The iPhone and Instagram get credit for being the first shoot-and-share social network, but even Steve Jobs would say that’s wrong. The Polaroid camera introduced a social component to taking pictures in the late 1940s, the first instant photography with three steps — shoot, shake and share.
Polaroid brought disruptive innovation to the market and also became a casualty of it when it failed to change course in time to be part of the digital photography revolution.
But a new version of Polaroid is thriving and even stirring up some buzz this week at CES in Las Vegas with new products covering iPhone photography, consumer 3D printing, camera drones and fun cameras that produce an on-the-spot print.
This year as it celebrates its 80th anniversary, the Polaroid name is on devices that are hip to the times while remaining faithful to the brand’s analog roots.
“We’re addressing a whole new set of customers,” CEO Scott Hardy told Cult of Mac. “You have the baby boomers who grew up with Polaroid and then you get millennials who have lived with touchscreens and instant sharing. This gives us a unique medium to give them the Polaroid experience. We’ve been very focused on how to take the brand, infuse it with soul and evoke that nostalgic sense.
“We’ve been doing this for 80 years,” he said. “Sometimes to look forward, you have to look to the past.”
Edwin Land conceived the idea of a camera that produced an instant print while on a family vacation in 1943. After making a picture of his young daughter, she wished she could see the picture right away. But the film would have to be sent to a lab for processing, with prints eventually arriving by mail.
Land and a partner headed a lab in Boston that developed polarized ski goggles, dark-adapter goggles and 3D glasses for the Army and Navy. He conducted a public demonstration of his Land Camera in 1947, sold the first one a year later and, by 1956, the Polaroid company had sold more than a million cameras across the globe.
The cameras were an instant hit and over the years became a major influence in art, innovation, music (“Shake it like a Polaroid picture”) and fun living.
People marveled over the SX-70 camera for its complex network of sensors, mirrors, transistors and solenoids, with a film pack that produced a print thanks to chemicals that Polaroid enthusiasts called “the goo.” Artists loved how the chemistry could be manipulated with a pin or pen as a developing image emerged, to distort it and give it an impressionist smear.
Polaroid at its peak made $3 billion in annual revenue but went bankrupt by 2001. The company’s assets were sold off and a new company emerged, which also filed for bankruptcy in 2008.
But the Polaroid name and legacy remain part of the American consciousness. Apple co-founder Jobs spoke glowingly about meeting Land and felt inspired by the Polaroid story. Even mobile photography app developers, like Hipstamatic and Instagram, drew from the aesthetics of Polaroid pictures.
Hardy became president and CEO of a new Polaroid in 2012, and has sought creative partnerships and licensing agreements that now shape the company’s comeback story.
First, the company returned to its instant-printing roots with a line of colorful cameras that produced digital images but also made a tangible print with a new technology that applies heat to a paper layered with color-forming molecules. Polaroid also came out with the ZIP, a palm-size printer that, with an app, let you print pictures off your smartphone.
“When you look at the photography space today, people are taking more and more pictures and the more they take the more pictures get lost,” Hardy says, referring to pictures remaining on phones or lost in the abyss of social media. “When you took a Polaroid picture, there was a cost per print so you had to be more thoughtful. We want to be part of a kind of photography that is tangible, that you can interact with. That’s powerful core essence of our brand.”
Hardy said the company licenses the name as it partners with cutting-edge tech companies like ZINK, which produces the ink-free paper for Polaroid. It also is getting its name in other tech spaces, with a line of smartwatches and fitness trackers, and a smart TV developed from a partnership with Google.
A visit to its booth at the 2017 CES shows the company’s serious march into the future, one with reverence for its past.
Polaroid Pop camera
The new Pop camera was unveiled Thursday at CES. Sleek and colorful, it features a 20-megapixel CMOS sensor, image stabilization, 1080p HD video and a micro SD card slot for photo storage.
For that signature twist of nostalgia, a Pop user can print a 3.5-inch-by-3.97-inch print with the classic Polaroid border.
Pricing is not available, but the Pop is slated to go on sale in time for the 2017 holiday shopping season.
3D printers and pens
Turning digital creativity into something tangible, Polaroid is also showing off a line of consumer 3D printers and modeling pens. The printers will come in three different sizes and are projected to start at $499 when they hit the market this summer. The pens will be for sale in March and will cost between $129 and $149.
From shake to swing
Polaroid released an iOS app late last year that is similar to Apple’s Live Photos but offers an entirely new social network.
Polaroid Swing records a one-second video image that moves when you gently swing the phone back and forth in your hand.
True to Hardy’s belief in making digital photography more thoughtful, Polaroid Swing’s growing community of Swingers (Polaroid made a camera called the Swinger in the 1960s) post what seem like natural occurrences of poetry. There’s no audio and the motion embedded seems to more fluid than a Live Photos file.
“It’s a new artistic expression for people,” Hardy said. “I was on vacation in Venice with my wife and we would see things that were perfect for Swing, water rippling or gondolas crossing paths. It’s a powerful way to capture memories.”
Polaroid Swing spent some time in Apple’s “Featured App” section of the App Store and Apple has put Polaroid Swing on the iPhone 7 display models in its Apple Stores so buyers can play with it.
The career of professional photographer Marc Serota was moving into teaching and Serota was considering producing video tutorials on how to make better pictures. He could potentially reach thousands of photographers with instruction on how to unleash the power of the DSLR camera or he could reach millions by teaching people how to take better pictures with their iPhones.
He partnered with Polaroid to produce short, single-lesson videos and, late last year, the Polaroid University app was launched with 50 different video lessons. Considering the cost of photography lessons, the $19.99 annual membership is a bargain to tap into Serota’s knowledge and learn techniques from well-paced demonstrations.
By year’s end, Serota says the app will have 100 episodes in its library. This summer, the video series will take people on a tour of the National Parks, showing iPhone photographers techniques and best spots for making beautiful landscape pictures.