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How Polaroid pioneered the instant photography revolution


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Finally tonight: When it comes to photography, we're all pretty much living in the Insta world. We want our pictures now or never.

Many think it was Polaroid that set us on that path with its first revolutionary camera dating back to 1947.

The museum at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is now telling the story of how the Polaroid era began, and the artists who were there to make it happen.

Special correspondent bow Jared Bowen of public media station WGBH Boston reports.

It's part of our ongoing series on arts and culture, Canvas.

Jared Bowen: For Ansel Adams, it answered the call of the wild. Chuck Close used it to get up close and personal. William Wegman thought it was horseplay.

It was the Polaroid camera. And when it came to photography, it changed everything.

William Ewing: You can see around me on the walls all kinds of surfaces and all kinds of ways of manipulating the materials.

I think, probably, it drove some of the engineers at Polaroid mad, because the artists were just ignoring the rules and just making it up.

Jared Bowen: Here at the MIT Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts, just a few blocks away from where the Polaroid camera was invented, are decades of Polaroids.

Virtually from the day it was born, artists were given cameras and film to experiment, says curator William Ewing, starting with Ansel Adams.

William Ewing: He was the bait. 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.

Jared Bowen: The Polaroid camera bypassed the entire process of developing film. For the first time ever, artists had an immediate look at their work.

William Ewing: It was a very small thing you could hold in the hand, but you had to participate in the making of the picture. The thing whirred and clicked. The picture came out and developed slowly. And that was described as magic.

Deborah Douglas: I'm going to take a picture now, Jared.

Jared Bowen: Do you want me to pose for you?

Deborah Douglas: Yes, please. OK.


Deborah Douglas: OK.

And it's going to take probably 20 full minutes, but that blue sheet is the opacification, and in a couple of minutes, this will emerge. So I'm going to take...

Jared Bowen: Twenty minutes?

Deborah Douglas: I know. It's not an instant at all.


Jared Bowen: Deborah Douglas is the purveyor of Polaroid at the MIT Museum. The pioneer, though, was Edwin Land, owner of an innovation lab who conceived of an instant camera in 1943 and launched it into top-secret development.

Deborah Douglas: It's called SX-70, S for secret, X for experimental, and 70 because that's the number. It could have been 68, 69, 71, 72.

Jared Bowen: The camera was an ingenious combination of mechanics and chemistry.

Deborah Douglas: All the little molecules are going around, and it says, oh, I need a red one here, a yellow one here, a blue one here, and just like your television that can combine red, green, blue on your screen and miraculously create the full spectrum.

Jared Bowen: The first Polaroid went on sale in Boston the day after Thanksgiving, 1948. It sold out in hours.

Deborah Douglas: Land didn't actually believe in marketing. He was even skeptical of his own company's efforts in that front.

He said, you just have to have a feel for this. This proved, by the way, very influential to a generation of entrepreneurs, most notably, Steve Jobs and Apple.

Jared Bowen: Well we're sitting on this floor right now that we would all recognize, wouldn't we?

Deborah Douglas: Yes, there's a rainbow stripe. And so it's not coincidental that the first Apple logos are rainbow stripes. That is an intentional homage to Edwin Land.

Jared Bowen: Of course, the cool quotient came from the artists, who were given cameras and film to take the technology wherever they wanted.

Tom Norton: It freed you up from all those chemicals and the processes in the labs and everything else. You could control it all yourself.

Jared Bowen: Artist Tom Norton had his go at Polaroid in the early 1980s.

Tom Norton: It's a vertical format. And I didn't want that. I want dancers to be jumping left-right. And so the only way to do that is to have a mirror system, so I made a mirror system that the camera was actually facing sideways.

Jared Bowen: Elsa Dorfman would use the Polaroid for portraiture. With Polaroid, Andy Warhol could be even more prolific. And Barbara Crane could revel in color.

William Ewing: These people felt they were part of a community. They weren't alone. So, you didn't just do your photographs, bring them to Polaroid, and forget about them. They would enter into the collection.

Jared Bowen: As we see here, in a history and appreciation that's still developing.

Do we have to do something? Do we have to shake it?

Deborah Douglas: No, you don't have to shake it. In fact, the engineers hated that.


Jared Bowen: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jared Bowen in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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