Review: Instant by Christopher Bonanos

2nd October 2012

Image via Kobo Books

From the book cover:

Instant tells the remarkable tale of Edwin Land’s one-of-a-kind invention – from Polaroid’s first instant camera to hit the market in 1948 to its meteoric rise in popularity and adoption by artists such as Ansel Adams, Andy Warhol, and Chuck Close, to the company’s dramatic decline into bankruptcy in the late ’90s and its unlikely resurrection in the digital age. Instant is both an inspiring tale of American ingenuity and a cautionary business tale about the perils of companies that lose their creative edge.

When I was at BEA in June, this was one of the books on my “want” list. I’ve been fascinated by photography for many years, own about 8 cameras, took a photography course in college, and stare lovingly at my Hasselblad, who patiently waits on my bookshelf for another outing. Last Christmas I asked for a Fuji Instax camera, recalling the days my grandmother and grandfather would show me the “magic” of the Polaroid film.

What Christopher Bonanos does with Polaroid’s history is a bit magical itself, briefly discussing the history of film photography up to Eastman’s camera “marketed with the slogan ‘You push the button, we do the rest,’ and the little roll of celluloid inside it built an empire” before delving into Polaroid and its creativity.

Even knowing the outcome of Polaroid’s business practices, I was tense reading about the ever-evolving world of film cameras. Bonanos lends suspense to the creative process, showing that “the next big thing” actually has to be discovered about four or five years before production if a company wants to stay ahead. Land was proud of his labs, making the rounds and checking out what his team produced. Bonanos tells the story of Howard Rogers and Land’s request that he start thinking about color instant film in the late 40s. Two years later, Rogers approached him, and in 1965, Land said, “My point is that we created an environment where a man was expected to sit and think for two years.” Eventually, without a creative leader who demanded elegant, complicated, innovative creations from his staff, Polaroid began its downward spiral.

Bonanos also emphasizes Polaroid’s (and Land’s) devotion to art photography, an aspect of the book I loved, considering I had no idea how instrumental Ansel Adams was in the development of better and better film and focus: “Whenever Polaroid introduced a new product line, Adams trooped off to the mountains or the desert to try it out. Back came reports packed with detail, containing rows of photos at varying exposures or apertures. Eventually he filed more than 3,000 of these memoranda.”

Andre Kertesz and Walker Evans got in on the instant trend as well, with Evans saying near the end of his life: “Nobody should touch a Polaroid until he’s over sixty. You should first do all that work…It reduces everything to your brains and taste.” As Bonanos points out, “[h]e, fortunately, had both.” By working with these artists and others, Polaroid built up a collection of tens of thousands of photos, a collection I’d give anything to see.

Land’s devotion to instant photography not just as product but as an art form is fascinating and reminiscent of Steve Jobs and his own demand for beauty. This is a business model that is dangerous but sexy in its forethought. Because, as Bonanos emphasizes toward the end of the book, these are men who aren’t making the products people want. They’re making the products people don’t know they want. There’s genius there, and that’s what drives businesses like Polaroid, and frankly it’s why there are still so many aficionados today, which Bonanos discusses in the last chapter of Instant.

I remember a few years ago the mad dash for Polaroid films, and people were making a killing on ebay, even with expired packs. Why? Polaroid is an icon, and even all these many years later, people appreciate the thought behind the first Polaroid, the question Land’s daughter supposedly asked him in 1943: “Why can’t I see the pictures now?”

Add this to your shelf on Goodreads.

  • What a great review! When we were decluttering last year for our big move, I found a Polaroid sticker camera I used to use all the time – I was doing a bit of art journaling at the time, and it was great being able to take a picture of something in my day and stick it on that day’s page.. You’ve reminded me how much fun it was to use a Polaroid camera!

    • Thanks, Belle! That was the iZone! My sis had one, and I would find her stickers all over the place. Actually, if you use Instagram, there’s a place online (I think it’s Prinstagram) where you can order stickers, prints, all sorts of things. I’ve always loved the idea behind Polaroid, and this was a great nonfic read.

  • heidenkind

    Funnily enough, I was thinking of Steve Jobs when you described Land. 🙂 I hope that doesn’t happen to Apple…

    This sounds like a great book–and I remember that picture of you at this booth during BEA with the Polaroid frame!

    • Oh, me too, Tasha. I’m hopeful, though.

      And yes! That was the picture. I meant to include it, dangit.

  • Charlie

    I have always wanted a Polaroid, since I first saw them on tv. It’s the “magic” of them that gets me, even now, how you take a photo and there it is. Even in photo booths it takes time. And I love how we still use the basic idea of them as representative of photography. Sounds the perfect book!

    • Yes, they really are magical. The only thing that surpasses it is developing film, but it takes time and resources. I used to marvel at it.

      It really is a great read.

  • This sounds great — I’m not even that into photographer/Polaroid but it sounds fascinating!

    • Well, I’m glad I could catch your eye with it. It really is, more than anything, about creative genius, which is why I think it would work so well for the general public.