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Edwin Land, March 1944 – one of the earliest Polaroid images. (courtesy of Anne Bowermann)

Work / Photography

Codename SX-70: Edwin Land and the first Polaroid

In 2008 Florian ‘Doc’ Kaps helped save the Polaroid photographic medium from oblivion with the Impossible Project, an initiative that reversed engineered the much-loved technology and put the film back into production. The history of Polaroid, and the efforts to save it, are documented in a new book written by Florian. Polaroid – The Magic Material is published by Frances Lincoln and is available on 10 November. Here, we publish an extract telling the story behind Edwin Land’s inspiration for inventing the technology.

The First Polaroid

Instant photography already existed long before Edwin Land, the ingenious inventor and founder of Polaroid, went for a walk with his daughter in Santa Fe in 1943. But all these systems were not in the least magical and could really be described as ‘experimental portable wet darkrooms’ rather than truly ‘instant cameras’. Using them was difficult, messy and delicate. Obviously, the three-year-old Jennifer Land was not aware of their existence and like anybody else taking pictures at the time, she hated to wait days, or sometimes weeks, before she could finally look at the photographs she and her father took with their Rolleiflex during their vacation.

‘Why can’t I see the pictures now?’ she asked her father at the fireplace as they returned from their walk, triggering the development of Polaroid Instant Film. Intrigued by this idea, Land immediately went out for another walk – this time leaving Jennifer with her mother – and right away developed the principles of a completely new kind of instant photography. Thirty years later, in San Francisco, with his wife in the audience, Land recalled: ‘It was a lovely day in Santa Fe. I was visiting my family, commuting across the country. There was about an inch of snow and wonderful sunshine and you could walk with no coat. And so, I went for a walk, haunted by my daughter’s question, stimulated by the dangerously invigorating plateau air of Santa Fe. And during the course of the walk, the question kept coming, “Why not?” Why not make a camera that gave a picture right away?’

It was almost as though everything Land had invented up until then suddenly merged into the main principles of instant photography. Only a few hours after his daughter’s legendary question, Land had already described these principles to a patent lawyer who also happened to be on vacation in Santa Fe.

‘Strangely, by the end of that walk, the solution to the problem had been pretty well formulated. I would say that everything had been, except those few details that took from 1943 to 1973,’ Land later recalled. By December 1943 the first early test versions of ‘Polaroids’ had been developed in the lab and the project was officially launched under the codename SX-70.

It took Land and his team a little longer than expected to develop a stable process. Only weeks before the official launch, already communicated to the press, the instant images faded away after a few hours and the team had to come up with a new quick-fix chemical component to be added after the picture had developed, stabilizing it. Polaroid film was officially born on Friday 21 February 1947 at the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York, when Edwin Land carefully peeled apart the very first instant photograph in public.

I have my doubts that this famous 8 × 10-inch sepia portrait of Dr Land really did turn out to be completely stable. I guess there are good reasons why Polaroid never made this image available for press and I have never been able to find any trace of the legendary series of 8 × 10 images made that day in any of the Polaroid archives I visited. Nevertheless on this cold and snowy day, the world of photography, the business of photography and even the idea of photography all changed dramatically.

Polaroid – The Magic Material by Florian Kaps is published by Frances Lincoln

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Edwin Land carefully separating one of his famous 8×10 inch prints (©Florian Kaps)

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During the first presentations, without a camera available, the film had to be developed in a separate roller unit (©Florian Kaps)

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Early marketing material that explained how the technology worked (©Florian Kaps)

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Experimental development samples froth Polaroid archive at MIT, showing attempts to create a stable instant photographic process. (© The Polaroid Historical Collection, MIT Museum)

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Experimental development samples froth Polaroid archive at MIT, showing attempts to create a stable instant photographic process. (© The Polaroid Historical Collection, MIT Museum)