Back to the Future: What Makes Polaroids Cool

On Warhol, Boogie Nights, and the Chuck Taylor-cool of the white-framed instant photo. A conversation with Christopher Bonanos, author of Instant: The Story of Polaroid

© Bill Ray; Princeton Architectural Press / Danny Kim; William Wegman Studios; Princeton Architectural Press / The Impossible Project / Bradley Laurent

It's rare for any product to be cool twice. But Polaroid film, with its white-framed, kinda-blurry instant pictures, managed to first represent the bright future of technology and then become a beloved, retro-chic relic of the past.

In his new book Instant: The Story of Polaroid, released this week, author Christopher Bonanos illuminates the rise and fall of Polaroid. It's a history that's both a vastly underappreciated American success story and a cautionary tale for other booming tech companies--most notably a certain Cupertino-based operation called Apple.

Bonanos talked to The Atlantic about Instant, as well as about Polaroid's role in art, its special way of bringing people together (in more ways than one), and its unmistakable fingerprints on today's tech industry.

So when did you know this was going to be a book? Was there a moment where you said to yourself, "Well, this is happening"?

Kind of, yeah. When Polaroid got out of the film business in 2008, I wrote a little story for New York magazine. There was a show at the Whitney [Museum of American Art] of Robert Mapplethorpe's Polaroid pictures, and I thought, "Oh, well, here's a coincidence--a fine arts thing celebrated just as the medium is going away." So I called up a few artists who worked at Polaroid, people like Chuck Close, to comment on it. I thought they would be a little sad to see it go, but instead they were pissed off. A couple of them said, "This didn't have to happen. This was not about obsolescence. This was about greed." And I said, "Well, that's interesting."

The other thing I discovered was that there was a great central character in it, with [Polaroid founder] Edwin Land. Because he's a larger-than-life figure who is a little less well-known today than he ought to be, I think just because Polaroid fell out of the public eye to a great extent. As a writer, when you get a good plot and a good main character, you might have a book.

What do you love about Edwin Land?

He was fascinating in many ways. He was just an idea machine. Everybody who worked with him talks about this ability to invent on demand. There's a story in the book that during the war, with the work that Polaroid was doing during World War II, that a general once called him and said, "Well, we're having this problem with bomb sights." So [Land] said, "Well, I'll get on a train and come down to Washington tomorrow with a solution." And the general said, "You've got something already?!" "No, but I will." [...] He showed up a few days later with a solution that ended up being built by the thousands to go in every bomber. It was a ring sight, which is a basic piece of World War II material.

The other thing that's great is that he was a master explainer to the world of his technology. He really believed that the way you wake people up to science is with a little bit of smart showbiz--that if you do a perfect demonstration that really, really gets into people's heads, they'll understand the science and they'll respond to the product.

This is where the comparisons with Steve Jobs really, really come out. Starting in the '60s, Land would turn the annual meeting of Polaroid into kind of a show. Back then, an annual meeting was usually some dude with a spreadsheet standing at a lectern, giving these financial numbers. Land, instead, would hire a string quartet, or a band, and he'd have sets and lighting, and it would build up and then eventually he would take the stage with the product in hand that was being introduced. By the time he was finished, this thing you never knew you'd wanted was something you had to have.

Needless to say, they internalized this at Apple. For sure.

Totally. That sounds just like the iPhone launches.

Exactly. The iPod launch, too, in 2003. Do you remember that thing that hit you the first time you saw an iPod or an iPhone? Where you just saw it and you were like, "That's what I was looking for. I get it." The Polaroid launches used to have that same ability--to push that button that released pleasure chemicals into your brain.

And you even wrote in the book that Land's dream was for the camera to be something that was as useful and as everyday as the telephone.

That's right. He made a film for his employees where he talked about his vision of photography going back to the 1940s and to the future. And he does. He says, "We're a long way off from a camera that will be like the telephone, something that you carry with you every day the way you use a pencil or your eyeglasses." He says, "I had this idea, back in 1944, that it would be like a wallet." Then reaches into his pocket and pulls out a wallet that's a little taller than it is wide--the old kind that's about the size of a checkbook. And he says, "You'll hold it in front of your eye"--and he holds it there--"and, click, there's your picture."

Presented by

Ashley Fetters is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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