Instant: The Story of Polaroid

Instant: The Story of Polaroid

"Instant photography at the push of a button!" During the 1960s and '70s, Polaroid was the coolest technology company on earth. Like Apple, it was an innovation machine that cranked out one must-have product after another. Led by its own visionary genius founder, Edwin Land, Polaroid grew from a 1937 garage start-up into a billion-dollar pop-culture phenomenon. Instant...

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Title:Instant: The Story of Polaroid
Author:Christopher Bonanos
Rating:
Edition Language:English

Instant: The Story of Polaroid Reviews

  • Steve Dallape

    A good overview of the history of this storied company, fairly comprehensive but easy to read and not overly long.

  • Jenn Ravey

    From the book cover:

    Instant tells the remarkable tale of Edwin Land's one-of-a-kind invention - from Polaroid's first instant camera to hit the market in 1948 to its meteoric rise in popularity and adoption by artists such as Ansel Adams, Andy Warhol, and Chuck Close, to the company's dramatic decline into bankruptcy in the late '90s and its unlikely resurrection in the digital age. Instant is both an inspiring tale of American ingenuity and a cautionary business tale about the perils of

    From the book cover:

    Instant tells the remarkable tale of Edwin Land's one-of-a-kind invention - from Polaroid's first instant camera to hit the market in 1948 to its meteoric rise in popularity and adoption by artists such as Ansel Adams, Andy Warhol, and Chuck Close, to the company's dramatic decline into bankruptcy in the late '90s and its unlikely resurrection in the digital age. Instant is both an inspiring tale of American ingenuity and a cautionary business tale about the perils of companies that lose their creative edge.

    When I was at BEA in June, this was one of the books on my "want" list. I've been fascinated by photography for many years, own about 8 cameras, took a photography course in college, and stare lovingly at my Hasselblad, who patiently waits on my bookshelf for another outing. Last Christmas I asked for a Fuji Instax camera, recalling the days my grandmother and grandfather would show me the "magic" of the Polaroid film.

    What Christopher Bonanos does with Polaroid's history is a bit magical itself, briefly discussing the history of film photography up to Eastman's camera "marketed with the slogan 'You push the button, we do the rest,' and the little roll of celluloid inside it built an empire" before delving into Polaroid and its creativity.

    Even knowing the outcome of Polaroid's business practices, I was tense reading about the ever-evolving world of film cameras. Bonanos lends suspense to the creative process, showing that "the next big thing" actually has to be discovered about four or five years before production if a company wants to stay ahead. Land was proud of his labs, making the rounds and checking out what his team produced. Bonanos tells the story of Howard Rogers and Land's request that he start thinking about color instant film in the late 40s. Two years later, Rogers approached him, and in 1965, Land said, "My point is that we created an environment where a man was expected to sit and think for two years." Eventually, without a creative leader who demanded elegant, complicated, innovative creations from his staff, Polaroid began its downward spiral.

    Bonanos also emphasizes Polaroid's (and Land's) devotion to art photography, an aspect of the book I loved, considering I had no idea how instrumental Ansel Adams was in the development of better and better film and focus: "Whenever Polaroid introduced a new product line, Adams trooped off to the mountains or the desert to try it out. Back came reports packed with detail, containing rows of photos at varying exposures or apertures. Eventually he filed more than 3,000 of these memoranda."

    Andre Kertesz and Walker Evans got in on the instant trend as well, with Evans saying near the end of his life: "Nobody should touch a Polaroid until he's over sixty. You should first do all that work...It reduces everything to your brains and taste." As Bonanos points out, "[h]e, fortunately, had both." By working with these artists and others, Polaroid built up a collection of tens of thousands of photos, a collection I'd give anything to see.

    Land's devotion to instant photography not just as product but as an art form is fascinating and reminiscent of Steve Jobs and his own demand for beauty. This is a business model that is dangerous but sexy in its forethought. Because, as Bonanos emphasizes toward the end of the book, these are men who aren't making the products people want. They're making the products people don't know they want. There's genius there, and that's what drives businesses like Polaroid, and frankly it's why there are still so many aficionados today, which Bonanos discusses in the last chapter of Instant.

    I remember a few years ago the mad dash for Polaroid films, and people were making a killing on ebay, even with expired packs. Why? Polaroid is an icon, and even all these many years later, people appreciate the thought behind the first Polaroid, the question Land's daughter supposedly asked him in 1943: "Why can't I see the pictures now?"

  • Patti

    This book brought me back to all those times the Polaroid camera came out when we were growing up and made me smile as I remembered my dad's delight in the instant results of the picture taking. It is a fascinating story of a company dominated by its founder and the amazing things he and it accomplished because of the go for it culture he established. The stories of the early inventions were fascinating such as the Polaroid Sight-Conditioning train window.

    After Land left the company, the stories

    This book brought me back to all those times the Polaroid camera came out when we were growing up and made me smile as I remembered my dad's delight in the instant results of the picture taking. It is a fascinating story of a company dominated by its founder and the amazing things he and it accomplished because of the go for it culture he established. The stories of the early inventions were fascinating such as the Polaroid Sight-Conditioning train window.

    After Land left the company, the stories of the products that could have been illustrate how tentative a company's success is.

    "By the mid-1980's, Polaroid, in a joint venture with Philips, was on the verge of making a digital sensor that produced a 1.2-megapixel image, and had the data-compression algorithms to go with it. By 1987, talk was afoot of taking it into production. The company's marketing talk subtly shifted during these years, too"'the leader in instant photography' became 'the leader in instant imaging.'

    It's heartbreaking to see this from two decades' distance, because Polaroid had once again created something that would have astounded consumers. Unfortunately, it would also render everything else the company made obsolete, and that spooked people. 'Polaroid could make the digital transition,'says Sheldon Buckler, recounting the prevailing attitude. 'But... there's no money there, because there's no film. And there'd be no competitive advantage on the hardware side in the consumer arena, because there's Nikon and Sony and Canon and a host of others.'

    It's clear now (and was anything but obvious, back then) what the best call would've been. If Polaroid had played its hand a little differently, the computer on your desk wouldn't be attached to a Hewlett-Packard inkjet printer; you'd have a nifty little PolaJet, printing photos on high-quality, high-profit-margin Polaroid paper. The margin on Polajet refill cartridges would be similarly wide, and you'd buy them for years - that is, until Polaroid rolled out the next-generation printer, whereupon you'd run out and upgrade because it was just so cool. It'd probably be wireless,too."

  • Samuel Peck

    A pretty short overview of Polaroid's history - full of interesting nuggets about Edwin Land, the company's competition with Kodak, and its eventual decline and demise.

  • Lance McNeill

    A well written book that offers a snapshot of the iconic company and brand. I would have like to dig in a little more into the business side of things and learned more about Land, but overall a good quick read.

  • Lee Osborne

    I was inspired to read this after my recent rediscovery of Polaroid photography. The new Polaroid Originals range of film and cameras has seen it all revived a bit, and it's interesting to read how everything came about.

    Christopher Bonanos is a well-known Polaroid enthusiast, and he's written an accessible, well-illustrated book about how Edwin Land came to invent instant photography. If you want a lot of detail, you might be disappointed, but for most people, including myself, it contains just

    I was inspired to read this after my recent rediscovery of Polaroid photography. The new Polaroid Originals range of film and cameras has seen it all revived a bit, and it's interesting to read how everything came about.

    Christopher Bonanos is a well-known Polaroid enthusiast, and he's written an accessible, well-illustrated book about how Edwin Land came to invent instant photography. If you want a lot of detail, you might be disappointed, but for most people, including myself, it contains just enough to keep the book flowing along at a decent pace, without getting stale or boring. Essentially, Land's vision was for an easy-to-use, single-step process that came to fruition with the amazing SX-70 in 1972 - up until then, Polaroid photography was messy and complicated. Unfortunately, the SX-70 is a rare and expensive beast, and just about every camera made since is pretty cheap and nasty, which is one of the factors behind Polaroid's problems and eventual demise. The book describes how that came about, and how eventually the final film factory was rescued, and a modest revival came about.

    The book discusses Edwin Land's involvement in the company in some detail, but it isn't, in any sense, a Land biography - he was, by all accounts, a very private person, and so bit of a mystery. It's also not detailed enough to be a business or science textbook. But...to an enthusiast like me, who has an interest in how the instant camera developed and evolved, it's an interesting and quick read that I'm sure I'll go back to, with plenty of interesting illustrations and stories. Nicely presented and well told, although now that the Impossible Project has evolved into Polaroid Originals and launched a new camera range, it's probably due for an updated edition. The story continues...

  • Tina

    A very comprehensive and informative book about the story of Polaroid with lots of entertaining anecdotes and polaroid pictures.

  • Brooks

    Story of Polaroid covers the rise and fall of an innovation company. Polaroid was started by an creative and controlling leader named Land. Polaroid started in the 1930s making polarizing lens. WWII came and they grew dramatically making sun-glasses/goggles, bomb sites, and working on several special projects - from a dozen employees to over 2000. Land became a major figure. Over the next 20 years, they develop instant film. Much of their products had initial technical issues - images fading,

    Story of Polaroid covers the rise and fall of an innovation company. Polaroid was started by an creative and controlling leader named Land. Polaroid started in the 1930s making polarizing lens. WWII came and they grew dramatically making sun-glasses/goggles, bomb sites, and working on several special projects - from a dozen employees to over 2000. Land became a major figure. Over the next 20 years, they develop instant film. Much of their products had initial technical issues - images fading, having to place the developer on the film after it was ejected, but were so innovative that consumers were willing to deal with these bugs. Kodak was the dominant player with over 60% of the US market and even made Polaroids negatives (similar to high tech today).

    Kodak eventually saw the little upstart as real competition and refused to make the negatives with the launch of the SX-70. This required Polaroid to invest heavily in building their own capacity - they had typically contract manufactured most items. This was the start of the end. Kodak then made their own instant camera, launch a 15 year patent war. Polaroid won the largest patent infringement suit ever $970 million, but that was starting of the end.

  • Rebecca McNutt

    I love Polaroid, I've got an old Polaroid camera at home myself, and I love how it's like a mini darkroom encased inside the plastic box.

    This book has its moments, but it really got on my nerves the way it kept comparing Polaroid to Apple. I don't give a damn about Apple, I don't buy any Apple products, nor do I appreciate them being shoved at me from the pages of a totally unrelated book. Polaroid was a company that made

    in the 1970's, not a company that turns perfectly normal

    I love Polaroid, I've got an old Polaroid camera at home myself, and I love how it's like a mini darkroom encased inside the plastic box.

    This book has its moments, but it really got on my nerves the way it kept comparing Polaroid to Apple. I don't give a damn about Apple, I don't buy any Apple products, nor do I appreciate them being shoved at me from the pages of a totally unrelated book. Polaroid was a company that made

    in the 1970's, not a company that turns perfectly normal people into texting zombies the way Apple does. I don't get it, was this book all just a way for Apple to promote itself?

    *On a note that actually

    related to the subject of Polaroid, a wonderful company called The Impossible Project rescued Polaroid cameras from dying off in the inferior and cheapened 21st century. :) *

  • William Ramsay

    This book was a bit disappointing to me. Of course, the fact that I spent my entire work career at Polaroid may have something to do with my take on the company and why I feel Bonanos didn't get it quite right. I joined Polaroid in 1965 and was not a part of the early years, which the author covers quite interestingly. Where he fails to win my praise is in the two areas. First, he gives too much credit - and spends too much time - talking about the affect Polaroid had on the arts. True, Andy

    This book was a bit disappointing to me. Of course, the fact that I spent my entire work career at Polaroid may have something to do with my take on the company and why I feel Bonanos didn't get it quite right. I joined Polaroid in 1965 and was not a part of the early years, which the author covers quite interestingly. Where he fails to win my praise is in the two areas. First, he gives too much credit - and spends too much time - talking about the affect Polaroid had on the arts. True, Andy Warhol did use a Polaroid, but I think that should be a footnote and not a main focus. The other part, and where he really dropped the print coater is in describing the decline of the company. In the early eighties I was a forecaster for film sales and we showed clearly that over time film sales would declined to the point of insustainability. No one believed us, even when we showed that out estimates were accurate year after year within three percent. I finally had to move to a different job within the company because the VP's said I was always too negative. People refused to believe that Polaroid prints could be supplanted by something else. I saw my first digital photo print about 1982. I thought it was better than a Polaroid and that was the very birth of digital. The general consensus was that digital would never be as good a Polaroid. Even when HP was printing 8x10 glossies for about fifty cents, the powers that be thought we could compete by offering a printer that would spit out a Polaroid print for about a dollar. Needless to say, we ended up with warehouses full of the ridiculous printer. I could go on and on. Digital photography and terrible management killed a company that could have been a player in digital printing. I have no regrets. Polaroid was a great company to work for and I did very well there. I just wish that a little more blame was handed out and less gushing over the celebrity photographers who used the product. The story of Polaroid should be a case study for business majors and not a love object for the nostalgic.

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