For anyone who’s spent time developing pictures, spooling and dunking tanks, rinsing, tilting, waiting, mixing, measuring, weighing, washing, squinting, fumbling, while sitting in the dark listening to the shortwave radio and scribbling notes about dilutions and diminishing chemical strengths; what Dr. Land did on stage in those 5 seconds in 1972 was nothing short of a miracle. Up to that point, making a picture was always a very tangible process. Trying to insure the room was black, the temperature was stable, plenty of fresh water, everything in its place and our muscle memory reliable and competent. Constantly fighting humidity, dust, impurities and time. Balancing it with precision, knowledge, patience and skill. A good picture, not even a great one, was materially wrestled out of light and thin air. And whatever the process was, the first thing that comes to mind wasn’t fun.
I stepped outside this morning and was struck by how the morning light fell about the yard. It was a pretty mundane view but still it intrigued me so I pulled out my phone and snapped a picture. Maybe it would intrigue others too? I quickly checked the screen, it actually did a decent job of documenting what I saw.
In fact, just snapping an image and checking becomes an act of pleasure and entertainment in itself. And apparently I’m not the first to notice this. What Edwin Land’s SX-70 did was change forever how we feel and interacted with images.
All of a sudden pictures are instant, self gratifying and totally in our power. The whole process is exclusively ours with no one else involved We can enjoy the fruits of anything we record even before we leave the scene. Snap a picture and a minute later we’re looking at it, judging it, showing it off, and getting others to judge it. If everyone agrees, we have our picture. If not, we can immediately adjust the world until it looks exactly how we like. And then we try again.
There’s no driving to the store or taking the bus across town. No standing at the counter examining contact sheets with a plastic loupe. No horribly developed duplicate prints to shuffle through. No need to be marking little x’s and circles or pointing out bits of dust. No pushing or pulling and no coming back days later to see if we can decide which shots are good. Often seasons changed before you got your picture. One look at the commercials of the day and gets you an idea what it was like. *
To top it off, no one could count on someone else to deliver their prized memories and experience. We always end up siding with the woman standing at the counter braying ” if they come back shaky, I’m not paying”. Everyone knew it could be their own pictures coming back faded blue and green or murky black. People shelled out money and told themselves “I meant it to be that way” and quietly wished for better luck next time. Not with a Polaroid though, no sir! Suddenly we lived in a future where taking pictures was exciting and incredibly fun!!
Hello instagram, selfies, pinterest, flikr, facebook, tumblr and more. Kittens, puppies, lunches, babies, flowers, trees and any thing else that catches our fancy. The pictures aren’t that much different. It’s how we take them that’s changed. That and the sheer volume of them. Images have become a waste product of our daily lives. Inhabiting our internal landscape like a city in the midst of a garbage strike**
Imagine for a minute how many images we capture daily of the Eiffel Tower, Lotte World and Everland? Think of how people would have behaved or experienced taking those pictures in the 1930’s or 1860’s. Dr. Land’s strange and wonderful invention introduced us to a whole new way of imagining the world. Truly carefree and disposable in practice. The world we now inhabit is instantaneous, impulsive and without consequence or history. Free from the complexity and constant physical grappling needed to visually capture experience. We stopped gazing and contemplating and our records became as fleeting as our thoughts.
Equally the magic box of Dr. Land would turn out to be prescient of other trends to come. It would introduce a landmark patent case that would be familiar to us today. Devoid of inspiration or innovation like most American companies since that time, Kodak would try to steal this fun idea and disguise it as their own. They would have to pay for this infringement, $909.4 million dollars to be exact.
Polaroid’s public popularity would be brief. Peaking in less than 20 years. 10 years later they would file for bankruptcy. A labour force of 21,000 reduced to 150 people in the end. Crippled and left out in the cold with the rest of the photographic world. The change they ushered in would spell their doom.
But what surprised me most in stopping to look at Polaroid and Edwin Land, is just how many Polaroid products I have owned or used over the years. It was a bit of a shock really. I never really thought of them as part of the product of my workaday world. They often solved intractable problems incredibly well. For me, Polaroid was never a passion but it was always deeply fascinating, sophisticated beyond belief and above all else loads of fun!!!
* fotomat television advertisement from 1973
** this is how I imagine our mental landscape