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.