The inventor of the Polaroid camera – Edwin Herbert Land

The first instant camera was invented by the American physicist and industrialist Edwin Herbert Land, who was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1909.
Before he presented his invention to the Optical Society of America in New York on February 21, 1947, he had developed a polarizing filter made of plastic in 1932. To do this, Land successfully embedded tiny crystals in a thin plastic film, calling his invention “Polaroid”. This filter can absorb the light from unwanted reflections and make contrasts in a photograph starker and colors more vivid. Up until that point, the polarization process had always required large pieces of crystal. To be able to work on his invention, Land left Harvard University in 1928, one year before he was due to graduate.
Together with his physics teacher, George Wheelwright, Land set up a laboratory a few years later. This became the Polaroid Corporation in 1937 and its initial market was in polarized sunglasses.
Edwin Herbert Land was inspired to develop instant pictures in 1944 when, on a family vacation, his three-year-old daughter asked why she couldn’t see the picture he had just taken of her on his camera.
Land’s research program was supported by colleagues at Kodak, who supplied him with the chemicals he needed for his experiments without knowing what he was actually up to. Polaroid had collaborated with Kodak since the 1930s, since the company was the first largest purchaser of Lands’ polarizing polymer, which was used in camera lenses.
Three years on, the technology was so well advanced that it was used for the first time in a bellows camera. Another twelve months later, in 1948, Land developed a new type of bellows camera, which he christened the Land Camera. The original model had two separate spools, one with the positive and one with the negative, so that the film could develop inside the camera.
Polaroid initially produced only a small number of Land Cameras, but the company seriously underestimated the demand. All 56 cameras and films, which were offered in a Boston store for just under $90, sold out in just one day, on November 26, 1948.

Edwin Herbert Land demonstrates his instant camera or Land Camera, manufactured by Polaroid, circa 1947. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The Polaroid film

The first Polaroid films were known as peel-apart films consisting of a negative and a positive sheet. After the picture was taken, the film was pulled out of the side of the camera, passing between two rollers, which in turn spread a reagent between the positive and the negative layers. The negative was peeled off the positive image after a development time of 30 to 90 seconds. The development time had to be strictly observed to ensure the contrasts were not too stark or the colors distorted. This is why instant cameras from that time had analog timers with countdowns as well as pull-out aluminum plates printed with tables of development times. The photo developed best between the two layers.
In the first two years, the films produced sepia-toned photographs, but from 1950 they were black and white. But photos made with Type 41 film faded quickly and a stopgap solution had to be found, the so-called print coater – a small tube containing a swab soaked in liquid plastic was enclosed with each roll of film. After the development time, the photos had to be coated with this clear varnish to seal the images. This triggered a practice that is still seen today. Because the freshly coated photos were wet, people would wave them in the air to dry them. The term “Polaroid shake” was coined. The ritual has persisted even though subsequent films were produced without coating and waving a picture does not accelerate the development process.
It wasn’t until 1963 that the Polacolor film came onto the market, now making it possible to produce instant prints in color. These photos did not need subsequent coating.
In 1968, when Polaroid had become one of Kodak’s most important customers, Land presented Kodak executives with the prototype of a new generation of Polaroid films. For the first time ever, the photo would come straight out of the camera and require no further processing. You could simply hold the photo in your hand and watch it develop in the light. Land was convinced this would revolutionize photography. After carrying out market analyses, Kodak came to the conclusion that the development would lead to sales losses amounting to many billions. So the company changed its mind and demanded licenses for its support in order to be able to produce competitive products. But Land refused. Now, without Kodak’s help, Polaroid built new factories so that it could manufacture all photographic materials itself for the first time.
In 1972, Polaroid then introduced its SX-70 instant camera-film combination. The camera was a mini revolution. It was not only the first fold-down SLR camera but also the first camera to use the new integral print film. This film contained all film parts within the photo which was automatically ejected from the camera. Just seconds after pressing the shutter release, the photographer could hold the photo in his hands.

Ansel Adams, El Capitan, Yosemite Valley, California, 4×5 Polaroid Land Film, Type 55 P/N

How Polaroid engaged artists

Polaroid started collaborating with photographers after Edwin Land met photographer Ansel Adams in 1948. Impressed by Land’s work on photographic technologies and vision, Adams suggested he tested Polaroid’s products. He was of the opinion the company should involve photographers in its research and development processes and advised it to start an art collection, which he helped build. As part of his consultancy work, Adams tested all of Polaroid’s major cameras and films, from the early Model 95 to the SX-70 color camera.
In the 1960s, Land’s informal offers to artists such as David Hockney and Andy Warhol to use the company’s equipment and film eventually evolved into the Artists Support Program, which also gave them access to their own 20×24-inch Polaroid camera studio. The artists, in turn, supplied the Polaroid Collection with samples of work they had produced using Polaroid technology.
The idea was introduced in Europe, where prominent photographers such as Sarah Moon, David Bailey and Helmut Newton were also provided with equipment and film. These works formed the basis of the international Polaroid collection which developed in the 1970s and 1980s as more and more photographers applied for film and camera funding. The vast collection was exhibited in 2018 as The Polaroid Project at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe in Hamburg, Germany. The Polaroid Artists Collection consists of over 16,000 prints by some 120 photographers, including Ansel Adams, Mary Ellen Marks, Philippe Halsman, Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Mapplethorpe, Margaret Bourke-White and Inge Morath.
Being extremely unpredictable, however, the artists did not always follow guidelines or product manuals. Many began to tinker, explore and test the limits of what Polaroid film should or was able to achieve. The 1970s saw an explosion of creativity, and for many people, the Polaroid film was like a blank canvas. They played with it – adding or deleting things, or developing a special technique that was to become their own distinctive style in photography and film development.

Robert Rauschenberg, From the Bleacher Series: Chinese Tree, 1988, Manipulated black-and-white Polaroid photograph on aluminum

Polaroid camera SX-70 – the legend

The Polaroid SX-70 camera was first sold in Miami, Florida, in 1972, becoming available nationally from fall 1973. The camera was a mini revolution. It was the first SLR camera with a fold-up design and the first camera to use integral film. Integral film differs from peel-apart film in that all film parts are integrated into the automatically ejected photo. The photo no longer has to be separated from the negative.
The SX-70 instant film produced excellent-quality photos, but it had only a limited exposure latitude and therefore had to be exposed very carefully.
The SX-70 gained cult status not just because of its unusual fold-up design, but also because it was used by numerous contemporary artists, including Andy Warhol, Helmut Newton and Walker Evans. It even appeared as a film prop, for the first time in Wim Wenders’ movie Alice in the Cities.

Wim Wenders, Alice in den Städten, 1974
Oliviero Toscani, Andy Warhol, 1975, New York

Polaroid 600 camera – icons of the 1980s

In late 1981, early 1982, the 600 film was introduced as the successor to the SX-70. With ISO 640 rather than ISO 160, the film was more light-sensitive than the SX-70 and required its own type of camera. This was the Polaroid OneStep 600, the first camera that was designed for the new film. In addition to higher light sensitivity, the new camera type had another advantage: it was much more affordable than the comparatively high-priced SX-70.
The success of the 600 series led to the development of many different models tailored to specific target groups, such as children or professional photographers. While the 600 film was used in cameras for beginners, the larger 1200 film type, also known as Image or Spectra, appeared shortly after to cater to the professional market. Polaroid’s now famous 600 series, with its classic, angular pop-up design, has defined the image of the instant camera like no other camera and contributed significantly to its global popularity. It has been immortalized in pop culture in countless movies and music videos, and was a constant companion in the memories of an entire generation.

Kodak and other manufacturers of instant cameras

In 1976, Kodak began producing its own instant cameras. Polaroid saw this as an infringement of its patents and sued the company, winning the legal dispute in 1985. Kodak had to pay millions of dollars in compensation. The Japanese company Fuji also wanted to get involved in the business and signed a contract with Kodak to manufacture instant cameras with a similar design. Despite the patent infringement, Fuji had more luck than Kodak. It reached an agreement with Polaroid and was allowed to continue to sell its products. This is still the case today, particularly since Polaroid’s patents have since expired.

Photographed with a Kodak CHAMP Kodamatic in 1984. In January of 1986, Kodak admitted defeat: it would make no more CHAMPs or any other kind of instant camera. (Credits: emperornorton)

The end of Polaroid’s cult camera

The 1990s marked the start of Polaroid’s decline. The company tried to appeal to amateur photographers and the younger generation with new product lines such as Captiva and iZone, compact instant cameras that produced small-format photos. But these cameras failed to achieve the same success as the Polaroid cult camera and production of the cameras was soon discontinued.
Another factor that contributed to the company’s decline was the advent of digital photography in the 1990s and the rapid improvement of its quality. Instant cameras were no longer in demand. Digital photography made it possible to take and display on small screens higher-quality photos with just one click, without development time, without paper. And not only that, the photos could be distributed and reproduced any number of times.
After it first registered insolvency, the Polaroid brand was licensed to other companies, enabling them to release a wide range of products under the Polaroid name. In 2008, Polaroid finally filed for bankruptcy. The company stopped producing its instant cameras in February 2008, and in June of the same year, production of the T600, the last Polaroid film, was discontinued at the Enschede factory in the Netherlands.

Recent history – Polaroid becomes the “Impossible Project”

When the company filed for bankruptcy in 2008, Austrian photographer Florian Kaps and a small group of instant photography fans decided to rescue the last remaining factory in the Netherlands and revive Polaroid instant film technology. Together with André Bosman and Marwan Saba, Kaps founded The Impossible Project in the same year and bought the factory in Enschede. But the machines were defect, the chemical formulas lost and many suppliers had already stopped producing the necessary materials. So the films had to be partially redesigned in collaboration with Ilford Photo. In 2010, the company started selling newly produced instant films for old Polaroid cameras and in 2016 introduced the first camera model Impossible Project I-1. By this point, founder Florian Kaps had already withdrawn from the company, stepping down from his position as CEO in 2013.
In 2017, Polish investor Wiaczesław “Slava” Smołokowski acquired Polaroid’s parent company, PLR IP Holdings LLC. His son Oskar Smołokowski had been CEO of Impossible since 2015, which meant that both companies were now under the control of the Smołokowski family. The Impossible Project was subsequently renamed Polaroid Originals. Since 2020, the company has been called Polaroid B.V.