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


The Polaroid is a cultural artifact widely referenced in popular media and music. Established in 1937, the Polaroid revolutionized the world of photography by making film accessible to the masses. When the digital wave came in, Polaroid refused to go digital, wanting to retain its original essence. Instant: The Story of Polaroid tracks the transformation of the camera from film to digital.

Late in his life, Polaroid founder Edwin Land explained one of the keys to his remarkable success: “My whole life has been spent trying to teach people that intense concentration for hour after hour can bring out in people resources they didn’t know they had.”

Instant: The Story of Polaroid, a new book about the history of the Polaroid camera company, draws a blatant connection between Land and Steve Jobs. The Apple patriarch once named Land as one of his greatest inspirations. Both men dropped out of college at an early age to pursue technological careers and almost single-handedly developed and marketed revolutionary technological products.

Bonanos sharply describes Polaroid’s origins by discussing the company’s boom during the Second World War from developing goggles and other combat equipment. The writing chronicles the process that led to the simple question, “Why can’t I see the picture now?” that inspired Land to create an instant camera.

Land, known for his ability to invent overnight, “originally conceived the concept for the camera with his daughter in 1943, and had worked it out of his system in a few hours.  Except for those few problems it took from 1943-1972 to solve.” Land befriended photographers and artists and persuaded them to use his new camera with his considerable charisma and by offering them free film and equipment.  One of the earliest and most loyal adopters was photographer Ansel Adams.  Adams produced some of his most famous pieces—including El Capitan and Sunrise—on Polaroid film.  He was also influential in the development of a professional grade Polaroid camera, the Type 55, which, unlike most other Polaroid cameras, also produced a reusable negative print.

Andy Warhol also used a cheap version of a Polaroid camera called the “Big Shot” to take the photos on which he based his famous celebrity screen prints. The likes of Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, and Elizabeth Taylor sat for Warhol while he photographed them on Polaroid film.

At the dawn of the digital revolution, even when executives at Polaroid saw digital photography coming, Polaroid, unlike Apple, was unwilling to cannibalize its current product by developing a new product that might be more competitive.

Digital came along killing all things analog, and in 2008 the company ended production of Polaroid film.  Luckily, the next generation of photographers and artists are growing up with a nostalgic affinity for the gadgets of their parents and grandparents generations.  Polaroid camera look-alikes and film knock-offs, like vinyl records, are as ubiquitous today and embraced by the hipster generation. Bonano’s well-researched and succinct book introduces the history of the influential Polaroid to a new group of young