By ROB WALKER
Published: March 16, 2008
More from Rob Walker at his blog, murketing.com/journal
Traditionally, the role of those in the creative and cultural fringes is to lead: embracing unusual ideas, modes of expression and even products that gradually catch on with the mainstream and the masses. (By which time, of course, the fringe has moved on.) But in a recent reversal of the fringe-to-mass journey, many adventurously creative individuals have lately been in a state of rage, mourning and protest over the disappearance of a treasured tool — one that years ago reached, saturated and then passed out of the mainstream: Polaroid instant film.
The Polaroid Corporation announced last month that by the end of 2008 it would discontinue pretty much all of its consumer- and professional-level instant film, closing plants in Massachusetts, Mexico and the Netherlands. The company cited “marketplace conditions,” a euphemism for not enough people buying something to make it worth manufacturing. It also expressed willingness to license the technology to any third party that might want to make a go of it.
Not a few Polaroid loyalists heaped scorn on the apparent culprit: “the cancer that is digital photography,” as one participant in the Analog Photography Users Group message board put it. It’s true that new technologies have marginalized instant photography. But it was consumer-friendly innovation — easy, fun, instant — that made Polaroid cameras and film into mass hits in the first place. In a way, the company’s products were the digital photography of their time.
The Polaroid Corporation was, of course, founded by Edwin Land, a Harvard dropout who attained a Steve Jobsian cultural status as an innovator-businessman. By the time his company began selling its first instant-photo camera in 1948, Land had already applied his discoveries in the realm of light polarization to a variety of products, including sunglasses, film and lighting. In the late 1960s and 1970s, Polaroid’s stock was among the “Nifty Fifty” companies whose shares were seen in that era’s stock market boom as sure bets to go-go forever. Time magazine greeted the arrival of the SX-70 with the cover headline “Here Come Those Great New Cameras.” Even in the early 1980s, instant photography was a $2 billion market that Polaroid dominated.
Yet it wasn’t far into that decade that the story started to shift: layoffs here, management shuffles there. Land left in 1982 (he died in 1991), and patent battles and a costly effort to fend off a hostile takeover bid followed; in the judgment of The New York Times, by mid-decade its cameras had “gained a reputation as blue-collar products.” Still, the company did continue to release new technologies, including, as it happens, some of the earliest digital cameras, as far back as 1996. And its flagship camera, the OneStep, still sold briskly. Even as the digital threat came into sharp focus in 2001, Wired magazine published a long article convincingly suggesting that the iconic company could innovate its way into the future. Ten months later, Polaroid filed Chapter 11.
From its earliest camera-making days, the company courted and attracted the attention of artists. Land hired Ansel Adams as a consultant in 1948, and a who’s-who of top-level creators have dabbled in or relied upon Polaroid cameras and films ever since. Some used them to test lighting and exposures; some, including Chuck Close, use large-format Polaroids as part of the process leading to the portraits he creates; William Wegman is among those whose best-known works include many Polaroids. Many, especially in more recent years, invented hackerish approaches like manipulating or transferring the emulsion; the “phototransformations” of Lucas Samaras are a notable example. Often the attraction was to precisely those properties that digital photography eliminated in the name of making picture taking easier, more fun, more instant. By comparison with digital, Polaroid images can be somewhat unpredictable and one of a kind.
Postbankruptcy, Polaroid ended up as a subsidiary of Petters Group Worldwide, which has financial interests in more than 60 companies. By way of a licensing arrangement, Petters began selling things like Polaroid-branded DVD players and flat-panel TVs in 2002, acquiring the reorganized company outright in 2005. The latest plan involves a deal to sell “digital instant mobile photo printers” created by Zink Imaging (founded by some ex-Polaroiders) under the Polaroid name. The creative fringe that still loves instant photography does not seem to be satisfied with this. That’s why they are creating Web sites like SavePolaroid.com, starting Internet petitions and Facebook fan pages, creating online Polaroid photo pools and using every other tool the digital world provides, to advocate the analog process they love.