Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Instant: The Story of Polaroid

Posted by nliakos on October 11, 2014

by Christopher Bonanos (Princeton Architectural Press, 2012; University of Maryland First Year Book 2014 – 2015)

I always read and usually enjoy UMD’s First Year Books, which are selected by a committee each year. Free copies are provided to all freshmen and to anyone else in the university community who wants one, and professors are encouraged to assign them, discuss them, and otherwise encourage their students to read them. This year’s choice, Instant, did not immediately appeal to me (which may explain why I waited until October to read it, though I have had it on my shelf since May). I never had a Polaroid camera, and I think of them as pretty passé (if I think of them at all), along with most other film cameras. Everyone does digital now; do even professional photographers ever use film?

Nevertheless, the book grabbed my attention right away and held it. It turns out that some people still love Polaroid, which was the Apple Computer of its day, and Edwin Land, its Steve Jobs: the visionary genius who could invent almost anything on demand and who insisted on high quality products. People even buy and hoard expensive Polaroid film when they find it. Who knew? Even millenials who have never owned a Polaroid camera or picture apparently know what they are.

The book is replete with with illustrations and photos (of photos, and of people); many of the photos were taken by great photographers like Ansel Adams, who used large-format Polaroid film for some of his Yosemite photographs (who knew?), Robert Mapplethorpe, Andy Warhol, and Walker Evans. I thought Polaroid pictures were mere gimmicks. Who knew?

The book depicts the unlucky breaks that afflicted the company, the uneasy relationship between Polaroid and Kodak, the disastrous decision not to pursue digital photography, and the inevitable downfall of the once-prestigious (though relatively small) company founded by Edwin Land. Bonanos muses about why an instant (paper) photograph seem (to many people, at least) more exciting that an instant digital one.  It is a peek back into our recent history, but never seems dated.


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