“Polaroid looks different than other photography, much in the way of Kodachrome, with its own color palette and characteristics,” says Christopher Bonanos. “There was no grain in the larger 8×10 or 20×24 formats, for example.” Bonanos, an editor at New York magazine, has written a history of the 20th century’s high-tech-quickie-photograph-turned-pop-culture-obsession, in Instant: The Story of Polaroid (Princeton Architectural Press). Drawing on interviews and previously hidden archives—which went public in 2010, two years after Polaroid stopped producing film—he tells us how Polaroid cameras have been used as fine-art instruments, at nearly every model and stage.
The author’s fascination with his subject began when, as a teenager in the 1980s, he bought one of the early, five-pound models from the ’50s. When that camera was made, the company’s visionary founder, Edwin Land, had already hit it off with Ansel Adams, and Land enlisted the photographer as a consultant in 1949 for $100 a month. Adams often shot on Type 55 film, which produced both a print and a reusable large-format negative. He captured one of his favorite images with a Polaroid: El Capitan, Sunrise, Winter, Yosemite National Park, California, 1968.
Adams talked up the brand to his art-world connections, and many other luminaries started experimenting with the technology. Bert Stern, for one, made Polaroid portraits of Louis Armstrong and Salvador Dalí. “The intimacy of the technology—point, shoot, and print— allowed experimentation, and that was also part of its draw,” Bonanos says.
Chuck Close used the gargantuan 20×24 model to take incredibly sharp pictures of sections of his own face—every pore visible—which he then stitched together to create one big portrait in 1979. (He later photographed Barack Obama with a 20×24.) Andy Warhol also dallied with the phone-booth-size camera, but far more often he wielded a handheld plastic Big Shot, bringing it to parties, art openings, and museums, accumulating the photos that informed his silk- screens. David Hockney played with perspective in his photocollages, such as Sun on the Pool Los Angeles April 13th 1982, in a way that would have been nearly impossible had his Polaroid not freed him up to instantly reshoot any crooked edges.
In 1972, Polaroid introduced its most familiar format, the SX-70, with the white tab at the bottom of the frame. Walker Evans bought one, thinking it would be a fun toy, but then embraced it as a serious medium for shooting Americana. And Lucas Samaras had used Polaroid film for years before he famously began pressing on the surface of his SX-70 prints—the gelatin-based emulsion stayed wet under the Mylar cover for hours—to create distorted and disturbing images. “This kind of manipulation,” says Bonanos, “wasn’t seen again until the advent of Photoshop.”
Indeed, Polaroid’s innovation of the instant picture wasn’t only groundbreaking in its own time; it laid the foundation for how we relate to photography today. Bonanos details how, in a 1970 speech outside Boston, Land predicted that one day we would use a camera like a “telephone.” It would become, the inventor said, “something that was always with you.”