The MIT Museum is home to more than 9,000 items from the Polaroid Corp.’s technology collection: lenses, cameras, laboratory equipment, even some sketchpads belonging to the company’s legendary founder, Edwin Land (1909-1991). Which makes the museum an ideal setting for Thursday’s launch party for Christopher Bonanos’s book “Instant: The Story of Polaroid.”
Few companies have had the mystique that Polaroid did. Founded in 1937, it’s frequently been described as the Apple of its day. Polaroid was on the cutting edge of technology and consumer design for half a century. Land received 535 patents in his lifetime. And few companies have loomed as large in Greater Boston. For many years Polaroid’s headquarters were in Cambridge, and the company had major facilities in Waltham, Norwood, and New Bedford.
All that started to change in the ’90s. The company twice filed for bankruptcy, in 2001 and 2008. It stopped making cameras in 2007 and film in 2008. Its headquarters are now in Minnesota.
Yet the name Polaroid retains its techno-aesthetic chic. A Dutch company, the Impossible Project, began manufacturing instant film for Polaroid cameras in 2010. Also that year, Polaroid, which had resumed making cameras, announced that Lady Gaga had agreed to become the company’s “creative director.”
Bonanos, 43, is a senior editor at New York magazine. In a telephone interview last week, he talked about his book, the company it celebrates, and the reemergence of Polaroid as a cultural icon.
Q. What drew you to Polaroid?
A. A few things. I was a photographer when I was a kid. I built a darkroom, the way people do — or used to. When I was 14, I got my first Polaroid camera. It was one of the old ones from the ’50s, a junk shop find. It was mysterious and wonderful, this battleship-gray thing, with a bellows, and this weird film. I kept using it on and off until the film was discontinued. I was interested in how the process worked. Polaroid was never like anything else, it’s unique and special. A lot of artists were agitated when Polaroid film was discontinued. This led me into the Polaroid cult and the story of Edwin Land and how the company had gone down in the previous 20 years. When you get a great story arc like that, and a great central character, you start to think, there’s a book.
Q. This seems to be something of a Polaroid moment now.
A. Well, there is an interest in analog technologies of all sorts. Kids are playing LPs in DJ culture. Video art is being made out of weird old media. People are shooting in Super 8 again. My thinking is this: When we all see digital media all day long the results are so consistent, so reliable, there’s a sameness to it all. Now there isn’t really . An Edward Burtynsky photograph does not look like one of mine! But the color you get out of a $500 digital camera is impossibly good compared to the old days. That means there’s a sort of sameness to the texture of the image. Same for sound, same for film. So people want something accidental, a bit flawed, a bit different. That’s Polaroid. The other thing is that the uniqueness of each Polaroid print really draws people in. It’s more like a painting in some ways. If you haven’t scanned it or rephotographed it, that’s it. It’s special. It’s an edition of one. It’s an object, not an image.
Q. Polaroid has often been compared to Apple. Do you buy that?
A. I do. Particularly in the approaches of Land and Steve Jobs to their ways of running things. Jobs specifically said he modeled Apple on Polaroid. He idolized Land and said the man was a national treasure. Each situated his company at the place where liberal arts and technology meet. When you saw an iPod for the first time in this perfect white little Chiclet of a box, your response was, “Ah.” It pushes that button that lets you set loose something happy in your brain. Land understood that, too. That was the SX-70 [camera].
Q. Do you own any Polaroid cameras?
A. I have many. I use two principally. There’s a camera that uses pack film, a 180, top of the line around 1965. I use Fuji film for that. The other is the SLR 680, a modification of the earlier SX-70. It has the sonar autofocus on top. It’s this crazy system nobody mimicked, but it works very well. I use that camera all the time.
Q. How much of the appeal is the name?
A. The name does linger, doesn’t it? It had virtually no bad associations, except that sometimes the pictures weren’t so great. “Polaroid” had absolute clarity. Everybody knew what it was and what it did. The only competitor was conventional photography. And there was an aura of magic and sophistication. You build a brand that strong over 30 years, and the leftovers of that brand-building effort have a lot of power. Two generations, really, have happy associations with Polaroid and are impressed by it. There’s a lot of halo on that old name.
Q. Was its fall inevitable?
A. I don’t think it was, although there’s a case to be made. What was inevitable was that they were going to have to change a great deal and make something entirely different. There is no film business anymore. Given that they were a company that sold film and made cameras so as to support those sales, that put them in a bad place vs. Canon or Nikon.
Q. They had developed digital photography, right?
A. They were in that game as early as almost anyone. They had actually built a building in Cambridge for image sensors. Every time it came close to market, someone would say, “Where’s the film in this?” and they’d scratch the project.
Q. What’s the future likely to bring for Polaroid?
A. It’s a tiny company now. The guys who own it are giving it a go. They’ve licensed that Zink technology, an inkless printer that works with this nifty system of crystals and paper. Even if that works, it won’t be like the old Polaroid. That was in its time a world-changing idea, like the tablet computer. That said, what they need — what anybody needs — is a really good idea. That was Land’s, and Jobs’s, principal insight. The idea and the product built on that idea is the most important thing. You don’t look for a piece of a market and try to carve off a little. You can make a little money that way. But it’s not like coming up with the thing that supersedes the tablet 10 years from now. Which is a lot harder — and vastly more lucrative.
Q. So if you could ask Land one question. . .
A. I have a few, but there is one I’ve never really been able to nail down. The founding myth of Polaroid, where Land’s daughter says to him, “Daddy, why can’t I see the photo right now?” It’s been told and retold so many times. She doesn’t talk to reporters, and he’s gone. What I’d love to know is if it really was like that. It’s such a good story, you have to wonder if it got a little help. But that’s an author’s question! I’ll tell you the other thing I’d like to ask him even more. “What did you think, and what do you think, of digital photography?” I’d be very curious if he saw the prototypes coming out of places like Sony in, say, 1989, and said, “That’s how it’s going to be?” The question that always lingered as Polaroid came apart was “What would Land do?” By then he was in poor health, he’d detached himself from the company. I have no doubt that, given the tools we all have available to us now, he’d be fascinated. He loved a good idea. But what did he think about it then? Did he recognize it as the future? If I had to guess, it’s that he would have been enthralled.
A book party for Christopher Bonanos’s “Instant: The Story of Polaroid” takes place Thursday from 5:30-7 at the MIT Museum, 265 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge. It is open to the public.