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."

And there's something about the gesture--going into his coat pocket and pulling out this black oblong--that looks for all the world like he's got an iPhone.

And this was 42 years ago. This was 1970. And he's making reference to what he pictured in 1944. So he was thinking about this long ago. It's remarkable.

(Footage of Dr. Land's prophetic iPhone moment is included in the book trailer for Instant, in the segment starting at 1:26.)

In the last year or so, things have been interesting at Apple. Have you started to see more parallels, or more divergences between the story of Apple and the story of Polaroid?

The oversimplified version of what happened at Polaroid is that they started to decline when Land left because the next people didn't have any ideas. Some things at Polaroid went well after Land left, other things did not. But after the early 1980s, they never really introduced a new game-changer. They did modifications and revisions of Land's inventions: The film got better, the film got a little bigger, the cameras got a little better, the electronics in the cameras got better. But they never did the next giant thing, which would have been, presumably, the digital camera, or the inkjet printer; something that really would have taken them in a fresh direction and re-established them as a business. Apple did that over and over, and the question now is whether Apple has the next big idea cooking. We haven't seen it yet.

I'm actually confident, because the last couple of years, although Steve Jobs was a presence there, sort of hovering over them and making judgments and being intimidating, he was ill. He was kind of removed from the company, but they kept introducing interesting things. So ... it may be more of a hive mind than Polaroid was. You never know--I've never been inside Apple.

But I would bet that whatever they're going to do in the TV realm is going to be interesting, because there's so much room for improvement. You probably have four remote controls on your coffee table, right? And they each have 37 buttons apiece. They're really annoying. Somebody smart at Apple is thinking about that, and Jobs was before he died. It seems solvable, but nobody has solved it. ... That's the next five years of profits at Apple. I myself would very much enjoy that Apple interface done right, instead of four remote controls on my coffee table. And I'd pay money for it.

Polaroid, like Apple, had its first wave of popularity because it was so futuristic and cool, but then it had a second wave where it was retro-cool.

It's true. When Polaroid film went away, people certainly realized they missed it. And part of me wants to say, "Well, then why didn't you buy it?! They would have kept making it!" But some of it is also that instant pictures are special. They're not like other photographs. The photos you take today, although they're beautiful and bright and much easier than they used to be, they're infinitely reproducible, and therefore feel less valuable sometimes. A Polaroid picture, because there's only one, feels like a precious object. It's more like a painting, in a way.

Also, and I realize this is a little windy and goopy, but it's the actual thing that was there with its subject. If you take a Polaroid picture of your grandmother, or the President, or some other significant figure, the light that bounced off that person and exposed the film, touched the film that came out of the camera. It's a little like that myth that you hear about aboriginal peoples, where they think the camera takes a piece of your soul: The light off your grandmother or the President or whatever, is trapped in the print. It feels special, and it makes it more precious in a way.

Do you have a favorite piece of Polaroid art?

I'm extremely taken with the photos taken by a woman named Marie Cosindas, who's a little less well-known than some of the other photographers in there, but she was really somebody who made extraordinary art out of Polaroid film.

There's a picture of hers in the book of a woman with flowers in front of her. Who's made a Polaroid picture that ever looked like that? That crazy color saturation--she would do things to enhance that. She would put color filters in front of the lens, and while the film was steeping she would put it on top of a warm radiator or something, to overcook it a little. She would do stuff to make it look the way she wanted it to look. She shot portraits that looked like nobody else's portraits. There's that picture, which I just can't get over. And there's a portrait she did of Andy Warhol at the factory that will just blow your head off.

You wrote in your book that Ansel Adams and Walker Evans were interested in Polaroids before they even really caught on. What drew those earliest artists to Polaroid?

Adams wrote textbooks about how to make good pictures. ... He was really interested in the chemistry and technology parts of photography. So when he saw this system in a meeting with Land in 1949, he immediately understood what that amounted to. If you were shooting film in the late 1940s, unless you worked for a big news organization that had a lab on site, or you were in a big city with a fine arts community, chances are you were dropping your film in the mail and sending it to Kodak to be developed. And it took a week. But for this thing to work in 60 seconds, that changes your world. ...

So he met with Land early on, and immediately grasped the significance of the film. So the two of them got on; they really liked each other. Adams was a photographer who understood technology, and Land was a techie who was interested in photography as art, so they had lots to talk about.

So Polaroid cut out the middleman--the lab technician, and the week of waiting for the prints to come back, those were both eliminated. There's a fascinating part of your book about how that created a new kind of intimacy between photographers and subjects.

Oh, yes. There was a certain type of special photography that, people, ah--people really liked.

Totally. Sounds like sometimes it was playful, and sometimes it was a little incriminating.

Yeah. You could do anything you wanted--for better or for worse! It really was part of that scene, too. Just the other night I saw Boogie Nights on TV, and P.T. Anderson very consciously has Polaroid cameras pop up a few times, because it was part of that porn scene. And it also screams 1970, so just about any 1970s movie would have one.

Certain parts of that have the same feel as a modern-day sexting scandal--like when Woody Allen's affair with his stepdaughter was discovered thanks to a stack of nude Polaroids on his mantle.

Oh, yeah. One thing about it that's different, though, is because a Polaroid picture is unique, it's private in a special way. It can't escape. If you lock it in your desk drawer, it stays there! And that, arguably, may make people more willing to pose. Because if you do it with your camera phone, you are one tap away from releasing it to the entire Internet. And, this isn't my cup of tea, I'll tell you, but if I were to get involved in such a thing, I would be very twitchy about a digital photograph. With Polaroid, though, if you grab it coming out of the camera and put it in your pocket, it is yours.

But then again, Polaroid was all about the shared experience of photography.

Well, yes. That's true. It was shared in a lot of ways, though, too--kids responded to instant pictures, especially. My son is three and I take pictures of him all the time. He's seen me reveal pictures all the time, and he talks about them. He appreciates the experience, too.