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In 1970, Polaroid founder, Edwin Land, presciently defined the future camera as "something you use all day long... [something] you would use as often as your pencil or your eyeglasses." While this statement is impossible to deny in today's times, the Polaroid camera itself was not initially embraced by the average consumer. The fine art and commercial photography communities began to use instant film for lighting tests and experimentation, until some pioneers — among them, Ansel Adams and Andy Warhol — started using its various formats to create some of the most beloved artworks of all time.
Artists who began to use Polaroid cameras and film helped to legitimize the medium in a fundamental way. They realized the benefit of not having to wait for processing, and their ideas aided the development of Polaroid products.
Instant: The Story of Polaroid, by Christopher Bonanos, documents the relationship between artists and Polaroid, but that's just the beginning. It also includes riveting accounts of what it was like to work in one of Silicon Valley's first booming start-ups, the impact of Edwin Land on the future of technology, and contemporary uses of the nearly extinct product.
The excerpt below appears in Chapter 4, titled "Meet the Swinger (and everything else)":
"The image Polaroid marketing exec Stan Calderwood cultivated was bolstered by a wave of fine-arts interest. Aided by Ansel Adams’s proselytizing, Polaroid soon began to catch the eye of lots of prominent photographers. Some, like Philippe Halsman, used instant film mostly for lighting tests before shooting conventional negatives, but others embraced it on its own merits. Bert Stern, who later gained serious fame for conducting Marilyn Monroe’s final shoot, produced a series of celebrity portraits that became magazine advertisements for Polaroid film. Salvador Dalí glowered through his mustache; Louis Armstrong grinned over his trumpet; Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn posed together, their faces overlapping artfully. In the ads, DDB’s art directors bled the photos right to the edge of the page, with tiny (and logo-free) text in the bottom margin.
At least one Polaroid artist wasn’t even a photographer at all. Starting around 1967, William Anastasi started making strange and excellent conceptual artworks in which he pointed a camera at a mirror, reproducing himself as he reproduced himself. In Nine Polaroid Photographs of a Mirror (1967), he took that wheels-within-wheels conceit for a dizzying spin, because the mirror itself was part of the final installation, obscured in stages by the photographs. As his face disappears from the looking glass, it recurs in the photos—but it’s also blocked by the camera, and it multiplies as the later images incorporate the earlier ones. It’s like an M. C. Escher print pulled from real life, and it would have been almost impossible to make without Polaroid film.
Not only did artists begin discovering Polaroid; Polaroid began coming to them. Meroë Morse, with her art-history background and her aesthete boss, had the idea that Polaroid could support the artists who showed off the product at its best. Starting in the 1950s, she (along with other executives, including Calderwood) began to make informal deals with photographers like Paul Caponigro and Minor White. Polaroid would keep the artists supplied with film in exchange for some of their best pictures and technical advice. The company soon accumulated a small collection, and little exhibitions began to appear around the offices and labs.
A lot of the photographs were by Ansel Adams. His connection to Polaroid had deepened as he and Land grew close, and at one point in the mid-1950s, he began pushing Land for a truly professional-grade Polaroid film, something that could be used in the back of the large-format wooden field cameras he favored. Land expressed skepticism: How many people would buy it? “Oh, gosh, I can think of fifty right now,” Adams told him, exaggerating a bit. Soon enough, Land made it happen. Single-shot packets of 4-by-5-inch Land film came first, and then, in 1958, Adams really got his wish: a film called Type 55 that produced a negative as well as a print.
It wasn’t a huge profit maker, but its impact was enormous. Suddenly, the fundamental limit of Land photography, its irreproducibility, was no longer an obstacle. You could do everything on Polaroid film (in black- and-white, at least) that you could do on conventional film. A number of the great Ansel Adams landscapes, especially El Capitan, Sunrise, Winter, Yosemite National Park, California, 1968—one of his own favorites—were shot on Type 55. Although the negative required a quick wash in a chemical bath after processing to clear and stabilize the image, that could happen under normal light, later on. Type 55 (and its smaller-format siblings, Type 105 and Type 665) meant that anyone could, for the first time, take serious photographs without waiting for them to be processed."
Excerpt from Instant: The Story of Polaroid by Christopher Bonanos, published by Princeton Architectural Press, 2012. Buy the book here and watch the trailer below: