Review of The Camera Does the Rest: How Polaroid Changed Photography
University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 2016
320 pp. Trade, $30
The Camera does the Rest: How Polaroid Changed Photography by Peter Buse, provides a missing historical closure on an aesthetic, technical, but also social phenomena of unfortunate Polaroid technology.
Namely, despite having its own separate market niche of Polaroid lovers, after researching possible developments of digital imaging, the company has ceased the production of film, back in 2008, filing bankruptcy. Many photographers were attached to the visual layout of Polaroid (some arguments have also been laid in a Grant Hamilton's movie Time Zero: The Last Year of Polaroid from 2012). Imputed by nostalgia on the missing technology, there is a revival of Polaroid film in the Impossible project, accompanied with revival of style of its technology in digital surrounding, as for example, colour field narrowing or vanishing effects.
The original Polaroid film was released in 1947 by the innovator Erwin Land (1949–66 Visiting Professor at Harvard and Professor at MIT since 1956), who has also constructed the Land camera, released in 1948. Land's interest in both science and art pushed him to choose among his technical collaborators famous photographer and moreover—laboratory worker, Anselm Adams as well. In succeeding years, different models of Polaroid were developed, the most famous being: Pathfinder in '52, Swinger in '65, SX-70 in '72, Onestep in '77, Spectra in '86, Captiva in '93, I-Zone in '99, etc., as well as films ranging from high fidelity black and white, sepia, Panchromatic, Polacolor, Time-Zero, Spectra HD.
The model reaching the largest popularity among all Polaroid products was surely the SX-70, after which Polaroid become recognizable for its technical and visual appearance. Memorialized through the SX-70 camera, Polaroid is also recognizable for its appearance: a specific square format, placed on a rectangular white sheet in a Golden Rule. Furthermore it is known for its specific saturation glows. But it is most famous for always being singular, irreproducible, and necessarily photo-technique, characteristic for its speed, lacking the delaying darkroom process (though precisely its chemical process, on which also Ansel Adams worked, were the most complicated).
The uniqueness of a Polaroid has made it the most private and intimate among other photographic techniques, but also the most social and participative party camera ever constructed. Its range of implementation was diverse, as Buse shows, from proving "thought photography," or recording the non-continuous reality, to being an entry-ticket to exclusive parties. And precisely for the possibility of being a really private technology, still simultaneously leaving a document-trace, Polaroid was, both in reality and movies, a centre of many conspiracy plots in the twentieth century. Throughout the book readers learn details of the specific Polaroid models but also scandals connected to quick Polaroid shots (the most known surely the one with Duchess of Argyll's image with "headless man"), or the place of technology as a central part of a movie plot, commonly being a blackmail, in films among others: The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Smile (1975), Infinite Jest (1995), et al.
Providing numerous facts and stories, in a journalistic style, this book seems to be a perfect gift to all photography lovers who demand excellent academic research; its style is light and approachable and its thesis, well-argued, providing more than substantial information on this charming photo technique (with more than 40 pages of notes posited on the back and even 20 pages of bibliography).