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Elsa Dorfman

The Polaroid: the iPod of another generation

By Elsa Dorfman
January 11, 2009
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MY LOVE OF Polaroid began in 1962 when I met photographer Nicholas Dean at the Grolier bookstore in Harvard Square. He worked at Polaroid as a technical researcher, and part of his job was to test new films. On his lunch hour and after work, he would drop by the store, then as now a destination for poets, and take pictures of anyone who was hanging around. They were were black-and-white photos. Peel apart, with a stick of preservative to fix the image from the ravages of light.

In 1964, I moved into an apartment building where a Polaroid original, Dr. Cutler DeLong West, who started to work in crystallography with Edwin Land before Polaroid was even called Polaroid, lived on the first floor. West rode his beat-up bike to Polaroid every day, ate all his meals in the company cafeteria, and exuded the Polaroid legend of mad scientist.

The Polaroid camera was my generation's iPod, our BlackBerry, our GPS, our Kindle - that piece of technology that wows and then becomes an extension of the hand. And Dr. Land, always called Dr. although he didn't have his PhD, was our Steve Jobs. He was a brilliant scientist who got Ansel Adams, Marie Cosindas, and Walker Evans to use his instant cameras with panache.

In the late 1970s came a huge technological innovation: color instant film and a new model camera that was designed for it: the SX70. The seventh wonder of the world, many called it. The film pack had a battery in it so that the camera could eject the image from the film pack. And there was nothing to peel apart. The picture developed in its thin packet within 60 seconds. The camera folded up flat.

The camera I still use, the refrigerator-sized Polaroid 20-by-24-inch Land Camera, was made to show off the charms and possibilities of the new color film. Land wanted to see how big he could make an instant camera. Getting the chemicals to spread evenly so as to transfer the image, from the negative to the positive, and to develop in 80 seconds, was a technological tour-de-force.

My love affair with the 20-by-24 was instantaneous. The color of the film I used, called P3, was soft and the images seemed three-dimensional. I loved the gravitas of the camera and its simplicity: really a grandly enlarged cereal box with a hole in the front to let in light, and the Polaroid transfer mechanism in the back to catch the light. And there was something mystical about the fact I had to get on my knees to manually pull the packet of negative, chemical pod, and positive out of the camera.

And then the world shifted. Polaroid announced recently it would no longer manufacture instant film. No two photographers can get together without talking about Polaroid. What happened?

It's hard to get past the disappointment and anger - the harsh reality - that Polaroid film is gone. It is beyond belief that Polaroid sold - for scrap! - the machines that made the film, that it let the inventory of chemicals dwindle. Some people say it goes back to Dr. Land and his brilliant scientist/marketer/businessman dichotomy. Many say it was the lawsuit between Polaroid and Kodak, which ate up time, money, attention. Hadn't Land heard of licensing his technology? Some say it was the Polaroid culture. Others say Polaroid could have survived if management and shareholders were content with a small profit rather than a huge pre-bubble profit. Many ask: With all the MBAs our country churns out, how come someone hadn't learned how to save Polaroid? Did digital, even though it doesn't give you an instant image to hold, make the end inevitable?

In the end, each person has her or his own list of villains. At the top of my list is Polaroid's latest owner, Tom Petters of Minnesota, credited with selling the machines for scrap, dismantling the company, deciding all he wanted was Polaroid's brand name. I take cold and sad comfort that Petters, after ruining Polaroid, was indicted by the US Department of Justice, and is now awaiting trial, accused of conducting a 12-year Ponzi scheme.

Elsa Dorfman is a portrait photographer in Cambridge and New York. Her website is www.elsadorfman.com.

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