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How Polaroid Re-imaged the Way People Take Photos

June 9, 2017

Polaroid was invented by an American engineer named Dr. Edwin Land. Since its introduction in 1948, it has completely revolutionized the film/photograph industry in a way that no one had seen before. In the old days, people had to wait for days or even weeks to collect their pictures at photo shops.

 

By using Polaroid, they could immediately see the photo printed on a piece of shiny thermo sensitive card. People from all age groups adored the new device and immediately helped to turn the company into the reds with millions of units sold within the first few years. The success story at Polaroid continued for decades till the digital era of the 21st century when digitalization swept across industries making Polaroid seems like a

machine from the past.

 

Polaroid company was originally formed in 1937 producing automobile headlights subsidized by government contracts. However, the demand has dropped significantly after the end of WWII in 1947. Dr. Edwin Land, despite of having numerous patents of his own, had to come up with a new completely new product to save the company from bankruptcy. Inspired by his daughter’s idea of seeing the photo “right away” after taking it, he had spent nearly three years developing the very first Polaroid instant camera.3 The technological breakthrough was seemed by many as miracles at the time. People were fascinated by the fact that one could transform an image onto a piece of paper in an instant. Children, in particular, were in love with the device that they were the biggest driver behind the sharp increase in sales. Kids would pose different facial expressions or body movements in front of the Polaroid so their parents could capture these treasured moments and share with everyone right away.

 

Land’s invention let people developed families’ photographs in their own hands. Meanwhile, he gave artists free access to these cameras and asked for the prints they produced in return.4 As Sotheby's photography department director Denise Bethel said in the report: "In the 50's and 60's, the artists would exchange their prints for the use of Polaroid cameras. The invention had influenced the history of photography, aesthetics and contemporary art. Polaroid raised everyone's expectations for instant results. It prepared the digital age, it was a psychological step to the digital world."5 During Polaroid photography’s heyday in 1970s, artists like Andy Warhol, David Hockney, and Robert Mapplethorpe all shot thousands of Polaroid pictures. The impact was far greater than Dr. Edwin Land originally thought, it not only brought in huge financial success to his company but, most importantly, generated the passion for love and art at a post war time in America. Due to the success of this invention, the company was able to turn around and started making profits again. 

 

Dr. Land who holds 535 United States patents was a Harvard dropout but later received an honorary doctorate degree from Harvard University for his contribution to the world of science and the country. He had assisted several American presidents on technology and even effectively created the famous U-2 spy plane. Richard Nixon once ever asked out of his admiration towards this genius scientist:” How do we get more Dr. Lands?” People often compared Dr. Land with Apple’s founder Steve Jobs. In many ways, Land and Jobs both shared the relentless pursue of perfection on their way to success despite that they are decades apart in managing their businesses. Both of them devoted much of the time and resources into R&D and believed in change the way people see things for a better future. “He is a national treasure.” once quoted by Steve Jobs who had more than once expressed his respect to Dr. Land. As Christopher Bonano mentioned in his book, Land’s philosophy was: “Do some interesting science that is all your own. And if it is manifestly important and nearly impossible, it will be fulfilling, and maybe even a way to get rich.” 

 

Unfortunately, Polaroid closed down its factory in 2008 and ended the analog era of instant film taking. Digitalization has created a whole new chapter across many different industries. By using digital cameras, people can get feedback even faster without extra cost for films. However, the way people interact with Polaroid is much more different from digital camera. People can have conversations while waiting the pictures revealed. The small shiny card draws everyone’s attention at the same time, and it can be handed over as a gift to memorize the event. Nowadays, Fujifilm took over most of the instant camera business and a few people who passionate with this outdated product are still trying to reinvent and combine it with the digital age.

 

Reference:

Paterson, Leigh. “The Polaroid genius who re-imagined the way we take photos.” Produced for the

BBC, 23 January 2013 http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-21115581

Connolly, Kevin. “Snapshot affair: the enduring power of the Polaroid” BBC News, New York, 22 June

2010, http://www.bbc.com/news/10355526

Blout, Elkan. “Polaroid: Dreams to Reality.” Periodical of the MIT Press, Daedalus, Vol. 125, No. 2,

Managing Innovation (Spring, 1996), pp. 39-53

Connolly, Kevin. “Snapshot affair: the enduring power of the Polaroid” BBC News, New York, 22 June

2010, http://www.bbc.com/news/10355526

“Warhol self-portrait among Polaroid sale records” BBC News, From the section Entertainment & Arts,

23 June 2010 http://www.bbc.com/news/10388914

Bonanos, Christopher. Instant: The Story of Polaroid. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2012,

Ch1, pp. 2-4

Bonanos, Christopher. Instant: The Story of Polaroid. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2012,

Ch1, pp. 10

Bonanos, Christopher. Instant: The Story of Polaroid. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2012,

Ch1, pp. 2-4

 

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