Book Review: Instant: The Story of Polaroid by Christopher Bonanos

I’ve been interested in Polaroid for a long time. We had several models in the family when I was a kid in the 70s and early 80s. In the 70s my grandfather had the SX-70 and one other model. I was amazed at the way they folded closed and opened. And of course the instant pictures were one hell of a novelty during that era. I can remember both main kinds of film. At least one model we had required that a strip of paper be peeled off. And the others just worked simply, with the picture appearing fully within a couple minutes. And I recall the bright colors.

[ UPDATE: The ‘Impossible’ Instant Camera: PopSci Breaks Open The Polaroid SX-70 ]

I’m also a big fan of Apple so when I saw the WSJ review of the new Polaroid book by Christopher Bonanos I knew I had to grab it.

The book itself is a light and quick read, under 200 pages. The basic structure reminds me very much of the recent book about the history of Chrysler’s turbine cars. Also recommended. (pic via Wiki)

If you’ve read anything about early Apple and Steve Jobs you’ll quickly see the parallels when reading this book. Steve Jobs is like a younger Edwin Land, and Polaroid was much like Apple. The companies were strongly centered-around and driven-by a visionary with a strong personality. Both men were considered geniuses, difficult to get along with, and even tyrants at times. But the were widely revered.

[ Grab Instant: The Story of Polaroid for the Kindle ]

Until the recent massive award given to Apple in their patent infringement case against Samsung, the largest in history was the battle between Polaroid and Kodak. As a native Rochesterian who grew up there I kind of watched it play out. In the late 80s I spent a great deal of time at the George Eastman House and Museum of Photography. Remember the old TV ads with James Garner during his Rockford Files heyday? (p. 140)

A few items I liked from the book:
1. Steve Jobs called Edwin Land a “national treasure” p. 13
2. Land was involved with the U2 spy plane p. 13
3. Land’s early work was with optics, specifically for applications for polarized lenses pp. 16-18
4.  Bausch and Lomb, another Rochester, NY company is involved p. 22

5.  A hilarious anecdote about pioneering work in 3D movies and Warner Bothers p. 26
6. Land helped pioneer the first heat-seeking missile and 3D glasses p. 31
7. Kodak actually made Polaroid’s film for many years. Reminds me of how Samsung is still a major component supplier for Apple p. 42
8. So that’s why we wave the pics p. 50

9. Those security holograms on credit cards? p. 62
10. Warhol, William Wegman, Ansel Adams, all huge Polaroid users and fans
11. I remember the sonar focusing module well p. 93
12. The tulip story would be classic Steve Jobs attention to detail and presentation p. 105

13. The story of the battle with Kodak is amazing, it didn’t end until 1992! pp. 125 – 133
14. Early pioneering work on digital photography at Polaroid p. 145

It’s hard to remember just how huge Polaroid was back at its peak. In the 70s people were shooting over a billion Polaroids per year.  (p. 1) They had such a massive lead on their competitors it probably seemed insurmountable. But creative destruction keeps moving along.

Near the end of Polaroid they were floundering for years, essentially rudderless. No new ground-breaking products, the Polaroid brand had been watered-down, and digital was here. Polaroid does technically still exist, but really in name only now. It has gone through at least two bankruptcies and now does little more than slap its brand on things.  If they still do actually manufacture anything themselves there’s nothing as ground-breaking as the original instant cameras were in the marketplace say 45 years ago. Though there was some big to-do with Lady Gaga as a spokesperson last year. I’ll concede that their 14MP digital camera that prints pics instantly like the old models does have me intrigued.

Mr. Bonanos really does a fine job with the book in fewer than 200 pages. If you have any interest in the subject matter and/or are a fan of Steve Jobs and Apple pick this one up. I’ll bet that you (or at least your parents) have a shoebox somewhere with a bunch of old Polaroid pics with names and dates written on the back. Oh, and the pics in the book are fantastic.

Additional reviews:
Christopher Bonanos and the Story of Polaroid – NYTimes.com
Christopher Bonanos on his new book, ‘Instant: The Story of Polaroid’  – Boston.com
Christopher Bonanos Interview – Instant: The Story Of Polaroid Book – ELLE

Additional links:
Polaroidland – Where instant photography lives.
The Land List
The Impossible Project
Instant Options: Photography Right Now!
Book Review: Chrysler’s Turbine Car: The Rise and Fall of Detroit’s Coolest Creation
What Kodak could still learn from Polaroid – Washington Post
Polaroid Jacket Lets You Wear What the Company’s Factory Workers Wore
Book Review: Polaroids – WSJ.com