A Brief History of Photography: Part 9 – Polaroid & Instant Film

Consider, if you will, an ambitious young man entering Harvard University at age seventeen. After a year of study there, he finds that the established curriculum is stifling his creative spirit. He drops out after his freshman year and starts up his own research corporation, which transforms into a successful manufacturing concern that shakes up the marketplace with his breakout invention. This relentless spirit of innovation continues, with his company introducing a range of farsighted new products, culminating in a paradigm-shifting blockbuster new technology. While the parallels are certainly there, we are not speaking of Bill Gates and Microsoft, nor Steve Jobs and Apple, but of Edwin H. Land and Polaroid.

Edwin Herbert Land (1909-1991) was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, graduated high school in 1927, and then entered Harvard University to study chemistry. Fascinated by light polarization (used to research chemical compounds), he left Harvard after one year, moving to New York City to independently continue his scientific research in polarization. The prisms then in use in chemistry to examine polarization were expensive, but as a Harvard freshman, Land conceptualized the idea of lining up many tiny crystals in one direction and embedding them in a transparent plastic film. Land patented this new inexpensive sheet polarizer, the J sheet, in 1929, and together with his well heeled Harvard physics instructor, George Wheelright III, he established the Land-Wheelright Laboratories in 1932. As the potential became apparent for this new polarizing technology in the fields of glare-reducing sunglasses and photographic filters, in 1937 the corporation’s name was changed to reflect this new product’s popularity, and thus Polaroid Corporation came into being.

Edwin H. Land
Edwin H. Land (1909-1991)

When the U.S. entered World War II, Land and Polaroid Corporation applied their research and innovation to numerous military optics requirements, leading to the development of infrared polarizers, target finders, heat-stable filters, dark adaptation goggles for night-time fighting, the polarizing ring sight, the first passively guided smart bombs, and a stereoscopic viewing system (the Vectograph) for detecting camouflaged enemy facilities in aerial photography. This support for U.S. government programs continued through the 1950’s, when Polaroid played a key role in developing the optics for the U-2 spy plane, photographic satellites, and the Manned Orbiting Laboratory. Edwin Land’s drive, vision and leadership led to Harvard awarding him an honorary doctorate in 1957, even though he had never completed his studies at the university. When Edwin H. Land died in 1991, only Thomas Edison had more granted U.S. patents to his name.

Backing up a few years, in 1943 Land’s 3-year-old daughter asked why she could not immediately see the pictures he was taking of her with a typical camera of the day; at this time, there was about a week-long turnaround time for film photographs to be shot, mailed out for processing and printing, and their mailed return. Land decided to address this problem, and within an hour had determined the basic requirements for the camera, film, and chemistry. In early 1947 he demonstrated the first instant film camera (with the ironic project file name of “SX-70”) to the Optical Society of America. In late 1948 the Polaroid Land Camera Model 95 and Type 40 Land film went on sale, and inspired immense demand for this innovative technology that yielded a processed photographic print 60 seconds after being shot. Even though the film was relatively expensive, in 1949 Polaroid made over $5 million in camera sales alone.

Polaroid Land Camera Model 95
Polaroid Land Camera Model 95

Black and white instant film is much like regular silver-based photographic film, with a few added elements. A negative sheet is exposed and then aligned in the camera with a positive sheet that has a pod of chemical reagent at its leading edge. This two-sheet sandwich is then passed between two rollers, which break open the reagent pod and evenly spread the chemical between the two sheets. The negative develops quickly, after which the unexposed silver halides in the negative (which make up a latent positive image) are solubilized by the reagent and then transferred by diffusion from the negative sheet to the positive sheet. After a minute the sheets are peeled apart to reveal the completed positive print.

Polaroid Film Roller Processing
Polaroid Film Roller Processing

The original Type 40 Land film was roll type film, in which separate positive and negative rolls were loaded into the camera; after each shot, these were aligned and processed in the camera, and then cut off with an integral cutter. After the 60 seconds processing time had elapsed, a door was opened on the back of the camera and the finished print could be removed. These positive prints needed to be coated with a fixer to prevent fading, a messy inconvenience that led to the development of pack films in the early 1960’s. The pack films, with 8 or 10 shots per pack, featured negative-positive sheet pairs pre-aligned in the pack and advanced through the rollers by pulling paper tabs, and no requirement for post-development coatings.

Polaroid Roll-Film Camera
Polaroid Roll-Film Camera

In 1963, when the pack film variants began to appear, Polaroid also began offering color instant films, both in roll film and pack film formats. These color films employed the same mechanical camera features for exposure and processing as the earlier monochromatic films, but the reagent chemistry was modified to employ dye couplers similar to conventional color film systems, employing the subtractive color theory. After passing through the camera rollers, the reagent developed each color layer of the film in turn. The chemicals then dissolved the developer dyes in each color layer, allowing them to diffuse up into the positive layer to create the final image.

Until 1972, Polaroid’s progress in instant photography was focused on expanding the offered range of b&w and color films, and targeting their products more towards the consumer end of the market spectrum. While Polaroid always offered higher end camera systems for professional and technical use, it tried to cater more to the casual photographer, and began offering simpler, less expensive, and easier to use cameras for broad consumption. Land was still concerned about the complexity of the instant film system, and sought to make it simpler. He also was determined to eliminate the messy waste of torn-off papers and caustic chemicals posed by the roll and pack instant films.

El Capitan, Sunrise, Winter Yosemite National Park, 1976 Print from 1968 Polaroid negative, by Ansel Adams
El Capitan, Sunrise, Winter Yosemite National Park, 1976 Print from 1968 Polaroid negative, by Ansel Adams

While extremely popular with the buying public, and financially successful projects, the instant cameras Polaroid offered from 1948 to 1972 still failed to completely meet Land’s vision for what instant photography could be. In the late 1960’s, he accordingly directed work on a new project, revisiting the original aims of the instant photography concept, learning from the previous work, but starting with a clean slate to incorporate the latest technological advances without compromises. A single sheet of paper, typed in triple-space, listed his instructions for Polaroid’s engineers: “Compact, Integral, Single-Lens Reflex, Garbage-Free.” This project, returning to the beginning, was titled “SX-70.”

The new project required a camera and film technology that while based on previous efforts, would be completely new. The camera needed to be compact, “pocket-sized,” so it could be inconspicuously and readily carried by anyone at any time. A single lens reflex (SLR) design would allow composition, focusing, and exposure through a single lens. The folding feature of the compact design led to an internal mirror system that both reflected the light from the subject to the film plane and through the viewfinder. The compactness of the camera also dictated an advanced, for 1972, reliance on micro circuitry to precisely control the sequence and timing of events from exposure through film ejection.

The new film needed to be integral, with everything required for processing contained with the film itself, leaving no messy chemical residues, paper discards, or other waste. This meant that the film required a clear protective top layer, yet would need to protect the emulsion from light after ejection from the camera. This in turn required the addition of opacifiers to the film, which when activated by the chemical reagent, initially created an opaque layer between the light sensitive emulsions and the clear outer layer. The reagent developers then activated the color layers, releasing their dyes to migrate up to the image layer. Finally, after a time delay, an acid layer between the image layer and the clear top layer was activated, clearing the opacifiers, and revealing the image layer below.

Polaroid SX-70 Film Cross-Section
Polaroid SX-70 Film Cross-Section

With this processing scheme, when a picture was taken the film would be immediately ejected and the development could take place in bright sunshine without affecting the exposure. As the development progressed and the opaque layer began to clear, one could watch the blank white image on the film gradually clear to reveal the picture below. The complexity of the camera’s operation required electrically powered microcircuits and motors in the camera, and to preclude failures from dead batteries, a ribbon battery was integrated into the film pack to ensure fresh power for all of the camera’s functions.

Modern Romance 1984-86, SX-70 Polaroid Print by David Levinthal
Modern Romance 1984-86, SX-70 Polaroid Print by David Levinthal

In 1972, after years of development and an investment of $600 million, Polaroid introduced the SX-70; Edwin Land had, in fact, bet the company on the new camera system. A billion Polaroid images were taken in 1974, and within a few years Polaroid had reached over $1 billion in annual sales. Respected photographers and artists over the years came to embrace the Polaroid, in one format or another, as a valid artistic medium; these included Ansel Adams, Walker Evans, Andy Warhol, and many others. Countless others found the Polaroid a ready and entertaining means of capturing everyday moments of their lives with their friends and family, in a way that would not be seen again until the ascent of the smart phone camera.

Andy Warhol with SX-70 Camera
Andy Warhol with SX-70 Camera

In 1974, Edwin Land wrote, “A new kind of relationship between people in groups is brought into being…when the members of a group are photographing and being photographed and sharing the photographs… It turns out that buried within us…there is latent interest in each other; there is tenderness, curiosity, excitement, affection, companionability and humor…. We have a yen for and a primordial competence for a quiet good-humored delight in each other: We have a prehistoric tribal competence…in being partners in the lonely exploration of a once-empty planet.”

Edwin Land with SX-70 Camera on the cover of October 27, 1972 issue of LIFE
Edwin Land with SX-70 Camera on the cover of October 27, 1972 issue of LIFE

(Next Time: Digital Photography’s Beginnings)

This is the ninth installment of an ongoing series on the history and development of the art of photography. It is inspired by the History of Photography class taught by Professor Jeff Curto in the College of DuPage Photography Program. While not a slavish copy of his work, I freely admit to following his general course outline and sharing many of the perspectives he has developed. I would encourage anyone with a greater interest in this subject to follow his course online via video podcasts, at http://photohistory.jeffcurto.com.


A World History of Photography, 4th Ed, 2007 by Naomi Rosenblum

History of Photography Podcasts, class lectures with Jeff Curto from College of DuPage http://photohistory.jeffcurto.com

Adams, Ansel, Philadelphia Museum of Art: Collections, “El Capitan, Sunrise, Winter Yosemite National Park,” 1968 and 1974, http://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/123284.html?mulR=688

Bio., “Edwin Land Biography,” http://www.biography.com/people/edwin-land-9372429

Bonanos, Christopher, The Wall Street Journal: Life & Culture, “It’s Polaroid’s World – We Just Live in It,” Nov 9, 2012, http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887324439804578108840573155684

Bonanos, Christopher, Polaroidland, “The Book,” http://www.polaroidland.net/the-book/

Caldwell, Joshua Ray, “The Polaroid SX-70 Land Camera: A Unique Tool for Creating Artistic Imagery,” http://joshuacaldwell.com/home/jcaldwell/files/polaroidsx-70.pdf

Camerapedia, “Polaroid,” http://camerapedia.wikia.com/wiki/Polaroid

Harris, Tom, How Stuff Works, “How Instant Film Works,” http://science.howstuffworks.com/innovation/everyday-innovations/instant-film.htm

Kimmelman, Michael, The New York Times: Week in Review, “ The Polaroid: Imperfect, Yet Magical,” Dec 27, 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/28/weekinreview/28kimmelman.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&

Levinthal, David, davidlevinthal.com, “Works: Modern Romance 1984-86,” http://www.davidlevinthal.com/works.html

MacNeil, Jessica, EDN Network, “Polaroid introduces the instant camera, February 21, 1947,” Feb 21, 2014, http://www.edn.com/electronics-blogs/edn-moments/4407362/Polaroid-introduces-the-instant-camera–February-21–1947

Newmediastudies.com, “Polaroid for life,” http://www.bu.edu/prc/forms/polatimeline.pdf

PHOTOGRAPHIC RESOURCE CENTER at boston university, “A Brief Timeline of Polaroid,” http://www.bu.edu/prc/forms/polatimeline.pdf

Polaroid.com, “Explore The History of Polaroid,” http://www.polaroid.com/history

The Land List – Film Index, http://www.rwhirled.com/landlist/landfilm.htm

The Rowland Institute at Harvard, “Dr. Edwin H. Land (1909-1991),” http://www2.rowland.harvard.edu/book/edwin-h-land

Wikipedia, “Edwin H. Land,” http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edwin_H._Land

Wikipedia, “Instant camera,” http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Instant_camera

Wikipedia, “Instant film,” http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Instant_film#Black_and_white_roll.2Fpack_film








5 thoughts on “A Brief History of Photography: Part 9 – Polaroid & Instant Film

  1. My brother suggested I may like this website. He was totally right.
    This submit actually made my day. You can not believe simply how much time I
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  2. im trying to obtain information on my polaroid sx-70 land camera it is brown leather and chrome case all i find are black we bought it back when they first came out want to sell it but dont know how much i should ask for and where film and cant find a battery spot would appreciate any information

    1. Polaroid no longer manufactures any film, but The Impossible Project has reverse engineered the film and manufactures color and black & white film for the SX-70. Check eBay completed sales info to see the latest prices SX-70s are bringing.

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