Polaroid, that thing that happened before Instagram happened, is one of the fascinating untold tech stories of our time. In the recently released Instant: The Story of Polaroid, Christopher Bonanos recounts the stunning day the inventors of Polaroid first unveiled their new technology.
An ad executive once said that Polaroid was the easiest sell imaginable because "all you have to do is show the product." He was overstating the case, but he had a point. Edwin Land's great knack for demonstration, twinned with the party-trick nature of the instant camera, was always the best way to get people excited about Polaroid. In 1947, when he was ready to reveal it to the world, he handled its debut like a maestro.
It was at a bone-dry scientific meeting of the Optical Society of America, held at the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York City. Land and company had modified an 8-by-10-inch view camera, one of those large-format mahogany beauties, installing a back that could hold rolls of film and paper. A desktop processing rig with motorised rollers sat next to it. The Polaroid team had rehearsed over and over, knowing that in front of the press, they'd have only one chance to get everything right. On February 21, they arrived at the meeting just as New York was hit by a severe blizzard.
The invisible ace that Land held in his pocket was an understanding of his audience. The seated members of the Society were certainly going to find his invention interesting-they were engineers and scientists. But the guys in the back of the room, newspaper and magazine photographers and reporters, had the real power, and they were another matter. Imagine what a 1940s newspaper photographer did every day. He went out, got his shots, and then hauled himself back to the office on deadline, whereupon the gnomes in the darkroom processed what he'd shot. If what he'd done was overexposed, underexposed, or otherwise lousy, he'd get a tongue-lashing from the photo desk. If only he could see it right away.
Land began speaking and setting up his demonstration, gradually taking his place in front of the view camera. He fired the shutter with a cable release, taking a picture of his own face. He had just exposed a big negative inside the camera, much as the guys in the press pool were doing with their beat-up Speed Graphics. A moment later, Otto Wolff, who was working with Land, pulled the negative out of the camera, in the process joining it face to face with a sheet of glossy photo paper.
Between the two sheets, at one end of the picture, lay one of the principal Polaroid inventions: the pod. Relative to its importance, it looked like nothing special: a slim foil packet, as wide as the photo, containing perhaps an ounce of thick chemical reagent; almost everyone at Polaroid called the contents "goo." Once the multilayer paper sandwich came out of the camera, it was run between two precisely made steel rollers, bursting the pod and spreading its contents smoothly between the film and paper. The goo stood in for a darkroom's baths of wet chemistry, and there was just enough of it that the print came out nearly dry. It had taken a lot of effort to get the pod right. It had to break open and spread its contents the same way every single time, which meant that it had to be precisely filled and sealed.
Wolff and Land switched on the motor driving the rollers, and fed the photo through, breaking the pod open and starting development. "Fifty seconds," Land told the room, and set a timer. As Peter Wensberg tells the story, Land was terrified that it would fail in front of the reporters, and in the photos of the event, he does seem a little less confident than was his usual mien. He had bet his company and the livelihood of his remaining employees on this moment.
As the timer counted down, the inside of that paper sandwich was undergoing some remarkably complicated processes. One side, the negative, dampened with goo, had developed in a few seconds. Where its silver-halide crystals had been exposed-in what were the lightest, whitest areas of the subject-they had turned dark. The remaining silver halide, unexposed, was being chemically induced to send its silver across to the photo paper, where it made the dark areas of the final print. That was one of Land's great breakthroughs: The stuff that normally went down a darkroom drain was instead being used to make the picture itself. The fifty seconds on the timer wound down, and Land grasped one corner of the print, steeled himself, and peeled it off.
What he revealed was a perfect sepia portrait of himself. It may have been an accident that the 8-by-10 camera produced a photo almost the same size as his actual face, but that only added to the eeriness: There was Land, sitting at a table in his striped tie, displaying a fresh picture in which he sat at the same table, wearing the same striped tie. Wensberg says that "a gasp rippled around the room," and the New York Times reporter immediately demanded that he do it again. Land happily complied. The Polaroid team spent the rest of the evening shooting pictures of the dinner guests at the conference, and answered all their questions.
The next morning, the shot of Land revealing his own mug got big play in the New York Times, along with an appreciative editorial. Newspapers all over the country ran the story. The following Monday, it was the "Picture of the Week" in Life magazine, then the alpha and omega of American photojournalism. Maybe not coincidentally, Life was another place run by harried photo editors who viscerally understood what he'd done, and they gave Land's doubled visage one of their very large pages.
Remember that amateur photography, in 1947, had come along only a modest amount since Eastman's first film in 1888. Yes, the cameras were better and more versatile, and color was becoming widely available. When it came time to process your pictures, however, you had two choices: build yourself a darkroom, or get your film to a lab. If you didn't live in a big city, you were probably mailing your film back to Kodak, same as in 1888. The leap to Polaroid was like replacing a messenger on horseback with your first telephone. "There is nothing like this in the history of photography" was how the unsigned Times editorial put it.
Land insisted that this was simply the way things ought to be. As he said many years later, "Ask me a question. Okay, now suppose I say, if you will come back in seven days, I will give you the answer. Are you impatient?. . .Look, if the picture you get instantly is as beautiful as the picture you get by waiting seven days, then it is absolute madness to say that there is virtue in waiting."
Excerpted with permission from Instant: The Story of Polaroid by Christopher Bonanos. (Princeton Architectural Press, 2012)