid declared bankruptcy on October 12, 2001. Its name was licensed to other firms, including Fuji, whose Instax camera and film were rebranded as Polaroid 300 for sales in the United States. The Polaroid Collection was auctioned at Sotheby’s, and the corporate archives donated to Harvard Business School. (With devastating precision, Buse observes that the short-term CEO and chairman who presided over this dismantling received “one-off payments of $8.5 million and $12.8 million, respectively,” while “approximately 6,000 retirees who had lost benefits” got checks for $47 each.) Then, in 2008, a Dutch-Austrian enterprise dubbed the Impossible Project bought up as much of the remaining film stock as it could get its hands on, along with the last functioning film-production facility, in the Netherlands. While serving as a distribution hub for refurbished cameras and leftover packs of original film, the start-up began to rebuild Polaroid’s supply chain and reinvent its film under its own name. Proclaiming an intention “to re-design analog photography for a digital generation,” the Impossible Project has taken as its motto Land’s dictum: “Don’t undertake a project unless it’s manifestly important and nearly impossible.” One can now download an app from the Impossible Project’s website and use it to crop and edit a smartphone image, print that image on Impossible instant film, pass it back through the app’s scanner, and retransfer it to a digital device to be shared (again) online.

* * *

Why would anyone do this? Aside from the nostalgic, kitschy pleasure of entertaining the hard-copy wager when more efficient options are ubiquitous, Polaroid in its afterlife presents a case study in photography as a phenomenon of the instantaneous. Photochemically or photoelectrically, by tintype or iPhone, fixing a split second of living presence into a likeness that can be filed away or passed from hand to hand is to enter a sphere in which ephemeral experience, stilled object, and persistent memory—the phases or aspects of photography that Buse differentiates—blur back into one another. A Polaroid, Buse argues, “like any photographic image, has a complex and vexed relation to memory and the past; but its memorializing capacities are arguably not its main attraction three minutes after it has been made.” Returning to the point, he proposes that “the act of photographing is just as important as, if not more important than, the resulting photograph…. in the process of its making there is an element of duration, a live moment.”

This last statement is undeniable, as far as it goes. But a “live moment” underpins other photographic acts too, and the demand to access the image instantly, shared by Land’s daughter and any Instagrammer, suggests not a lack of interest in freezing and re-encountering a blip of lost time, but rather an obsession with doing so. Polaroids shortened the distance between choosing a moment to frame and the alienating, beguiling opportunity of seeing that moment’s effigy flattened and miniaturized into a thing that could be stockpiled. And the shortened waiting period, in turn, catalyzed certain picture genres: the party Polaroid, the pornographic Polaroid, the Polaroid as icebreaker with standoffish kids, celebrities, or strangers. But being instantaneous, it turns out, is malleable, scalable. Polaroids intensified the sense of photographs as verbs, not nouns, but they didn’t create it.

In a similar vein, the digital afterlife of what Buse calls “Polaroid values” suggests that objects are sometimes more protean than his book allows. Buse tells a great story about the corporation’s 1972 report to its shareholders. Each copy of the prospectus—40,000 in all—came adorned with its own photograph of the same red rose:

The rose was ostensibly chosen to show off the film’s handling of tricky reds and delicate detail, as well as the close-focusing capacities of the SX-70 camera. Forty years on, it is not these features of the rose print that give us pause. It is instead the thought that every single one of these 40,000 prints had to be individually produced….

A kind of madness, then, but also a perfect lesson in what an extraordinary device Polaroid had invented: a machine for making unique photo-objects….

In vividly emphasizing this extravagant investment in nonvirtual materiality, Buse in effect clouds his thesis about photography as an act. For here the action and its traces fuse—each one an individual act, performed 40,000 times.

The result, to return to Walter Benjamin’s territory, is a recalibration of that subtle and potent energy called aura. For the modernist melancholic, writing in 1935, aura is constituted by a singular entity’s irreducible “presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” This would seem very simple: Either the painting, building, or manuscript—or the positive-only Polaroid with its gelatinous, saturated depths—is right here, now, or it isn’t. It can’t be copied—or perhaps it can, but the copy isn’t it: The copy has no aura, because the live increment of human effort expended in making the auratic original cannot be replicated. A rose is a rose is a rose, but only if photographed one at a time.

This, however, is where the materiality of photographs—even the regular kind, with negatives, or the digital kind, proffered to the eye through a glass screen framed in plastic and backed by silicon photoreceptors—reasserts itself. Buse discusses “a growing group of ‘photo-materialists,’ who study what they call photo-objects.” The analyses of such critics, among them Elizabeth Edwards and Janice Hart (whom Buse quotes), reinvest “photographs of all sorts with their own ‘aura’ of thingness.” “It is not by chance,” he adds, “that this critical turn coincided with the rise of digital photography.” Coded simulacra induce a longing for the sensually palpable; at the same time, daily lives populated by computerized cameras, phones, tablets, cars, coffeemakers, and nuclear reactors remind us that computers and their outputs are things too. Just as the action of taking a photo and the trace—say, a rose—that a photo preserves are hard to keep neatly separate, the distinction between the photo as a singular physical object and a duplicable unit of information threatens to erode. Indeed, even the one-of-a-kind Polaroid flirted with replication: Customers could send their prints to a copy service at Cambridge HQ, and well before the Captiva’s plastic print holder mimicked the digital preview screen, experts like White and Adams touted the instant print’s feedback capacities. “With digital photography,” as Buse puts it, “the photographer does not have to wait to complete a whole roll of film before he or she discovers a mistake or an interesting effect, but this potential for shooting, seeing, and shooting again was already present in Polaroid image-making.”

The photo-materialist impulse, in any case, isn’t exclusive to media scholars. When I discuss the aura with undergraduates, they grasp the exclusively-here-exclusively-now absolutism of Benjamin’s premise. But they usually want to talk instead about what might be termed Aura 2.0: They want to explore the ways in which the coded, authorless, mass-circulation image can reacquire individuality and locatedness like a patina, becoming not just any copy but this copy, uniquely stained and creased or file-corrupted, or simply irreplaceably familiar, idiosyncratically one’s own. If Polaroid taught the photographing public to understand the one-off, auratic image as being, paradoxically, produced by a machine, then the digital image teaches the same lesson from the opposite direction. The infinitely duplicable photo can still assert its elegiac specificity, its material connections to life lived in time and space.

We have, then, a sense that distinctions are weakening between singular and plural, between that which is sui generis in an actual, verifiable way, and that which is marked as personal only through proximity and habit. Is this just another way of discussing the photograph or the camera as fetishized commodities? The Swinger jingle, selling the promise that the instant image could hang out with you, respond to you, implied yes: “It’s more than a camera / It’s almost alive / It’s only 19 dollars and 95.” The Camera Does the Rest meditates further on this will to invest the photograph with a lifelike, embodied volatility when it addresses the persistent myth—demonstrably untrue—that Polaroids are particularly apt to fade:

Whether or not Polaroid snapshots actually fade is almost beside the point: their meaning in culture is as that which fades, and a collective hallucination of their fading follows on from this…. Polaroid images, generated quickly and consumed on-the-spot, have been judged against the principle that living fast means dying young.

One may debate the relative powers of the photograph when treated as a memento, or as a tangible object, or as a social act—and the history of the company reads like a précis of popular image technology in the 20th century. But, as Buse demonstrates, in being so different from so many other kinds of photographs, the Polaroid helps to reveal what photography has been, and what it does.

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