Instant replay

THE MATERIAL WORLD Within two seconds of pressing the shutter release a square print with a black centre and smart white frame would shoot out into the photographer's hands Photograph by Robert Powell
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Fifty years ago, Dr Edwin Land invented instant photography and with it the Polaroid camera. In spite of the fact that the Polaroid photograph's raison d'etre has been diminished by the wide availability of one-hour processing, our appetite for truly instant prints has not abated - the Polaroid 636, is currently the best-selling camera in the UK.

The inspiration behind Land's Polaroid camera, was his daughter's impatience to see photographs as soon as they were taken. Instead of explaining the finer points of film processing to her, he set about giving her what she wanted. In 1947, Lang presented his instant picture process to the Optical Society of America.

But the first company Dr Land approached for finance laughed him out of their offices. The executives could see no future for a camera that would only appeal to a limited market. They, like Land, had no idea that instant photographs would be seized upon by a vast secondary market of businessmen, designers, professional photographers, and anyone else who needed fast and reliable visual records.

Although the technology is understood, no other company has successfully produced and marketed an instant camera and film. Kodak, who produced part of Polaroid's early peel-apart film, attempted to carve out a chunk of the market in 1976 by launching the PR-10 instant photography system. But the company's impatience proved to be its undoing. A lengthy law suit resulted in Kodak's stock being withdrawn and an undisclosed sum paid.

Polaroid's moment of glory occurred in 1973 with the launch of its SX-70 Polaroid Land Camera. When closed, this startling design, with its brushed chrome and leather exterior, looks like a smart cigar case or drinking flask. Within two seconds of pressing the shutter release, a square print with a black centre and smart white frame would shoot out into the photographer's hands. With no messing around peeling off protective coverings, these photographs developed in front of your eyes in full sunlight. But none of the later models match its beauty.

In the past 18 months, Polaroid's history has come full circle. The new Polaroid 636 range includes a talking model. It is unashamedly gimmicky, just as Dr Land's first instant camera was, and marketed, as before, for family fun. And again another unexpected market has revealed itself. For those brought up on a visual diet of television, camcorders and Gameboys, staring at a shiny square of paper while a picture emerges is far more appealing than popping out to a processing lab. Bartle Bogle Hegarty, the agency responsible for Polaroid's advertising, has re-positioned the camera as a fashionable accessory for people who might not otherwise be interested in taking photographs. BBH has even tackled the nudge-nudge, wink-wink aspect of not needing the local photo-lab in an ad in which a woman finds compromising photographs in her boyfriend's jacket.

Fifty years on, the Polaroid Land Corporation is worth $2billion, and instant cameras are very back in vogue. Not bad for a product developed by a doting father on the whim of a daughter