The ability to capture instantaneous images with ease has become integral to our daily lives. Most of us have a camera on our person at all times, and many of us cannot remember a time when pictures were not instantly viewable on a digital device.
In 1943, a young girl asked her father, the inventor Edwin H. Land, why they could not see the pictures they took on vacation instantly. Land pondered her question and got to work in his lab for 5 years. His solution—the first Polaroid instant camera, which allowed any user to snap a picture and then remove a print that developed in about one minute. The original Polaroid camera was revolutionary, but it wasn’t as instant or user-friendly as it could be. Using the camera took some time to learn: there was a trial and error process that involved manually pulling out the layers of paper, developing chemicals and film from the camera. The user also had to time the development themselves and then peel the photo from the paper. After that they had to swab it with a protective coating and adhere it to a cardboard holder. The process generated a lot of waste, left hands sticky and was quite tedious while taking pictures on the go.
Land continually worked to streamline the Polaroid camera, and after 24 years he unveiled the Polaroid SX-70 in 1972. The camera’s “Absolute one-step photography” technology was revolutionary. In an Apple-like town hall meeting, Land snapped 5 photos in ten seconds that were all processed within the camera, ejected themselves, and then, as if by magic, developed before their eyes. The miniature photo lab was encased in a chic chrome and saddle brown leather design that folded up to fit in one’s pocket. Each pack of film contained its own battery, so the camera could be used without fear it would die in the middle of a photo session. The SX-70 was an instant success.
This new, hand-held wonder immediately found its way into the hands of photographers and artists. The compact, easily operable device allowed Ansel Adams to beautifully capture the grandeur of Yosemite even in the 3.108 × 3.024 format. Andy Warhol was rarely seen without his trusty SX-70, which he used to capture some of his most well known photographs, including many of himself. Maripol, the photographer and stylist who is often touted as having discovered Madonna, was a prolific user of the SX-70, capturing many well-known images of Madonna, Grace Jones and Debbie Harry. Her photos influenced Taylor Swift’s album cover for “1989”.
With the advent of one-hour photo development at drug stores and digital cameras, the Polaroid fell out of favor until recently. Refurbished SX-70s have become a coveted find, and photographers with an eye for nostalgia are buying digital versions of the instant camera. Just remember, never shake a Polaroid picture.