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Thursday, October 18, 2012

Reading List: Instant

Bonanos, Christopher. Instant. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2012. ISBN 978-1-61689-085-8.
The second half of the twentieth century in the developed world was, in many ways, the age of immediate gratification, and no invention was as iconic of the epoch as the Polaroid instant photograph. No longer did people have to wait until a roll of film was full, take it to the drug store to be sent off to a photo lab, and then, a week or so later, see whether the irreplaceable pictures of their child's first birthday came out or were forever lost. With the introduction of Edwin Land's first Polaroid camera in 1948, only a minute elapsed between the click of the shutter and peeling off a completely developed black and white (well, initially, sepia and white, but that was fixed within two years) print. If the picture wasn't satisfactory, another shot could be taken on the spot, and pictures of special events could be immediately shared with others present—in a way, the Polaroid print was the original visual social medium: Flickr in the Fifties.

This book chronicles the history of Polaroid, which is inseparable from the life of its exceptional founder, CEO, and technological visionary, Edwin Land. Land, like other, more recent founders of technological empires, was a college drop-out (the tedium simply repelled him), whose instinct drove him to create products which other, more sensible, people considered impossible, for markets which did not exist, fulfilling needs which future customers did not remotely perceive they had, and then continuing to dazzle them with ever more amazing achievements. Polaroid in its heyday was the descendent of Thomas Edison's Menlo Park invention factory and the ancestor of Apple under Steve Jobs—a place where crazy, world-transforming ideas bubbled up and were groomed into products with a huge profit margin.

Although his technical knowledge was both broad and deep, and he spent most of his life in the laboratory or supervising research and product development, Edwin Land was anything but a nerd: he was deeply versed in the fine arts and literature, and assembled a large collection of photography (both instant and conventional) along with his 535 patents. He cultivated relationships with artists ranging from Ansel Adams to Andy Warhol and involved them in the design and evolution of Polaroid's products. Land considered basic research part of Polaroid's mission, and viewed his work on human colour perception as his most important achievement: he told a reporter in 1959, “Photography…that is something I do for a living.”

Although Polaroid produced a wide (indeed, almost bewildering) variety of cameras and film which progressed from peel-off monochrome to professional large-format positive/negative sheets to colour to all-in-one colour film packs for the SX-70 and its successors, which miraculously developed in broad daylight after being spit out by the camera, it remained, to a large extent, a one product company—entirely identified with instant photography. And, it was not only a one product company (something with which this scrivener has some acquaintance), but a one genius company, where the entire technical direction and product strategy resided in the braincase of a single individual. This has its risks, and when the stock was flying high there was no shortage of sceptical analysts on Wall Street who pointed them out.

And then slowly, painfully, it all fell back to Earth. In 1977, Land's long-time dream of instant motion pictures was launched on the market as Polavision. The company had expended years and on the order of half a billion dollars in developing a system which produced three minute silent movies which were grainy and murky. This was launched just at the time video cassette recorders were coming onto the market, which could record and replay full television programs with sound, using inexpensive tapes which could be re-recorded. Polavision sales were dismal, and the product was discontinued two years later. In 1976, Kodak launched their own instant camera line, which cut into Polaroid's sales and set off a patent litigation battle which would last more than fourteen years and cause Polaroid to focus on the past and defending its market share rather than innovation.

Now that everybody has instant photography in the form of digital cameras and mobile telephones, all without the need of miracle chemistry, breakthrough optics, or costly film packs, you might conclude that Polaroid, like Kodak, was done in by digital. The reality is somewhat more complicated. What undermined Polaroid's business model was not digital photography, which emerged only after the company was already steep in decline, but the advent of the one hour minilab and inexpensive, highly automated, and small point-and-shoot 35 mm cameras. When the choice was between waiting a week or so for your pictures or seeing them right away, Polaroid had an edge, but when you could shoot a roll of film, drop it at the minilab in the mall when you went to do your shopping, and pick up the prints before you went home, the distinction wasn't so great. Further, the quality of prints from 35 mm film on photographic paper was dramatically better; the prints were larger; and you could order additional copies or enlargements from the negatives. Large, heavy, and clunky cameras that only took 10 pictures from an expensive film pack began to look decreasingly attractive compared to pocketable 35 mm cameras that, at least for the snapshot market, nailed focus and exposure almost every time you pushed the button.

The story of Polaroid is also one of how a company can be trapped by its business model. Polaroid's laboratories produced one of the first prototypes of a digital camera. But management wasn't interested because everybody knew that revenue came from selling film, not cameras, and a digital camera didn't use film. At the same time, Polaroid was working on a pioneering inkjet photo printer, which management disdained because it didn't produce output they considered of photographic quality. Imagine how things might have been different had somebody said, “Look, it's not as good as a photographic print—yet—but it's good enough for most of our snapshot customers, and we can replace our film revenue with sales of ink and branded paper.” But nobody said that. The Polaroid microelectronics laboratory was closed in 1993, with the assets sold to MIT and the inkjet project was terminated—those working on it went off to found the premier large-format inkjet company.

In addition to the meticulously documented history, there is a tremendous amount of wisdom regarding how companies and technologies succeed and fail. In addition, this is a gorgeous book, with numerous colour illustrations (expandable and scrollable in the Kindle edition). My only quibble is that in the Kindle edition, the index is just a list of terms, not linked to references in the text; everything else is properly linked.

Special thanks to James Lileks for recommending this book (part 2).

Posted at October 18, 2012 23:51