Before Sexting, There Was Polaroid

The arrival of instant film meant the end of snooping photo-lab technicians—which, in turn, homemade porn for everyone.

Princeton Architectural Press / Danny Kim; Steven Monteau

In 1970, Polaroid founder Edwin Land stood in a factory and proclaimed that in the future, the still camera would be like the telephone. As a crew of cinematographers rolled their tapes, he explained candidly that one day the camera would be "something you use all day long... [something] you would use as often as your pencil or your eyeglasses." Land's dream was for photography to be a shared experience, as well as an action as simple as taking a wallet out of a pocket and tapping a button.

Land essentially prophesied the much-later arrival of the camera phone, as New York magazine editor Christopher Bonanos points out in his new book Instant: The Story of Polaroid. So Land's dream was realized--only not, sadly, in his lifetime.

But just because Land didn't successfully deliver cell-phone photography doesn't mean he didn't usher in a magnificent new era for instant, shareable nudie pics--and Polaroid nudes didn't put photographers or subjects "one tap away" from accidentally sharing their intimate moments with the Internet. In this excerpt from Instant, Bonanos explains how the newfound privacy that came with being able to develop pictures without the help of a photo-lab technician was liberating, sometimes incriminating, and often pretty delightful--for artists, photographers, and scores of playful amateurs at home.

We will never know exactly who first figured out that using a Polaroid camera meant whatever happened in front of the lens never needed to be seen by a lab technician. It is clear, though, that it happened early on. There are plenty of naughty first-generation Polaroid photos out there to confirm that instant photography's success was at least in part built on adult fun. At the time, "camera club" sessions were a popular fad: afternoons with a hired nude model, allowing amateur shutterbugs a few hours to indulge their artsy-prurient sides. Bettie Page, the 1950s pinup, got her start in these places, and pornography historian Joseph Slade has noted even frontal nudity in her Polaroid photos from these sessions. The Kinsey Institute has many such Polaroid pictures on file, too. By the 1960s, ads were appearing in certain magazines for a woman who would pose for nude Polaroid snapshots for a price.

Did Polaroid itself know? Of course. Donald Dery, Polaroid's longtime director of corporate communications, puts it this way: "We didn't acknowledge it, but we always talked about 'intimacy.'" Sam Yanes, who succeeded him in the job, offers a little more detail: "There was a subject-photographer relationship that didn't exist with a regular camera . . . an intimacy, and we felt it was one of our main features. I never saw any research that said X percent of sales went for bedroom pictures, though."

The attraction lingered long past that relatively repressive early era. Woody Allen's scandalous relationship with his not-quite stepdaughter, Soon-Yi Previn, was revealed to the world in 1992 when her mother, Mia Farrow, spotted a stack of nudie Polaroid photos on his mantelpiece. In Russia, between the end of Soviet repression and the arrival of the Internet, Polaroid pornography was huge. It's not clear exactly how much film was destined for X-rated work, but for a couple of those years, Russia accounted for 10 percent of Polaroid's worldwide film sales.

Presented by

Christopher Bonanos is an editor at New York magazine. He is the author of Instant: The Story of Polaroid.

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