“Polaroid: The Life of the Party” (2002)


By Nat Trotman, originally published in Afterimage, May 1, 2002

In the ongoing push for consumer ease that characterizes the history of popular photography, the Polaroid Corporation stands as the undisputed champion of the later twentieth century. Among its many successes and numerous patents–including the process of polarization from which the corporation adapted its name–the development of one-step photography remains its crowning achievement. In the words of Polaroid founder, president and chief inventor Edwin H. Land upon the release of his SX-70 system, “photography will never be the same after today,” (1) If Land was right, and I believe that he was, why has our historical understanding of popular photography not shifted to accommodate the Polaroid snapshot? Surely it warrants investigation, especially now, as the Polaroid Corporation struggles through a bankruptcy that threatens to render these photographs more ephemeral than instantaneous. (2)

The SX-70 Land camera, released in 1972, revolutionized instant film photography by transforming the photograph into a unitary, sealed packet containing negative, positive and processing chemicals. Through a complex system of lenses and mirrors the camera maintained compactness without sacrificing print size. It employed a custom motor and battery system to eject the print, which developed in direct sunlight before the user’s eyes. (3) Ultimately the consumer attained a color print, without the peel-apart layers of earlier Polaroid films. This print formed in less than a minute, from a camera controlled almost exclusively by cutting-edge micro-circuitry. Later models, including the Pronto! (1976), One Step (1977), 600 Sun (1981) and Spectra (1986), improved film speed along with exposure control and added automatic focus systems, exploring new dimensions in photography as a leisure activity.

In its quest for an easier consumer-oriented photographic process, Polaroid contributed to a widespread devaluation of the photograph itself. Entrepreneurial and technological innovations in consumer photography increased the distance between the photograph and the work that produced it, even as the snapshot’s infinite reproducibility had dispersed its value over an infinite number of replicas. But photographers realized the snapshot’s real worth in the private, not the public, realm. The snapshot was both worthless and irreplaceable, discarded and desperately coveted. Polaroid aggravated these circumstances by quite literally cutting all labor from the process of taking pictures. In the SX-70, Land outdid the infamous Kodak dictum of “you press the shutter, we do the rest” by placing “the rest” back into the consumers’ hands. His grand achievement of “absolute one-step photography” therefore established a new low in the relative production value of a photograph. Yet here, at the depths of ease and depreciati on, the Polaroid print turned on a dime, As if by accident, the prints made by the SX-70 and its descendants possessed a preciousness unparalleled in snapshot photography. The film used by Polaroid did not depart from the traditional duality of negative and positive, but the two were inseparably fused through its instantaneous processing. The SX-70 print was therefore unique, and while not reinstating its production worth, this did render the print less disposable than a “normal” snapshot. Also, the Polaroid’s integral packet system transformed the picture into “as much a photographic object as had existed since the velvet-ensconced daguerreotype. A plump, satiny, perfectly proportioned little pod, the SX-70 print was extremely lovable.” (4)

With convenience, however, comes limitations: the Polaroid snapshot demands unparalleled previsualization of the image and, by eliminating the negative/print duality, refuses traditional editing. Created “by the photographically untutored, motivated by the simple wish to record and perpetuate their life and times,” the Polaroid snapshot resembles a sort of unconsciously driven yet technologically enforced “straight” photography. (5) Indeed, it is perhaps an apotheosis of the “pure photography” modernists like John Szarkowski sought in the snapshot. (6) Of course, on the cultural level such pictures are not interchangeable with straight art photography. Still, the similarities between the two introduce a distinctive Polaroid playfulness into the system. As we seek to revise the history of photography, the SX-70 prefigures an essential bending of the rules. It presents a historical entry point for the snapshot not just in terms of social information or as an artistic found object, but as a term that itself sets aesthetic standards beyond pervasive formal rules–an aesthetics of the vernacular photograph.

To sketch out such an aesthetic view of the Polaroid snapshot, let’s turn to a collection of pictures I first encountered at the home of a close friend. Stored in a neat stack, sealed in a Zip-Loc bag and kept in a drawer, the individual photographs manifest a remarkable aesthetic coherence. They conform to certain conventions of the snapshot: people are generally grouped together; they usually smile, turning toward the camera in direct acknowledgement. Yet amidst this compliance the conventions begin to falter and sway under the play of the medium. Colors are rich and deep, spiraling at times into reddish blues or bright yellow-greens. The glare of the flash blanches some faces, while others are obscured by the frame’s edges. A blur washes over the surfaces of the people shown: eyes reflect multiple flashbulbs when in reality only one was discharged.

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The images possess a density unlike any other snapshot medium. They have an intensity of sentiment and of color, truly a physical depth and presence. One artist has described the SX-70 as obtaining a “very high contrast with a sharp delineation, [in which] the layering of the emulsion creates the effect of an etched line. (7) However microscopic the layers of chemistry within the Polaroid print may be, they are apparent in the reading of the images. The slick surface and white frame surround the image like the shallowest of shadow-boxes. The pictures have interiors, viscous insides of caustic gels that make up the image itself. Users are warned not to cut into the objects without protective gloves–these photographs can be wounded, violated. Their frame protects and preserves them like clothing around a vulnerable body.

And if the frames are clothing, then they are uniforms. Every photograph has the same white border, wider at the bottom, a space for holding, for writing. Turn the Polaroid over and that space keeps the spent pod, emptied of its seminal jelly when ejected from the camera. Above that the ubiquitous black square negates the image like some dark doppelganger, a reminder of the eventual death of the picture on its obverse, constantly reinscribing the preciousness of this unique object. The frame itself enlists an aesthetic of minimalist seriality. Its uniformity organizes a sort of collective ongoing project that could encompass all Polaroids–taken anytime, anywhere, by anyone. So of course these image-objects are collected, waiting to be found, in a drawer, in a plastic bag, signs of their dubious market value and of their unyielding sentimental worth.


Picture shows Edwin H. Land showing positive and negative print taken from a new camera that produces finished pictures. February 21, 1947. © Bettmann

Like all snapshots, these images also collect, and collectivize, memory. In this case, we have a collection of party photographs. They belong to the host and were taken with his camera, though not always by him. In fact, he appears in many of the images, more than anyone else does. Some unspoken and collective will seems determined to set him in his own pictures at his own party. Only once does he appear in his official capacity as host, mixing drinks in his kitchen. And he changes from shot to shot: the pictures represent many parties, over many years, mixed randomly and unlabeled. The collection does not commemorate any one event-multiple parties give way to continuity, an alternate reality and ongoing state of party.

Within this eternal party the Polaroid plays a distinct role. First and foremost it is a tool of the party, a fun thing to do (as so many Polaroid commercials have reminded us). People pass the camera around and shoot a few rounds. The memorializing device becomes the instrument of potentially every partygoer. Thus, the collective party creates its own self-portrait-perhaps explaining why the host is so often pictured. This contrasts sharply with Pierre Bourdieu’s reading of the party photograph phenomenon. He sees the party as an arbitrary and unstable mental state that secures and justifies itself through the objective stance of a single photographer. Necessarily, “the enterprise of solemnization served by photography can only be a success if it is made the responsibility of a member of the group, anxious, like everyone else, to forget and conceal the fact that a party takes place only if one ‘lives it up’, and because one decides to ‘live it up’.” (8) Are these party snapshots, then, a contradiction in ter ms?

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On the contrary, the use of the Polaroid in the party situation signals a departure from the conventional phenomenology of the photograph. Bourdieu’s understanding of the party photograph relies on the supposition that “it is experienced as it will later be looked at, and the good moment will look even better for being revealed to itself as a ‘good memory’ by the photograph. (9) The Polaroid undoes the time lag over which Bourdieu’s essential memory is constructed. Its experience is not simply a click of the shutter and a long wait until the party has passed and the pictures come back. Taking a Polaroid is an event unto itself, contained within the party atmosphere. The partygoer holds the photo-object in his or her hand like a strong drink, taking it in as the image forms. At the moment that the development ceases, the picture does not commemorate the past party, but participates in the party as it occurs, It circulates through the festivity, inspiring others to take their own snapshots, visualizing reality as it takes place, condensing time into a continuous present.

The Polaroid experience thus provides a significant alternative to our current understanding of photography’s relationship to memory. The ongoing debates on this subject, whether they posit photography as memory’s aide or its antithesis, presuppose a certain distance between the act of observing a photograph and the act of taking it. (10) Over the course of a minute, a photograph does not concern remembering or forgetting. Rather, it plays between the lived moment and its reification as an object with its own physical presence. The party Polaroid is not so much an evocation of a past event as it is an instant fossilization of the present. It solidifies the constant slippage of present into past and remains after the party as a real physical manifestation of the party itself, It relates to the party not by means of its decay but of its production, revolving less around death than life.

Moving ever closer to the collection at hand, I single out one p hotograph from the rest. Fingerprints coat its surface, touches of myself, my friends, others I cannot know. Inside the image, two figures stand. Both make eye contact with the camera, but they do not pose nor even smile. The camera has not caught them off-guard, nor has it let them prepare themselves for its glare. The woman’s face, in the foreground, is elegantly pallid, reduced to its details-pale blue eyes, the curve from her eyebrow down the length of her nose, lips whose color only barely stands out from her skin. Looking close, even these details seem to disintegrate into blurred areas of pure color, the edges of her face cast in chiaroscuro against her coat and the figure of the man a few feet behind her. He looks impassive and impassively, face bathed in reddish light, eyebrow cocked slightly. Above him an angle of green molding traces the boundary between red wood wall and white ceiling, a small indication of setting. In the lower left corner of the photograph a yellow ghost image appears, eating aw ay at the space of the image, a side effect of the camera mechanism squeezing out the packet’s chemicals only seconds after the scene was captured.



If photography indeed concerns issues of time–life and death, memory and forgetting–then the radical repositioning of time by the Polaroid cannot be overlooked. Roland Barthes dismissed the Polaroid as “fun, but disappointing, except when a great photographer is involved.” (11) What was he avoiding? The Polaroid’s power does rest in its fun, but I do not see the disappointment. Through its contradictions, as treasure and trash, as memorial of the past and materialization of the present, the Polaroid works to loosen the foundations of current photographic understanding and usher in much needed change. With its imminent departure from the scene and the rise of a digital photography–combining disposable immediacy but dispensing with tactile inimitability–the time has come for a reevaluation of the Polaroid snapshot.

Did I take this photograph? Dimly I remember the party, given in celebration of the Academy Awards, on television. Unknowns abound, but in their ambiguity the importance of this image to the history of photography can be foreseen. Looking at this photo, I do read it as a memory. At the same time, and this is its crucial exception, the picture itself is a part of that memory. It is both detached from memory and implicated within it. At the moment someone took the picture, it captured a tiny fraction of the party and as it developed it became another fraction of the same event. As memory of the party fades, this photograph empties of and hangs on to meaning simultaneously. Even more, and especially as an exact recollection clears out, the image aestheticizes the remembered event. The subtle shades and contours of the woman’s face, the composition (however unintentio nal), the range and saturation of colors–all introduce effects of the artwork into the snapshot. The Polaroid is a social product and ultimately generic, yet as a medium it possesses an aesthetic quality that is chosen by its user, bringing artfulness to the realm of consumer photography. It exists somewhere between art and snapshot, at play with the differences between the two.

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(1.) Peter C. Wensberg, Land’s Polaroid: A Company and the Man Who invented it (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987), p. 181. See also Mark Olshaker, The Instant image: Edwin Land and the Polaroid Experience (New York: Stein and Day, 1978).

(2.) On October 12, 2001, the U.S. branch of the Polaroid Corporation voluntarily filed for bankruptcy. It continues to conduct business, undergoing “financial restructuring” and possibly pursuing the sale of all or part of the company. More information can be found at www.polarold.com.

(3.) For an exhaustive description of the processes behind the SX-70, see Victor K. McElheny, “The Technologies of SX-70” in SX-70 Art, Ralph Gibson, ed., (New York: Lustrum, 1979).

(4.) Eugenia Parry Jannis, “A Still Life Instinct: The Color Photographer as Epicurean” in One of a Kind: Recent Polaroid Color Photography (Boston: David R. Godine, 1979), p. 17.

(5.) Brian Coe and Paul Gates, The Snapshot Photograph The rise of popular photography 1888-1939 (London: Ash & Grant, 1977), p. 9.

(6.) In his chapter on straight photography, Beaumont Newbali quotes Sadakachi Hartmann’s statement that a straight photographer “interprets by spontaneity of judgment. He practices composition by the eye.” This modernist notion of the photograph produced in she eye of the photographer and captured at a decisive moment, “so well that the negative will be absolutely perfect,” is commodified by the Polaroid snapshot, wherein the negative becomes the print itself. See Newhall, The History of Photography, fifth edition (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1982), p. 167.

(7.) Barbara Kasten, quoted in Rose DeNeve, “Polaroid Corporation: The Instant Image that Took 50 Years,” Graphis 252 (November/December 1987), p. 24.

(8.) Pierre Bourdieu, Photography: A Middle-Brow Art (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990), p. 28. Bordieu’s book was first published, in French, In 1965.

(9.) Ibid., p. 27.

(10.) Catherine Keenan summarizes the most significant views on photography’s relationship to memory in “On the Relationship between Personal Photographs and Individual Memory” in History of Photography 22:1 (Spring 1998), pp. 60-64. In particular she complicates claims by Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin, Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes that “the photograph is in the service of forgetting” and takes a more ambiguous stand in which photography can serve either remembering or forgetting.

(11.) Roland Barthes, Camera Luclda (New York: The Noonday Press, 1981), p. 9. Perhaps Barthes shunned the Polaroid because is presents a challenge to the “temporal anteriority” he claimed to be essential to the photograph, see “Rhetoric of the Image” in Image, Music, Text, Stephen Heath, trans. (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), p. 44. It should be noted, however, that a Polaroid appears as the frontispiece to certain editions of Camera Lucida, though it goes unmentioned in the text, and that Barthes’ theory of Punctum reinstates an essential presence to the medium (see Camera Lucida, p. 84).


NAT TROTMAN is currently pursuing his Ph. D. at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center. He enjoys reading, writing and arithmetic, as well as music of a melancholic and often repetitive variety.

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