Shake it Like a…

Peter Buse – The Camera Does the Rest, How Polaroid Changed Photography (University of Chicago Press)

‘Every photographic print is a material object, but a Polaroid is somehow more so’. Such is the rationale for Peter Buse’s latest book; a study in the cultural history of Polaroids.

Even the term, ‘Polaroids’, distinguishes the products of this iconic company from other images (whether on film or digital). One wouldn’t refer to a cherished Fuji, or a secret stash of intimate Kodaks. Polaroids are something different.

At the heart of Buse’s study is the quintessential Polaroid, or lack of one. Rather, each generation experiences the very concept of the Polaroid anew. The first Polaroid film, released in the 1940s, introduced the world to automatically developing images and for a short while represented a luxury item. As Polaroid developed new technologies this luxury image was retained for its initial releases.

Land cameras found their way into the hands of movie stars, U.S. Presidents and, most influentially, Ansel Adams.

The world’s first inexpensive ‘instant camera’, the Polaroid Swinger, appeared in the 1960s. As the process produced no negative from which to make copies, and made darkroom skills redundant, the world of professional photography was immediately sceptical. Instead the Polaroid marketing department emphasised the fun of photography, targeting young women in particular as a market alienated by the technophile photographic elite.

The release of the SX-70 consolidated the company’s reputation for making party cameras. The SX-70 introduced the automated roller, pushing the photograph out directly towards the photographed. Rather than the private pursuit of the photographer, Buse argues, Polaroid’s cameras after the SX-70 turned photography into a social activity, a special event, something that’s fun to do, something to break the ice; a common practice being to give the photo to the sitter rather than have the taker keep them for themselves.

Contra-Sontag, Buse argues the memorial value of these photographs is a secondary characteristic. Polaroids were hardly Barthes’ memento mori, they were Instagram before the internet. The mythology of the Polaroid supports this interpretation and, according to Buse, the mythology is indeed largely mythical.

Other than the asymmetrical white borders (the bottom border being larger to house the ‘bubble’ of chemicals necessary for instant developing) the rest of Polaroid’s supposedly unique qualities were either untrue or shared with their competitors.

‘The film quality was terrible but more loveable as a result’, is a common presumption, ‘the image was wet and needed to be shaken dry or stuck under an armpit, that the colours of the film were highly saturated, and of course, that the images soon faded away’. In fact, a scientific comparison found Polaroids to be of comparable image quality with competing non-instant film, and they had similar levels of saturation.

Salesmen were so frustrated by the fading myth that they’d cellotape a Polaroid onto a window directly facing the sun and stick a Kodak photo next to it. Within a week this would allow their clients to compare the fading themselves, with Kodak always fading faster.

The myth of fading can be attributed to the Polaroid’s reputation for fun, ie/ a lack of seriousness and a lack of permanence. As much as this reputation was fostered by the company there was also a simultaneous effort to win over the world of high art.

Ansel Adams was part of this movement; acting as a consultant to the company from 1961. His work in Polaroid appeared regularly in avant garde magazines like Aperture along with essays on the pedagogical potential of instant film. Polaroid cameras might be used for fun, these essays argued, but they were far from being mere toys.

Dr David Land, the famed inventor behind Polaroid, shared these aspirations, albeit with a populist’s focus on showmanship. Buse returns to the enigmatic Land on a number of occasions, most compellingly when discussing his annual general meeting appearances. Buse gives the impression of Land as a proto-Steve Jobs, lecturing his engineers, sales teams and investors alike on colour theory and Bergsonian philosophy between product releases.

‘In 1971’ Buse describes, ‘Land stood on stage and pulled a closed SX-70 prototype camera out of his suitcoat and showed it to the audience without explaining what it was except to suggest that [it] would be disclosed at some future date’.

By the 1980s the Polaroid AGM came complete with circus animals, live musicians and, in 1986, a building-sized replica of the Spectra System camera: The Camera Does the Rest is filled with fascinating insights like these. It provides a thorough overview of Polaroid’s history without the wearying detail which might come of a comprehensive study. It contains vital theoretical insights not only about photography but about the history of technology, memory and nostalgia. It is compelling written, an entertaining read and a case study in how to do cultural studies properly.

As a reader from the post-Polaroid generation I was particularly interested in the section regarding contemporary hipsterdom’s relationship with Polaroid. The Impossible Project, who now manufacture Polaroid-eque film for sale online, are often considered to be pandering to nostalgia or else harbouring an obtuse attachment to obsolete technology.

Especially perplexing are those too young to have purchased film from Polaroid, who ceased production in 2008, and yet purchase replica film today at around $3 a photo. Polaroid’s materiality, Buse argues, has come to signify materiality itself. And materiality, in an era of the all-pervasive digital, is now a valuable commodity.

Misguided or not, the book makes one thing is clear; these neo-Polaroids are simply the next iteration of a form which has traversed the artistic, the popular and occasionally the seedy on its journey to becoming iconic.

– Joe Darlington