I would like to talk about the polaroid photo, frowned on by some for its soft blurry image quality yet loved by many for the nostalgia it brings. It’s been with us since the 1940’s and even though there has been so many advances in technology over the years it’s still here. So what gives it its charm, why was it so popular within the arts and will it ever be shunned completely?
The concept of the polaroid photo was created by Edwin Land in 1943 after he took a photo of his daughter and she wanted to know why she couldn’t see it straight away. This opened his eyes to create something new and that same day he came up with the idea of the instant photograph and started the application to patent his idea. This was the start of his journey into creating the Polaroid.
In the meantime, World War 2 came to its end in 1945b and there was a huge demand for cameras, families were welcoming home their soldiers and were wanting to capture their new memories together. They were moving on, putting the past behind them and looking froward to a better future so being able to take photos themselves was really important at that time.
After several years of development in the lab Edwin Land had succeeded in his goal to create the right photosensitive paper with the necessary chemicals to produce an instant photograph. In 1947 he stunned everyone at the Optical Society Of America Meeting with his new creation. This was a massive step for the world of photography.
By 1948 the first ever instant camera – The Model 95 Land Camera had been produced. Polaroid were unsure of how popular it was going to be and concerned that it may have more of a novelty attraction so they only made 57 of them initially. These were released in a Boston department store and sold out within hours.
It was such a huge hit and revolutionised photography for the average person to be able to produce a developed picture within minutes. It is estimated that nearly one million of these cameras were produced making it one of the best selling cameras worldwide of that time. What made it so popular? It definitely wasn’t the price because it cost a lot more than the average amateur camera.
But by the 1960s, half of Americas households owned one. This was Polaroids connection to the art world. It provided the chance for people with no training to be able to create images of their own and was a medium for artistic expression.
After the 1950s lots of industries began to mass produce as consumerism took hold, the design of everything began to change as man-made fibres were introduced, more colours and sleeker designs. This shows in the design of the polaroid camera, by 1977 the One Step Land Camera was released and it was slightly smaller, had a plastic body and a much more modern look to it.
One of Polaroids biggest fans was Ansel Adams who was an American Photographer and Environmentalist. Famous for his black and white landscape photographs of the American West, especially Yosemite National Park. By 1949 he had become a consultant to Land and would test out their new films and products.
Many of his most successful photographs from the 1950’s onwards were made on Polaroid film. Although a devoted fan to black and white photography he also did work in colour and in 1963 when Polaroid introduced their first colour film he went on to work with this but never felt he became a true master of colour.
When Land saw how useful Adams was in suggesting improvements to their products he began Polaroids Artist Support Programme which offered grants of cameras and film to artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol to really test their products to the limits. This at the same time provided a medium for some very creative pieces of art to be made.
For Andy Warhol this opened up a whole new realm of taking pictures, he would document everything in his life, every social occasion he would create a visual diary. He built a vast collection of celebrity polaroid portraits such as Mick Jagger, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dolly Parton, Debbie Harry to the mundane stills of cabbage patch dolls and the iconic soup cans.
These were the starting point for his Pop Art. He carried a polaroid camera from the late 1950’s until his death in 1987. He was a true lover of the instant, one of a kind, moments capturing polaroid. He documented his life like Instagram using his polaroid camera as someone would an iphone today.
Which brings me to Steve Jobs and the amazing mind behind Apple, his true belief was to bring new and innovative products to the world. He had a huge admiration for Edwin Land and both of them had this ability to not invent products but discover them. They both said that their products had already existed, its just no-one had seen them before and they were the ones to discover them.
So there are many similarities between Apple and Polaroid. Both companies introduced innovative products that redefined the markets of their time, they emphasised good design and usability and were always one step ahead. But as far as the polaroid photo is concerned, would the prints ever reach the standards of more modern digital comparisons and would we want them to?
Polaroids have been used for casting shoots and models portfolios renowned for their instant nature, ease of use and close representation of the subject. But at the same time they have been cast aside by some photographers, for example, Rankin who says ‘Polaroids are so slow’ He used to use them earlier in his career but like many photographers much prefer the digital alternative to shoot more frames per minute.
Polaroids have been used in films as well. the took a starring role in the film Memento. They provided clues along the way as the story unravels itself. Leonard, who has no way of holding onto his memories anymore takes polaroids to mark events and places to help him find his wife’s murderer. They were the closest thing he had to a moment in time.
So i think the Polaroids will be here to stay, everyone wants to take photos of every aspect of their lives these days and share it with the world via Facebook or Instagram. And hopefully there will always be a place for the instant photo…something you can keep in your purse, stick on your wall or in an album.
It will always have its place on my shelf anyway thats for sure. I will admit…i love digital photography, i love the accuracy and ability to be able to post process images quickly and easily on the computer. But there is something that the Polaroid photo oozes when it is in your hand- and that’s its authenticity.
The light from that very moment has burnt the emerging image before you onto that paper and it is like as close as you can get to stealing a moment in time and for me that’s what photography is all about.