In 1978, Polaroid employed 20,000 individuals. Today’s staff of 30 barely outnumbers an overcrowded kindergarten class. Despite winning a milestone patent-infringement case against Kodak in 1986 – and a $925 million settlement – the company has since filed for bankruptcy twice. Polaroid stopped making cameras in 2006 and film in 2008 (officially; it may have been quite earlier). Christopher Bonanos, a New York magazine editor and founder of polaroidland.net, grieves the “heartbreaking” loss. Yet his new book, Instant: The Story of Polaroid (Princeton University Press, $24.95) is no love letter or even a preservationist’s plea. It’s a tidy, textbooky, occasionally amusing account of what happened to an emblematic brand, identifying the who, where and why. The dicey question of how loiters with each passing year.
Any saga of success and downfall begins with an origin story. Edwin Land patented his first invention – a sheet polarizer – in 1929. Polaroid formed in the next decade, and Land was its leader for 45 years. He staffed his labs with art history graduates from Smith College, an all-female school, sending women to science classes, producing an army of artist/chemists known as the “Princesses.” The first publicized instant photograph was taken before a crowd of scientists and reporters in 1947, causing a sensation.
Bonanos singles out several reasons for the corporation’s eventual demise: Land never mentored a successor; the Kodak case “required brilliant people to pick over their past when they could have been imagining the future;” executives were chronically out of touch (said one VP, “Electronic imaging is a technology, not a business. Polaroid is not trying to be in the consumer electronics business”); the company failed to bolster products and marketing with its iconic brand name; and in the 90s Polaroid concentrated on goods already available instead of forging ahead in untapped markets (for example: printers).
“Edwin Land was one of Steve Jobs’s first heroes,” writes the late Apple CEO’s biographer, Walter Isaacson, on Instant’s back cover. “Just as Apple stories almost always lead back to Jobs, Polaroid lore always seems to focus on Land,” Bonanos writes. “At Kodak, executives habitually referred to Polaroid as ‘he,’ as in ‘What’s he doing next?’” Both Jobs and Land abandoned college as freshman. Both clashed with the concept of art versus commerce. Both were workaholic visionaries, perfectionists, and uncompromising bosses. “We want to…make the working life of every single American a challenging and rewarding life. Now, I don’t mean that you’ll be ‘happy,’ I mean you are going to be unhappy—and very productive—in exciting an important ways,” Land said at a company Christmas party. How festive.
Land and Jobs were also Barnumesque impresarios who unveiled their new products to the world with flourish. “[Land] once said that he saw his employees as tulip bulbs in the cellar: Bring them out into the world, give them water and light, and an amazing number of them will flower,” writes Bonanos. Fittingly, with little notice before a 1972 shareholders meeting, Land had 10,000 rare tulips shipped from the Netherlands so that guests could test the much labored-over SX-70 camera’s color film.
Instant is not an oral history. Although Bonanos conducted dozens of interviews, his text isn’t waterlogged with quotes. Bonanos delivers a chronological catalog of Polaroid’s past merchandise, embedded in a loose narrative. His language gets very technical, explaining the minutiae of each scientific improvement. I prefer to read art history rather than the mechanics of how art is produced, especially with gadgetry; to me, it sort of ruins the illusion. Bonanos and others will disagree – the magic is in the science. “It’s more than a camera,” he writes. “It’s almost alive.”
I value the lightness Bonanos brought to such intricate material. There are just nine chapters, with almost 60 pages of the book devoted to diagrams, models, and photos (bookended with shots Andy Warhol and Lady Gaga). Instant does not pretend to be an end-all-be-all tome, a trait so common in biographies of deceased celebrities and defunct companies. Bonanos writes with the clout of someone who has actually used and analyzed each variant of film, camera and lens. Credit is bestowed to authors Victor McElheny and Peter C. Wensberg, and Bonanos does not restate the biographical details of Land’s life (as much as I wish he had; much promising insight was lost when Land’s personal effects were—as instructed—burned after his death in 1991). Bonanos footnotes sparingly, but these asides are usually the most fascinating information on the page. And he proves his journalistic refinement by correcting sources without belittling anyone who speaks in err.