The man who changed the way we took pictures

  • Posted: Friday, November 2, 2012 7:00 p.m.
    UPDATED: Saturday, November 3, 2012 2:03 p.m.
"Instant: The Story of Polaroid"

“Instant: The Story of Polaroid,” By Christopher Bonanos, c. 2012, Princeton Architectural Press, $24.95, 194 pages

You saw something the other day that you wanted to remember forever.

It was inspiring. Beautiful. Or maybe it was cuter than the Dickens and you wanted to show your friends, so you did what comes naturally these days: you whipped out your phone and … click. And if that picture wasn't good enough, you deleted and clicked again, because you could.

You may remember, with no particular fondness, that there was a time when getting your pictures took a week or two. And in “Instant: The Story of Polaroid” by Christopher Bonanos, you'll see how point-and-click became popular, quick.

By all accounts, Edwin Land was a genius.

Born in 1909, he was a curious child, the “classic boy-inventor” who took things apart so he could put them back together. He was confident, passionate about science and literature (he once complained about a lack of books in his childhood), and he was a very forward thinker.

Throughout his youth, Land was fascinated with the polarization of light which, in 1929, led to an idea he believed would improve safety for the fledgling auto industry. Intending to negotiate with automakers, he formed a company with a friend and, because they needed cash flow, they signed a contract to manufacture polarizing sheets for camera giant Kodak. In 1937, Land bought out his partner but not before naming their first product “Polaroid,” which Land thought sounded “futuristic.”

Having his own business was good for Land. It gave him the money to experiment and invent, and he held many patents.

His corporation employed thousands and was heavily involved in manufacturing military products during World War II, but he was always looking for the Next Big Thing.

In 1943, he found it.

The story goes that Land's 3-year-old daughter asked her father why she couldn't see pictures immediately after they were taken, which made his mind race. He put his best people on the task and immersed himself in their projects.

Once, he bravely called a news conference to showcase a camera that he wasn't sure was reliable (it was). He invited Ansel Adams as a consultant. Land tinkered, fixed and solved, evolved and marketed, and created a revolution in picture-taking.

By the 1970s, “photographers were shooting a billion Polaroid pictures each year.”

Three decades later, despite winning a big-dollar settlement for patent infringement, Polaroid filed bankruptcy.

With plenty of witty asides, a light gossipy touch, and obvious fascination with his subject, author Christopher Bonanos brings readers a surprisingly delightful story that seems to shrink every time a new techno-gadget becomes available.

What most impressed me was that Bonanos makes Land's biography relevant in a world when excitement over an instant photo seems quaint, and yet we all instinctively know how to “shake it like a Polaroid picture.”

If you remember the tick-whirrrrr anticipation of a one-minute photo, this book will be pure nostalgia for you.

If digital is all you've ever known, then it's a must-read. Either way, for lovers of photography and business biography, “Instant: The Story of Polaroid” just clicks.

Terri Schlichenmeyer is a syndicated book review columnist who has been working professionally for more than a decade. She lives in Wisconsin.

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