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'Instant' Recounts The Magic Of Polaroids

Sep 29, 2012
Originally published on September 29, 2012 3:17 pm



Decades before people would camp out for days, to get the latest next-big-thing in new technology, there was the magic of pictures you could snap and see instantly - or almost. Edwin Land created a company in his garage - sound familiar? - that would be both a success, and an inspiration, to Steve Jobs and other inventive entrepreneurs of a new era, Polaroid. Its products were considered elegant, original and desirable. The company was miles and dollars above any other, in innovative technology. So why couldn't it last into the 21st century?

Christopher Bonanos, an editor at New York Magazine, has written a history of Polaroid - "Instant: The Story of Polaroid." Christopher Bonanos joins us from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

CHRISTOPHER BONANOS: Great to be here.

SIMON: Could you take us back to that moment - 1947, I guess; the Hotel Pennsylvania in Manhattan; and Edwin Land wheels in this mahogany-clad contraption.

BONANOS: That's right. At the very first demonstration, it was at a meeting of a big optical society; and he brought in one of those big-view cameras - the kind you see in pictures from the 19th century; you know, the big wooden thing with a cloth over the head. And they had installed a special back on it, to take prototype instant film. And as the story goes, he pulls a sheet of film out of his camera; and he puts it through a little pair of rollers, to develop it; and 50 seconds later, he peels it off and reveals his own face. And in fact, because they...

SIMON: I feel like I should go (gasps).

BONANOS: Well, the room did. Supposedly, the reporter from the New York Times, who had been hanging out in the back and sort of lightly paying attention, came tearing up the aisle and said, do it again...


BONANOS: ...which he did.

SIMON: How did the Polaroid change taking pictures?

BONANOS: Well, it was a huge revolution, at the time. And people immediately started to play with it. You know, it was a craze from the very beginning. The first camera went on sale in - the year after that demonstration, in 1948. It was rolled out in November. And they sent in a big lot and they said, well, it's the day after Thanksgiving; these should carry you through until Christmas. And they were gone before the store closed that day. So it took off immediately. You know, fine artists began to embrace Polaroid, right from the beginning. One of the first enthusiasts, who saw one of those early demonstrations in the late '40s, was Ansel Adams. And Adams immediately signed on as consultant to Polaroid. And he stayed in that role until the end of his life.

SIMON: Help us understand Edwin Land. Can we safely - in this day and age - refer to him as Steve Jobs-like?

BONANOS: The comparison is very good. One of the things Land knew was that when a new technology that is alien to you is coming along, you're not going to know you want it until you see it. And so one thing he started doing was that he'd take Polaroid's annual meeting, which, you know, annual meetings then were pretty much a guy would get up at a lectern and read a spreadsheet to you and everybody'd go home. He turned it into a show. He had a stage. He had musicians. And he would get up on stage to music and he would show off whatever the new thing was. And Steve Jobs was clearly paying attention to this, as anybody who's ever seen anything about an iPhone launch can attest. The parallels between Polaroid and Apple, in fact, are explicit. Jobs himself said that Edwin Land was one of his heroes.

SIMON: Edwin Land was brilliant, tenacious, in a sense too smart for any educational institution to contain, and he didn't take direction easily.

BONANOS: That is somewhat true. He too dropped out of college, although it wasn't because he had trouble with authority so much that he was just, his mind was racing ahead of his classmates. And he had made this early invention of the sheet polarizer. And his physics TA decided to go off and start a company and make some money off it. It's a little like when Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard to start Microsoft and start selling software. You know, Land was a restless mind. He worked constantly - 20 hours a day sometimes. And he, you know, all sorts of old employees tell stories about getting phone calls from him at 3:30 in the morning because he was sitting there thinking about something - he'd solve some problem and he'd say just blithely, listen, I had an idea, can you come in and meet with me for breakfast at five?

SIMON: And why wasn't Polaroid early on developing some kind of functional digital photo technology?

BONANOS: Well, what's really frustrating is they were. In the late '70s and early '80s, they were thinking hard about it, they went hard at it and a number of things stopped them from commercializing it. But the two biggest were, one, infrastructure - that the whole company was built around the idea of manufacturing film by that time, and as soon as somebody said, well, here's a camera where this is no film, they got a little scared. And then the second thing was that they were worried about quality. You know, if you looked at a digital camera output in 1985, it looked kind of crummy. And you think this is never going to measure up. Technology companies have to really have a sense of the next thing as well as the current thing. You know, when Apple came along with the iPod, it was revolutionary and they immediately started making a fortune. And you could have seen a management culture there where they said, OK, here's what we're going to do. We're going to start making iPods by the millions and we will be coining money for 20 years. Instead, what they did was the phone, which eats the iPod, because there's an iPod in it. And then the iPad, which eats that as well. And so they were willing to leap forward on the next project that, in a certain reading, cannibalized their earlier one. That takes a certain fearlessness, and not all tech companies have it. And that's kind of where Polaroid got stuck.

SIMON: Christopher Bonanos. His new book, "Instant: The Story of Polaroid." Mr. Bonanos?


SIMON: You have your camera there with you?

BONANOS: I do. You want a sound effect?

SIMON: Yeah, please.



UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: Hey, meet the Swinger, Polaroid Swinger. Meet the Swinger. Polaroid Swinger. It's more than a camera, it's almost alive. It's only $19 and 95. Swing it up, it's a jet, takes the shot, count it down, zip it off. Meet the Swinger...

SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.