Magazine article American Scientist

Before the Selfie Stick

Magazine article American Scientist

Before the Selfie Stick

Article excerpt

Before the Selfie Stick THE CAMERA DOES THE REST: How Polaroid Changed Photography. Peter Buse, ix + 308. University of Chicago Press, 2016. $30.00.

Point, click. The gesture is now so familiar that its onetime novelty seems distant and improbable, even though- when I nudge myself from the dreamlike state of digital ubiquity-I well remember photography as a significantly more complex process. In many ways Polaroid paved the way for this state of photographic affairs, even as it has been largely sidelined, after two bankrupcies in the first decade of this century, from what might have been a victory lap.

Critic and theorist Peter Buse's fine examination of the cultural history of Polaroid technology, The Camera Does the Rest, considers the societal forces at work as the company succeeded and failed, from the launch of its first camera in 1948 to its existence today. Buse considers the cultural forces Polaroid was responding to as well as those it helped shape as a highly influential global brand. It built its reputation on technological innovation cultivated within a "model of perfectionistic deep research" that was, Buse explains, "central to Polaroid's ethos." To call Polaroid the Apple of its day would be reductive: Steve Jobs patterned himself after company founder Edwin Land, openly citing him as a role model. (For more on this topic and on Land himself, Christopher Bonanos's book Instant: The Story of Polaroid is well worth a look.) Perhaps it's more accurate to say that Apple is the Polaroid of our moment.

Land, who left his chemistry studies at Harvard to devote himself to inventing an inexpensive polarizing filter, originated the field of instant photography-that is, photography that features in-camera development to produce a print immediately-with the release of Polaroid's first camera in 1948. He and a team of scientists, engineers, and designers continually refined the company's cameras, regularly producing breakthrough innovations, such as a sonar-based autofocus system; a 20x24 large-format camera, which became a darling of photographers; and the first truly one-step instant camera, the SX-70, which developed in daylight, without any intervention by the photographer (for example, pulling the print from the camera or removing a backing from the print).

Land's sense of showmanship helped cement Polaroid's reputation for innovation. Buse notes that he was often depicted in the media as "some sort of scientist-hermit," despite a lack of evidence, possibly because "commentators. …

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