Despite digital cameras delivering ‘instant’ images every time the shutter button is pressed, the instant print continues to appeal, creating a healthy business for Fujifilm with its Instax line, and plenty of investment in the revived Polaroid which, today, is re-creating a number of its original cameras as well as producing new products. There are plenty of other companies selling instant cameras – mostly based on Instax models – or refurbishing classics such as the Polaroid SX70.
Australian Camera profile feature
This article originally appeared in Australian Camera magazine, one of Digital Camera World’s sister titles Down Under. Click here to find out more about Australian Camera magazine, including how you can subscribe to the print issues or buy digital editions.
Is it the fascination with the idea of a unique one-off print? Or is it simply the whole experience of watching an image slowly form before your very eyes, as if by magic? Regardless, the instant camera was a hit from the very start and has remained so ever since, bouncing back from a lull caused by everybody focusing their attentions on digital imaging.
Of course, today’s market is essentially niche and concentrates largely on the fun factor, but at the height of the instant print’s popularity it was also seen as a very fashionable art medium – championed by the likes of Andy Warhol and David Hockney – and it was widely used by professional photographers for checking focus and exposure before committing a shot to film. Most medium format SLR camera systems included a Polaroid back for this purpose and holders were available for 4×5-inch and 8×10-inch large format cameras. Yes, there were 8×10-inch Polaroid instant print films (and it’s also since been revived).
The genius behind the development of the instant photo print – also called the self-developing print – was Edwin Herbert Land, born on 7 May 1909 in the US state of Connecticut, the son of Russian Jewish refugees. From an early age, he was fascinated by the way things work and became something of a menace in his household, dismantling items like the family’s new gramophone player and regularly blowing the home’s electrics with his experiments. At Harvard University, Land studied physics, specialising in optics, but he left before finishing his degree, his eyes set on commercialising what he had learned about the nature of light polarisation and the materials that polarise light. In fact, the characteristics of light had been an obsession since he was in his early teens.
With street lighting still poor or entirely non-existent across most of America, dazzling headlights were the cause of many car accidents in the mid-1920s. Edwin Land set out to find a way of reducing that glare using the principles of light polarisation. He began experimenting with a material called herapathite, a crystalline substance made of iodine and quinine – discovered in the 19th century – which only passed light waves travelling in one plane and filtered out those travelling along any other. If two such crystals were superimposed perpendicularly to each other, all light was blocked from passing through.
However, the problem with herapathite was that it wasn’t possible to grow the crystals any longer than about three millimetres, which was too small to be of any use. Edwin Land’s solution illustrates his capacity for lateral thought. He worked out that a better approach was to use much smaller crystals – in fact, several billion of them per square centimetre – and then coat them in a thin layer onto a transparent sheet. He also found that the best way to obtain an even dispersion of the sub-microscopic crystals was to suspend them in a thick jelly-like substance that was then applied to the sheet… the same principle subsequently applied to his instant film processing reagent.
This breakthrough enabled Land to make the world’s first synthetic sheet polariser, a product with a myriad of applications including windows and, of course, sunglasses. The year was 1928 and Edwin was still only 19. His sheet polariser was patented on 26 April 1929. Keenly aware of the commercial potential of all his inventions, Land was careful to patent everything that could prove useful when he much later took on the might of Kodak over instant film infringements and won. Ironically, in 1934, one of Land’s very first customers for polarising filters was Eastman Kodak.
While he failed to seal a deal with any American car maker for his polarised headlights (turning instead to making an accessory visor for the windscreen that reduced glare), he had far more success with applying the idea to sunglasses, both in selling the technology to others and making polarised sunglasses himself.
As his enterprise started to grow, Land realised he needed a brand name for his product and he turned to one of his key mentors – art history professor Clarence Kennedy – for assistance. It was Kennedy who came up with the “oid” component of Polaroid, derived from the polarising filter’s celluloid base material, but also representative of the suffix meaning ‘likeness’ or ‘similarity’. As it happens, Land wasn’t particularly happy with the name to start with, but stuck with it and, of course, it would eventually become one of the most recognisable brands in the world, ranking alongside Coca Cola and McDonald’s.
Most articles about Edwin Land concentrate on his exceptional scientific prowess – especially his tackling of the many challenges of creating a self-developing print – but he was also a very fine photographer, another of his talents fostered by Clarence Kennedy (also a gifted photographer). He was also a musician – in possession of an excellent baritone voice – and a lover of both art and literature.
As Polaroid evolved into one of America’s leading technology corporations – pretty much the Apple of its day – Land became known for his erudite and thoughtful annual letters to shareholders, which always focused more on his grand visions than the minutiae of the accounts.
Not surprisingly then, Land was an eloquent spruiker of his company and his inventions, helped by the fact that he possessed piercing eyes that gave him considerable physical presence as well. Audiences paid attention.
During the late 1930s, Polaroid developed a range of products based on Land’s sheet polariser, including a 3D movie system first demonstrated in 1939 at the New York World’s Fair. In 1940, and with investors lining up for a slice of the action, Land adopted the Polaroid name for his rapidly growing company – Polaroid Corporation was born. After the USA became involved in the Second World War, Polaroid began supplying polarised goggles to the army, and its 3D system was used in aerial mapping to create prints – called Vectographs – that could be used with polarised glasses to give a realistic reproduction of terrain. Consequently, Polaroid had a good war, with the company expanding significantly thanks to its lucrative military contracts. But with the end of the conflict in sight, Land needed to find something else to keep his workforce – now numbering around 1,200 – in employment.
In 1929 Land married Helen Maislen – who was called Terre by her family and friends – and the couple had two daughters, Jennifer and Valerie. It was Jennifer Land who was instrumental in the next phase of Polaroid’s history. During the family’s Christmas vacation in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1943, Edwin was…
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