What We Want
Photography changes the ways we interact with and make pictures of each other
Sam Yanes, communications consultant, describes the novelty and impact of “instant photography.”
Just before Christmas in 1946, two years before the first Polaroid camera would go on sale in a Boston department store, Edwin Land, Polaroid Corporation's founder, gathered employees at a movie theater in Harvard Square to watch a clip from Raoul Walsh’s The Horn Blows at Midnight. In the film, an angel, played by comedian Jack Benny and bound for a mission to earth, poses in front of an 8 x 10 studio camera for a passport photo. Another angel snaps his picture and then, instantaneously and miraculously, a finished portrait emerges from the camera. When the theater lights went back on, Land teased the audience, telling them that what they had just seen was not a fantasy, but what a select group of company researchers had been secretly working on.
In November 1948, instant photography was introduced to the buying public with the same mix of mystery and wonder. The first print ad for the Polaroid Land Camera in the Boston Globe promised, ". . . it works like magic!" The Model 95 was expensive—$89.75 or about $800 in today's money—but it enticed a post-World War II generation wanting to believe in inevitable progress and a better world. Science and technology had won the war; now new consumer products—from washing machines, to television sets, to instant cameras—promised to make people's lives easier, more fun, and change their relationship with the world around them.
Instant photography was successful from the start as the public embraced the new system not only for snapshots but also for professional, scientific, and technical applications. By 1950, instant photography had been adopted as an important tool in the fields of identification, evidence gathering, microscopy, oscillography, and art. In its first six years in the market, Polaroid would sell over one million cameras based on its original model.
Nearly a quarter of a century later, wonder and fantasy were still very much associated with instant photography. An October 27, 1972 issue of Life Magazine featured Dr. Land on its cover taking a picture with Polaroid's latest model. The new SX-70 camera, using a one-step photography system, ejected a square picture out the front of the camera that developed in daylight without the need for timing or the mess of peeling off a negative that was part of the earlier process. The headline on the magazine cover read, "A Genius and his Magic Camera." And to make sure that nobody missed the point that the SX-70 brought new theatrical and artistic qualities to the act of picture taking, Polaroid hired Laurence Olivier, the most accomplished actor of his generation, to introduce the product to the public in a series of novel television commercials.
While the SX-70 was indeed a technical marvel, it was the interactive picture-taking process inherent in the system that forced users into surprising new relationships with their surroundings and with the image itself. The SX-70's design and self-contained processes promoted the democratic notion that every person has the opportunity to become an artist, once the technical obstacles to that art are removed. The act of taking a photograph—thinking about it, choosing the exact moment to press the shutter, then immediately seeing, then reacting to the result—is an artistic and educational process that suits professionals and amateurs alike. It is also a process that values user invention and experimentation, two ideas that characterized the growth of the photographic arts in the Seventies and beyond.
The SX-70 also fostered new relationships between photographers and their subjects. Because of the film's intimate 3 x 3 format, the subjects in a SX-70 picture looked precious. When a picture was taken, the SX-70's motor whirred distinctively as the photograph spit out the front. Taking pictures of people with this camera was not like the near-silent sneak attack of a cell phone or digital camera. But rather than being an intrusion, the noise of the camera seemed like a reassuring handshake or hug, a sound that symbolized the collaboration between photographer and the person being photographed. It signaled that a deliberate and purposeful communication was happening right there and in the moment. And as pictures started to develop in the light of day, just seconds later, those behind and in front of the lens could share the results. No lab technician would ever see the record of these private and intimate encounters.
The magic of instant photography, along with live television, fed a public desire to see things instantly and as images. That expectation has now become an essential element in our cultural psyche and increasingly visual world. Decades after the introduction of instant photography, digital photography would further acknowledge and facilitate the same feelings and needs. This time, it was pioneering electronic engineers who would make sure that users could see their images instantly, knowing that they had come to expect no less from their picture taking devices.
Sam Yanes’ bio picture courtesy of Lindsay McCrum
- Jacob Yanes, 1977
- Sam Yanes