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Polaroid Now: Its History and Future

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday August 26, 2021

I’m a Polaroid nut—in the sense that this instant picture-making invention has always been of significant interest. I got the SX-70 when it was launched because back in the day you didn’t have to wait six months for the manufacturer to get the bugs out. That’s the kind of company that Edwin H. Land founded, headed, and operated until it went bankrupt—not once, but twice.

And I made several visits to the pre-auction exhibition of works from the historic Polaroid Collection at Sothebys, in 2010—the last time major works from the collection of images created through the company’s Artist Support program were seen in public in the US. Additionally I wrote a promo piece commissioned in 2012 by its first subsequent owner, which included interviews with Mary Ellen Mark, Joel Meyerowitz, and Chuck Close. So when Chronicle Books' Chroma imprint announced the release of Polaroid Now” The History and Future of Polaroid Photography, my interest piqued. Above: Andy Warhol with Polaroid SX-70; photo courtesy of Heritage Auctions, HA.com

 

A colorful brick of 300+ pages, it presents hundreds of new images by contemporary artists and many from the original Polaroid Collection of then, including Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Chuck Close and more. With essays by John Reuter, former director of the influential Polaroid 20x24 Studio; current Polaroid CEO Oskar Smolokowski; and Steve Crist, who also edited The Polaroid Book by Barbara Hitchcock, this new entry will do well for those who missed out on the huge contributions made by Land and his teams of scientists who continually invented new technologies that enabled the company to continually reinvent the brand. Above: Matt Smith, Porthleven 2, 2019

 Oskar  Smolokowski tells of his experiments with the SX-70, combined with his 2011 visit to the interim Impossible Project showroom that was the precursor of today's The Impossible Project: Polaroid, which now produces Polaroid cameras and films under that name. He warmly conveys the ways in which the magic of Polaroid first “took the world by storm” and later swept him into the formation of the current Polaroid company, as both an investor and an employee. He writes, “[The] idea of business being at the intersection of art and science became a guiding north star for Polaroid—a star we still look toward today. In fact, it was such a winning formula that it inspired another famous company visionary at Apple, Steve Jobs, who baked their version—'the intersection of liberal arts and technology'—deep into the values of his company as well. ”Left: Ellen Carey, Crush & Pull, 2019

 

 

 

In his essay, John Reuter, who had a 50+ year association with Polaroid, tells the hair-raising tale of the rescue of the last standing film factory following the sale of the company’s assets ordered by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Minnesota in 2008. For readers new to the ethos of the brand, and the lengths to which the organization has gone to keep the magic alive for its fans—both professional artists and loyal consumers—Reuter’s cogent essay sheds light on then and now. For example, the determination with which the new company continued the Polaroid 20 x 24 Studio against the enormous odds of chemical failure defeating the continuation of outdated film products granted him “a PhD in worrying.”  Above: Rhiannon Adam, Dreamlands Wastelands


Reuter also tells about the teamwork involved in the creation of the first 20 x 24 camera in 1976, which Land directed for the purpose of demonstrating a new version of Polacolor [the peel-apart film used by pros]—with a five-week deadline. Likewise the invention of the Polaroid 40 x 80, which was affectionately dubbed “the museum camera”, as it was originally used to photograph the Monet Water Lilies and other works held by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The 40 x 80 was also used by Andy Warhol for his Self-Portrait, Eyes Closed, 1979, which fetched $254,500 at the 2010 Sotheby’s auction.  Right: Matthew Brandt, A835190387728B, 2014

 

There are, however, some problems with this book. The “history of Polaroid photography” is scattered among the three essays, and is more of a love-fest/promo for the brand than a history of a formidable organization, its founders, its contributions to art, science and culture, its failures and its rescue. And not insignificantly for a brand that was, from 1947 to 2001, respected for its quality control, the packaging is dismal. My copy, shipped in a standard padded envelope, arrived with the spine broken away from the boards and the flimsy paper cover split apart from the binding. Even so, the book, with its well-produced images sits on the shelf that includes The Polaroid Book by Barbara Hitchcock; Instant: The Story of Polaroid by Christopher Bonanos; and the 2010 auction catalogue from Sotheby’s


Polaroid Now” The History and Future of Polaroid Photography by Steve Crist with essays by Oskar Smolokowski, John Reuter and Steve Crist (Chronicle Chroma) is available in stores and onlineAbove: Adam Bell, Untitled, 2021

Images above are from Polaroid Now: The History and Future of Polaroid Photography edited by Steve Crist, published by and courtesy of Chronicle Chroma 2021, except as noted

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