Instant: The Story of Polaroid

Instant: The Story of Polaroid

4.5 6
by Christopher Bonanos

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"Instant photography at the push of a button!" During the 1960s and '70s, Polaroid was the coolest technology company on earth. Like Apple, it was an innovation machine that cranked out one must-have product after another. Led by its own visionary genius founder, Edwin Land, Polaroid grew from a 1937 garage start-up into a billion-dollar pop-culture phenomenon.


"Instant photography at the push of a button!" During the 1960s and '70s, Polaroid was the coolest technology company on earth. Like Apple, it was an innovation machine that cranked out one must-have product after another. Led by its own visionary genius founder, Edwin Land, Polaroid grew from a 1937 garage start-up into a billion-dollar pop-culture phenomenon. Instant tells the remarkable tale of Land's one-of-a-kind invention-from Polaroid's first instant camera to hit the market in 1948, to its meteoric rise in popularity and adoption by artists such as Ansel Adams, Andy Warhol, and Chuck Close, to the company's dramatic decline into bankruptcy in the late '90s and its unlikely resurrection in the digital age. Instant is both an inspiring tale of American ingenuity and a cautionary business tale about the perils of companies that lose their creative edge.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Bonanos, a senior editor at New York magazine, offers up a concise and in-depth cultural history of Polaroid and its brilliant and charismatic leader, Edwin Land. Amidst its carefully constructed narrative of Polaroid's rise, demise, and renaissance (Lady Gaga is currently the company's creative director), Bonanos lays out the effect Polaroid has had on the cultural fabric of the United States, from brand identity and advertising copy, to hip hop lyrics and the sexual revolution. The history begins with Polaroid's wartime beginnings in polarizing technology and synthetically produced quinine. Instant photography was something of a side-business to begin with, but it soon took over the company's entire operation. But this is truly Land's story. Long before a turtle-necked Steve Jobs gave highly anticipated keynote speeches to reveal revolutionary new products, Land was penning stylized investor letters and predicting the smart phone. Indeed, these moments of cultural and technological premonition are among the book's most fascinating. Bonanos can be excessively reverential and heavy-handed, but Land and Polaroid's story are remarkable nonetheless. Photos. (Oct.)
From the Publisher
"A fascinating tale of rapid rise, catastrophic collapse, and the riveting ride between the two, at once told like never before and strangely familiar in its allegorical quality... brimming with lessons for modern tech mavericks." — Brain Pickings"

Instant: The Story of Polaroid clocks in at a slim 192 pages, but it manages to be three books in one: a thoroughly charming, fact-filled stroll through the life and times of Edwin Land and the incredible company he built; a brief, poignant recap of Polaroid's plunge from the heights into not one but two wrenching bankruptcies; and a small but lovely collection of Polaroid images taken by well-known artists. Christopher Bonanos's well-researched and well-written book features a terrific Andy Warhol photo of Liza Minnelli, self-portraits by Chuck Close and Robert Mapplethorpe, and a David Hockney collage, along with photos by Walker Evans, Andre Kertesz, and William Wegman. It also includes several photos by Ansel Adams, who signed on as a $100-a-month Polaroid consultant in 1949, when the company made its first move into photography." —"

Edwin Land was one of Steve Jobs's first heroes, and this book shows why. He created a startup in a garage that grew into a company that stood at the intersection of creativity and technology. This is a fascinating saga, both inspiring and cautionary, about innovation and visionary leadership." — Walter Isaacson, author of Steve Jobs"

When I was little, long before personal computers, let alone Instagram-enabled digital camera-phones, Arthur C. Clarke wrote that advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. By far the most uncanny, sexy, insanely great piece of technological magic in our household was my parents' Polaroid. Chris Bonanos' smart, thoughtful, charming chronicle of that iconic invention and its remarkable inventor is a delight." — Kurt Andersen, author of True Believers and Heyday, host of public radio's Studio 360"

This cultural history of the eccentric camera company-which has fair claim to being the Apple of the '60s-is simultaneously breezy and deeply researched, making it the perfect compulsive reading for design enthusiasts and Instagram addicts alike." —"

Tells the story of the forgotten genius who turned Polaroid into a cultural phenomenon." — Washington Post"

Reading Instant: The Story of Polaroid by Christopher Bonanos rekindled memories of Polaroid cameras for me. And I think it will do the same for legions of others who were also mesmerized back in the day by this cool gizmo, one of America's greatest inventions." — San Jose Mercury News"

Christopher Bonanos tells Polaroid's story with fluid, energetic prose that mirrors the thrilling arc of the company's story, twining together technology, fine art, business, design and pop culture into a 175-page powerhouse. Whether you pick it up because you loved your old Polaroid camera or because you want to find out why Steve Jobs modeled Apple after the Polaroid company, you'll be delighted by this pithy snapshot of a true American icon." —"

A sympathetic and beautifully told history of Polaroid and Edwin Land, the visionary who was the company's founder and presiding genius. It is the rare design-subject book with a truly dramatic arc, and storytelling that lives up to it." — Design Observer

Library Journal
Remember Polaroid pictures? Bonanos (senior editor, New York magazine; Gods, Heroes, and Philosophers: A Celebration of All Things Greek) here tells the story of their creator, Edwin Land, and how he built a multibillion-dollar business from those instant photographs. Holder of over 500 patents, Land was the Steve Jobs of his day. A quick and interesting read, this work traces the history of the company, which began in 1932 by manufacturing polarizing film for car headlights and sunglasses. By the mid-1940s, photography was its main business. Unfortunately, things ended badly, with two bankruptcies, the final one in 2009. The company is now trying to reinvent itself, including manufacturing a new line of film that can be used by the famous cameras. The book includes some photos, though not nearly enough. The volume is enhanced by a helpful index and footnotes, but not so many as to be distracting. VERDICT A well-written book that will bring back fond memories of instant photography for many readers. Recommended.—Susan Hurst, Miami Univ. of Ohio Libs., Oxford

Product Details

Princeton Architectural Press
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6.40(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

Meet the Author

Christopher Bonanos is a senior editor at New York magazine.

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Instant: The Story of Polaroid 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I adored this book!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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KatrinaO More than 1 year ago
I’ve always been fascinated with cameras. So I got really interested to Polaroid’s mixed success and fall story. A must read if you want to discover “the Apple” of the earlier times. :)
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
thepickygirl More than 1 year ago
I’ve been fascinated by photography for many years, own about 8 cameras, took a photography course in college, and stare lovingly at my Hasselblad, who patiently waits on my bookshelf for another outing. Last Christmas I asked for a Fuji Instax camera, recalling the days my grandmother and grandfather would show me the “magic” of the Polaroid film. What Christopher Bonanos does with Polaroid’s history is a bit magical itself, briefly discussing the history of film photography up to Eastman’s camera “marketed with the slogan ‘You push the button, we do the rest,’ and the little roll of celluloid inside it built an empire” before delving into Polaroid and its creativity. Even knowing the outcome of Polaroid’s business practices, I was tense reading about the ever-evolving world of film cameras. Bonanos lends suspense to the creative process, showing that “the next big thing” actually has to be discovered about four or five years before production if a company wants to stay ahead. Land was proud of his labs, making the rounds and checking out what his team produced. Bonanos tells the story of Howard Rogers and Land’s request that he start thinking about color instant film in the late 40s. Two years later, Rogers approached him, and in 1965, Land said, “My point is that we created an environment where a man was expected to sit and think for two years.” Eventually, without a creative leader who demanded elegant, complicated, innovative creations from his staff, Polaroid began its downward spiral. Bonanos also emphasizes Polaroid’s (and Land’s) devotion to art photography, an aspect of the book I loved, considering I had no idea how instrumental Ansel Adams was in the development of better and better film and focus: “Whenever Polaroid introduced a new product line, Adams trooped off to the mountains or the desert to try it out. Back came reports packed with detail, containing rows of photos at varying exposures or apertures. Eventually he filed more than 3,000 of these memoranda.” Andre Kertesz and Walker Evans got in on the instant trend as well, with Evans saying near the end of his life: “Nobody should touch a Polaroid until he’s over sixty. You should first do all that work…It reduces everything to your brains and taste.” As Bonanos points out, “[h]e, fortunately, had both.” By working with these artists and others, Polaroid built up a collection of tens of thousands of photos, a collection I’d give anything to see. Land’s devotion to instant photography not just as product but as an art form is fascinating and reminiscent of Steve Jobs and his own demand for beauty. This is a business model that is dangerous but sexy in its forethought. Because, as Bonanos emphasizes toward the end of the book, these are men who aren’t making the products people want. They’re making the products people don’t know they want. There’s genius there, and that’s what drives businesses like Polaroid, and frankly it’s why there are still so many aficionados today, which Bonanos discusses in the last chapter of Instant. I remember a few years ago the mad dash for Polaroid films, and people were making a killing on ebay, even with expired packs. Why? Polaroid is an icon, and even all these many years later, people appreciate the thought behind the first Polaroid, the question Land’s daughter supposedly asked him in 1943: “Why can’t I see the pictures now?”
Anonymous More than 1 year ago