When Polaroid brought its first camera to market in 1948, it promised to deliver fast photography to amateur photographers. But the technology also inspired numerous artists who put the technology to expressive use. “The Polaroid Project,” on view at the Amon Carter Museum until September 3 and scheduled to travel the world through 2020, shows works by Robert Mapplethorpe, Barbara Crane, Mark Klett, Chuck Close, Andy Warhol, David Levinthal, Ellen Carey, Walker Evans and others artists who took inspiration from the square prints that required little developing time. Edwin Land, the inventor and company founder, believed collaboration with artists was important to both marketing and research. He put his friend Ansel Adams, known for his darkroom work, on a retainer for the company. “The Polaroid Project” includes some of Adams’s Polaroids, showing how he compressed his vision of Western landscapes into the square format. The company also had an artist’s support program which provided film packs to many artists. (The University of California Press also published a book to accompany the show, edited by William A. Ewing and Barbara P. Hitchcock.)
For decades, Polaroid epitomized American innovation. The exhibition and its companion catalogue trace the company’s experiments in both technology and marketing. Land, a chemist, made polarizing goggles for the U.S. military during World War II. After the war, he wanted to make a photo system that wouldn’t require a darkroom. The cameras and film packs he created, which required pulling apart the negative from the positive, reduced processing from days to less than a minute, created one-of-a-kind prints, and eliminated the need to drop off film for processing. (How many Polaroids were sold to blackmailers and people making photos they didn’t want their local drugstore to see? We’ll never know.)
Polaroid’s popularity grew with the 1970 introduction of the elegant SX-70, which eliminated the peel-off coating and let you watch prints develop before your eyes. The exhibition includes several prototypes, manufacturing models and engineering plans. Over time, the cameras became more portable, and new models were marketed to families, young adults and, eventually, children.
“Polaroid, quite literally, taught the public not merely a new way of seeing, but a new way of relating to the world,” writes Joy Jeehye Kim, Assistant Curator of Photographs at the Amon Carter.
Contributors to the catalogue argue that Land created a demand for instantaneous images, which continues to this day. Polaroid lost the race to digital imaging. In 2001, the company filed for bankruptcy, but its manufacturing facilities were purchased by The Impossible Project. “The Polaroid Project” captures the novelty and mystique of instant photography, and shows why it still inspires fans today. —Holly Stuart Hughes