Instant gratification was big with Edwin Land. He's the guy who invented the Polaroid instant camera. This was in the dark days before digital photography, where avid snappers either had to send their film to a lab for developing, or spend hours in a dark room inhaling toxic fumes from various chemicals. Or wield their trusty Polaroid, click, whirr and wait for a few seconds.
Land was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on May 7, 1909, the son of a scrap metal merchant. After a year studying chemistry at Harvard, Land left for the bright lights of New York City where he embarked on the task of inventing polarizing filters, sneaking into Columbia University's laboratories late at night. He went on to form a company that subsequently became the Polaroid Corporation in 1937. His light polarizing technology not only lent itself to photography and sunglasses, but it was also used in those glasses worn for 3-D movies and color animation in Wurlitzer jukeboxes. Land also contributed inventions for the military in World War II, including passive guidance for the first-ever smart bombs and a system to reveal camouflaged enemy positions.
Once Land had an idea, he would work and work at it, experimenting and brainstorming until all the problems were ironed out. This meant sometimes forgetting to eat, and certainly not wasting time to change his wardrobe. Land once went for an 18-day stint in the same clothes, with different teams of research assistants being replaced as they became too tired (or perhaps until they couldn't stand the smell any longer).
One thing to come of out such a marathon session was the instant camera. It became known as the Land Camera and was first demonstrated in 1947. On the run-up to Christmas 1948, Polaroid put 57 units and a stock of film into the Jordan Marsh department store in Boston. The whole lot sold out on the first day. In fairness, it was Land's daughter Jennifer that started the whole self-developing shebang when she asked her father: "Why can't I see the photographs now?" It must be cool to have an indulgent inventor as a dad.
The idea behind it was the use of diffusion transfer to move the dyes from the negative to the positive by employing a re-agent. A negative sheet is exposed inside the camera, then lined up with a positive sheet and squeezed through a set of rollers. This was still black and white, remember. Color Polaroid film came out in 1963, using three layers of emulsion sensitive to blue, yellow and red.
All this still involved waiting for up to 30 seconds before peeling away one side to reveal the image below. After what must have been yet another multi-day stint foregoing showers and suppers came the integral film in 1972, which combined all the various dyes, chemicals and fixatives to perform the magic of seeing a photo develop before one's very eyes.
The cameras themselves also went through several evolutions, from the original bellows-type to a fully automatic version that would set the focus, aperture and flash for the quintessential point-and-shoot experience. The SX-70 was the first to use integrated film. This was a camera that folded into itself when not being used to protect the lens. It also used sonar for its automatic functions.
Something doesn't become an icon just because it's clever. It has to speak to the times and, if possible, transcend its original purpose. Certainly the hedonism that began in the 1960s and became a juggernaut in the '80s gave rise to the "We want it all and we want it now" attitude, where instant pics could satisfy narcissism and impatience simultaneously. Yet the Polaroid did better than that. It became an artist's medium.
British artist David Hockney created collages of a single scene with hundreds of Polaroids. One of them-"Pearlblossom Highway 11 - 18 April 1986"-is 6.5 feet tall and 9.25 feet long. Another Limey, Gerald Scarfe (the man responsible for those scary illustrations in Pink Floyd's "The Wall") would take Polaroids of politicians and celebrities and then manipulate the image as it developed to create the grotesque caricatures he's famous for. He called them "Paranoids." Even hip R&B band Outkast sang about shaking it like a Polaroid picture in their hit "Hey Ya" as late as 2003, when pixels had already marched into town and given the public digital photography.
So is digital the end of the Polaroid as we know it? The company itself still makes cameras (the One600 Classic costs $59.90 from Amazon), pro photographers still use them for test shots when working with medium- or large-format cameras, and there's a bunch of enthusiasts who have bought some of Polaroid's old equipment to keep the icon alive.
There's a rich, almost otherwordly quality to Polaroid pictures that mere binary language still can't quite replicate. Whole websites are dedicated to them. And there's still something about having a tangible hard copy to look at. How many people print out their digital pics? That might soon change; now the company produces a digital camera with a built-in printer. But it would be unwise to write the Polaroid instant camera's obituary just yet.