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By Chris Dannen | 01-03-2011 | 10:00 AM
In 1927 a young Edwin Land journeyed to Harvard College from his home in southern Connecticut, intending to study chemistry. He dropped out after his freshman year and moved to New York City, where he would spend days in the public library and nights sneaking into Columbia University labs to use their equipment. The result was seminal: in 1929, Land invented polarizing film capable of cutting glare, returning to Harvard triumphantly the next year. He still never finished a degree.
After getting funding from Wall Street investors and the Harvard professor that would become his partner, Land established his labs in 1932, arriving at the name "Polaroid Corporation" in 1937. The first Polaroid materials were used in 3-D movie glasses and Wurlitzer jukeboxes of the 1940s, to create the color animation around the perimeter. During World War II, Land helped the U.S. military develop the first passively-guided smart bombs, and invented the Vectograph, a viewing device that helped reveal enemy positions in aerial photographs.
In 1947, Land invented the first of what would be come a historic line of cameras. Called the "Polaroid Land Camera Model 95," this leather-bound beauty produced instant prints inside the camera in about one minute. This would become the technology that would distinguish Polaroid cameras from 1947 to 1983. Early versions required two rolls of film be spooled inside the camera -- positive and negative.
This is the Polaroid Land Camera 800, a model produced between 1957-1962. By this time, Land had added the now-common topside viewfinder and a more compact bellows. But "The 800," as it was lovingly called, was still a far cry from the modern Polaroid: it still used that cumbersome two-spool "Polaroid Picture Roll Land" film, which the company only ceased to make in 1992.
Starting in 1963, subsequent versions of the Land Cameras combined the two-roll film system into one easy-loading pack that shot eight photographs. This Land Camera 320, produced between 1969-1971, had a pull-tab on the left side of the camera body. After an exposure, pulling this tab released a "sandwich" of sheets containing the photograph, which had to develop outside the camera (or in your pocket, if the temperature was below 60F). Unlike prior Polaroids, this high-end camera ditched its plastic body in favor of an all-metal, tripod-compatible chassis, and also featured an automatic shutter and a Zeiss range-finder to aid in focusing. Film for these cameras ceased production in 2009, although Fujifilm still produces a version of the Pack film that works inside Land cameras from this era.
The SX-70 was Polaroid's first instant SLR camera: the forerunner of later iconic Polaroid cameras. But the SX-70 was also a marvel of industrial design: it collapsed to fit inside a man's suit pocket despite a split-image rangefinder, 35mm lens and disposable flash bar. Later models came with sonar-based auto-focus, eliminating the need for the range-finder, and the flash was upgraded to be non-disposable. These models were the first truly "instant" Polaroid cameras, complete with "integral" film packs that abandoned the the three-sheet "sandwich" in favor of a single print that developed in sunlight.
In 1977, Polaroid launched their first instant movie camera, the Polavision system. Though it was based on the Super 8mm standard, the instant development process was considered unduly complex compared to competing systems from Kodak, and consumers weren't thrilled with the camera's dark, murky images. While the product itself was considered a commercial failure, the brooding aesthetic of the Polavision system found a home with artists like Charles and Ray Eames, Robert Gardner and Andy Warhol. Still, Polaroid shuttered the operation in just a year, writing down a $15 million loss as newfangled video cameras won market share. It wouldn't be the last time Polaroid underestimated emerging technologies.
In the 1980s, Polaroid struggled to maintain its pragmatic edge as 35mm cameras became smaller and more compact. Struggling to maintain its cultural capital, the company produced cutesy models like this 1988 Cool Cam, which cost about $50. Polaroid's new improved 600-series film was introduced in the late 80s, but it the final version that the company would make, ending production of the film in 2009. Luckily, a group of Polaroid enthusiasts called The Impossible Project would continue the production of Polaroid 600 replica film, so you can still get your hands on it today.
By the turn of the millennium, cheap, ubiquitous digital cameras had finally toppled Polaroid's last remaining niches: passport photos and kids' cameras. In 2001, the company filed for Chapter 11 -- the one that allows for re-organization -- but the principals of the company chose to sell all the remaining assets, including the Polaroid brand, to a private reinvestment company. It looked as if Polaroid might be dead, but all that changed in 2008 when the remnants of the company re-organized to focus on digital media and hired Lady Gaga as creative director in January 2010. Pictured is Polaroid's new 12 megapixel camera, unveiled at this year's CES.
Part of a new suite of products called Grey Label, Gaga and Polaroid also showcased a set of camera sunglasses with two embedded 1.5" LCD displays. The glasses act as a wearable camera, and can snap pictures, be pre-loaded with slideshows and video, and are meant to enable real-time photo sharing.
By the iPhone era, the digital cameras that had felled Polaroid were themselves under threat as more and more consumers used their phone to snap photos. Thus began a new era in the Polaroid saga, as iOS developers reinvented the Polaroid aesthetic in hit apps like Polarize, Instagram and Postage. Yes, there were lawsuits, but they were mostly sound and fury: that famous Polaroid look now belongs to all of us.
Modern-day Polaroid still makes sunglasses, TVs, digital cameras, LCD picture frames and light bulbs -- as well as digital instant cameras like this one, the Pogo. For $200, it will shoot 5.0MP images and spit out sticky-backed prints from the right-hand side of the device in about 40 seconds, all without using liquid ink.
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