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Instant: The Story of Polaroid Hardcover – September 26, 2012
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"Offers up a concise and in-depth cultural history of Polaroid and its brilliant and charismatic leader, Edwin Land. Amidst its carefully constructed narrative of Polaroid's rise, demise, and renaissance.... Land and Polaroid's story are remarkable." --Publishers Weekly, 9/3/2012
From the Author
INSTANT: THE STORY OF POLAROID is a book about a very unusual company. In the 1960s and 1970s, Polaroid was what Apple is today: the coolest technology company on earth, the one with irresistible products, the one whose stock kept climbing way past the point of logic. In its heyday, Polaroid was an absolute innovation machine--a scientific think tank that periodically kicked out a fantastically profitable, covetable product. In fact, the late Steve Jobs expressly said that he modeled his company to a great extent after Polaroid.
Instant is a business story, about what happens when a company loses its innovative spark. It is a fine-arts story, showcasing the amazing things photographers (from Ansel Adams to Andy Warhol to Chuck Close) did with Polaroid film. It is a technology story, of a company that created and maintained a niche all its own for 60 years. And it is a pop-culture history, of a friendly product that millions of people absolutely adored. I like to think that it also tells a larger story, about the rise and fall of American invention and manufacturing.
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In the years after 1980, I paid less attention to the company (except when the corporate takeover goons took away my mother's pension and health benefits) and the book brought me up to date nicely. I think the recent parts of the story are missing from the other books about Polaroid.
My biggest disappointment is this: the photos of Polaroid products and their packaging--or rather, the lack thereof.
The author tells us how important the design aesthetic was at Polaroid but includes only about SEVEN pics of cameras out of the entire line of products & packaging! Products are mentioned, but never shown, such as the large format cameras, we get one head-on view of the Polavision movie camera, no shots of the later models or the brightly colored packaging that was their signature. (I guess I'll have to pick up Paul Giambarba's "The Branding of Polaroid" for that). The majority of photos are samples of the artistic use of Polaroids (nice, but a bit repetitive) and too many shots of celebrities (few of which were of any interest to me). I would rather have seen more pics of the great minds behind Polaroid's innovations--especially since in terms of their hiring practices, they were ahead of their time, and many of those scientific minds belonged to women. Lets' see who these people were! I found myself constantly turning to the internet (and the author's blog) to find photos & more info about the the subjects in the book.
This book is good enough for the publisher to revisit the layout: considering the careful thought that went in to the dust jacket, colors, etc. of this hardcover edition, I would love to see them print a larger softback edition with more photos of the items & people which are actually the subject matter of the text--I think they'd have a real winner on their hands.
The pictures are very well done. For reasons I don't understand, Kindle books often seem to have low-resolution pictures, or pictures with technical problems. These don't. And, almost magically, the color pictures actually seem to capture the _look_ of Polaroid color.
Everyone except the very youngest among us fondly remember the pre-digital thrill of snapping a photo and seeing the results just seconds later. In a time when amateur photographers dropped their film cassette off at the nearest Foto Hut and waited a week for the prints to come back from the lab, Polaroid's instant print was rather magical.
Steve Jobs has often been compared to the father of instant film and co-founder of Polaroid, Edwin Land. They shared the common trait of being passionate visionaries who built a cult-like following of true believers who wanted to work for them. They ran companies that certainly wanted to make money, but that were first and foremost dedicated to the dream of their magical product. Both men were unshakable in their own self-confidence and their unwavering belief in the righteousness of their cause. Land, a fascinating character who has already inspired books covering his life in detail, gets less attention in "Instant" than one might want, but the nature of this book is to be brief. If you're interested in following up for more, you certainly have that option elsewhere.
Part biography of Edwin Land and part company history, "Instant" also reviews the technical challenges of creating a self-contained, portable photo developing system, highlighting both its successes and notable shortcomings. (Various early incarnations of instant prints curled, discolored or required the application of an inconvenient liquid fixitive following printing.) It was a full twenty years after the debut of instant black-and-white Polaroid film that the familiar color prints with their large, white bottom border appeared in the early 70s.
"Instant" also covers a little-known aspect of the Polaroid story: the small band of artists who were some of the product's biggest fans. (Did you know that none other than visual perfectionist Ansel Adams had a decades-long association with Polaroid?) Other prominent big names who were advocates of Polaroid film included Chuck Close and Andy Worhol, among others. This is perhaps one of the more surprising aspects of the story. Polaroid was often regarded by connoisseurs as a synonym for inferior photographs meant strictly for the amateur who didn't mind things like soft focus or less than accurate color saturation. But Polaroid produced a number of other far lesser-known instant-film products dedicated to professional applications. In fact, they produced super large format studio cameras capable of delivering superior quality prints that could compete with the finest equipment.
Alas, despite the successes of Polaroid and its visionary leader who gave the world a magical product, it became a victim of its devotion to the very product that inspired it. The tragedy of Polaroid is that it was generally well positioned to take advantage of the digital revolution but it failed--for a complex number of reasons--to do so. For those of us who remember the joy of watching photos resolve into existence from the gray-green haze of a Polaroid frame, the final chapters of "Instant" leave us with a wistful feeling.