BOOK REVIEW: 'Instant: The Story of Polaroid' : Is the Iconic Company Coming Back from the Dead?

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
BOOK REVIEW: 'Instant: The Story of Polaroid' : Is the Iconic Company Coming Back from the Dead?
 
"Instant photography at the push of a button!" -- Polaroid advertising slogan


  There are those of us who believe there is a place in this digital age for instant photography of the kind pioneered by Edwin H. Land, the genius behind Polaroid.  Christopher Bonanos gives us hope for the survival of instant photography  in this comprehensive look at Polaroid:  "Instant: The Story of Polaroid", Princeton Architectural Press, 192 pages, bibliography, photographs,  index, $24.95). There are many of us who still use film cameras, along with our digital ones, and we like the sound of vinyl on a turntable.

 

    I'm a little behind the curve on this book published Sept. 2012 but, as the owner of two Polaroid platforms -- a permanent NPC film pack on a Pentax 6X7 and a SLR 680  that uses the Impossible project film replacements for Polaroid's discontinued 600 integral film --  I devoured it in one sitting.

 

    Unlike owners of older Polaroid cameras, I can still get film for my NPC back from Fuji, which also markets a line of Instax instant cameras and film. Bonanos, according to an interview in the Boston Globe, also uses a pack Polaroid, a  Model 180, and  a SLR 680. (I bought my  680  from Olympic Camera in Los Angeles in the 1980s. The store location, at Olympic Boulvard and Figueroa Street,  is now occupied by Staples Center.)  It was the last one in stock and I've kept it out of my trading cycle ever since.

 

  During the 1960s and '70s, Polaroid was the coolest technology company on earth, in fact it was the Apple of its day, producing must-have products designed by the likes of Henry Dreyfuss. The similarities the company started in a garage by college drop-outs Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak ( "Woz" dropped out of UC Berkeley in 1976, but went back and earned his engineering degree in 1986) with Harvard  drop-out Edwin Land (1909-1991) who started his company in a Boston-area  garage in 1937 are remarkable.   

 

  Like Apple, Polaroid was an innovation machine that cranked out one must-have product after another.   "Instant" tells how Land developed polarizing devices and, because his daughter wanted photos right now, came up with the camera that changed photography forever.  Polaroid's first instant camera hit the market in 1948, and, despite a vintage sepia color and messy negatives and coatings, experienced a meteoric rise in popularity by the public and artists alike. He gives us a blow by blow chronicle of the company's dramatic decline into bankruptcy in the late '90s and its unlikely resurrection in the digital age.    

 

 
"Instant" is a book about a very unusual company that reached its peak and lost its way, like so many companies both here and abroad. In the 1960s and 1970s, Polaroid was what Apple is today: the coolest technology company on earth, the one with irresistible products, the one whose stock kept climbing way past the point of logic. In its heyday, Polaroid was an absolute innovation machine -- a scientific think tank that periodically kicked out a fantastically profitable, covetable product. The late Steve Jobs expressly said that he modeled his company to a great extent after Polaroid.

 

 



In addition to being a business story that details the woes faced when a company loses its innovative spark "Instant" is a fine-arts story, showcasing the amazing things photographers  from Ansel Adams to Andy Warhol to Chuck Close did with Polaroid film. Lady Gaga,  photographed at the end of the book, has faith in the much down-sized Polaroid and perhaps we eternal analogue optimists should be, too. A wonderful book that even non Polaroid fans should enjoy. 

 


About the author

  Christopher Bonanos is an editor at New York magazine. He has also written for The New York Times, Slate.com and many other web and print media outlets. He lives in Manhattan with his wife and son who appears in hundreds of instant photographs. His website: http://www.polaroidland.net.    //
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