Photography has never been faster to made and share than in our modern “insta” era, but over half a century ago, it was American scientist Edwin Land and his company Polaroid that helped the industry take a giant step forward in speed and ease. PBS NewsHour just aired this 5-minute segment that looks at Polaroid’s history and influence.
PBS paid a visit to MIT, which is currently running a traveling exhibition titled “The Polaroid Project: At the Intersection of Art and Technology.”
Edwin Land first conceived of an instant camera back in 1943 and then launched a top-secret program in his innovation lab to develop it — in the famous SX-70 camera’s name, the ‘S’ and ‘X’ stand for “secret” and “experimental” (and the number was rather arbitrary).
Digital photos are quite literally instant photos these days, but analog instant photos took several minutes to fully develop — hardly “instant” by our modern standards, but revolutionary compared to the time it had previously taken photographers to see the results of their exposures.
After the birth of Polaroid’s instant photo technology, artists were given cameras and instant film to test out. And Ansel Adams was one of the first guinea pigs.
“He was the bait,” curator William Ewing tells PBS. “Ansel gets very excited at times. He said, oh, you should use it. They should use it in the theater. You should use it in astronomy. He gets really excited.”
Early versions of Polaroid instant film needed to dry, so shaking the pictures did help speed the development process up. But once Polaroid improved its technologies, shaking was no longer necessary (and was actually discouraged). The famous Outkast song “Hey Ya!,” which popularized the phrase “shake it like a Polaroid picture,” didn’t help in educating the public on best practices.
“No, you don’t have to shake it,” MIT Museum curator Deborah Douglas tells PBS. “In fact, the engineers hated that.”