July 2, 2013

The Story of Polaroid

In 2013, the notion of instant photography is with most people all the time.  Our mobile phones have not only cameras, but video cameras that were once seen as gee-whiz technology.  But 40 years ago, we still had things like Fotomats, which were the original outparcel retailers that offered fast (next-day) photo developing before every pharmacy in the country did it right in front of you.  In those days, developing film still required a dark room.  Mail-order providers like Clark Color Labs offered film developing at a discount if you did it by mail order.  These days, they still develop photos, but has refashioned itself as something akin to Snapfish (although competition exists, including from Lenovo Photos which sells photo books and the like at cut-rates).

However, as WNYC's "Leonard Lopate Show" featured last November, during the 1960s and 1970s, Polaroid was the coolest technology company on earth.  Mr. Lopate interviews a man named Christopher Bonanos who has a new(ish) book entitled "Instant: The Story of Polaroid".  Listen to that interesting interview below, or by visiting http://www.wnyc.org/story/250794-story-polaroid/:

In his book, and in the interview with Leonard Lopate, Christopher Bonanos tells the tale of 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 (Polaroid stopped making film in 2008) and its unlikely resurrection in the digital age as a hot brand.

These days, Polaroid[s], or at least pseudo-Polaroids, are everywhere, with Instagram and popular websites like Poladroid [http://www.poladroid.net/] and Polaroin [http://www.polaroin.com/] making it possible to turn virtually any shitty photo taken with a cheap cell phone to look like a retro-Polaroid.

Indeed, the Polaroid background has proven very enduring.  The image of instant photos with a wide strip at the bottom seems more popular today as a photo enhancement than it ever was during the original company's original business heyday (today's Polaroid is a re-invention as the original company, which pretty much ceased to exist at the turn of the new Millennium).

A man named Antonio Pedrosa from ADR studio developed a concept he called the Instagram Socialmatic Camera, which interestingly enough, will be soon sold by Polaroid itself, or at least the new owners of the Polaroid brand name.  The concept features an internal printer which will allow users to print directly on Instagram paper sheets, with a release planned for early 2014 (Editor Note, Jan. 6, 2014: An "official" announcement of this product's launch can be seen at http://bit.ly/KtI113).  Not surprisingly, the camera will look much like a retro-Polaroid Land Camera in a new, digital format.

The Soon-to-Be-Introduced Instagram Socialmatic Camera
So it seems that Polaroid has reinvented itself for the digital age, while former giants like Kodak haven't been so lucky.  To be sure, some rivals like Fujifilm still sell the old chemical film (in fact, Fuji still sells cartridges that work in old Polaroid cameras in case anyone is interested, for now anyway).

But Polaroid has endured as a brand.

To be sure, royalties for the brand doesn't quite make it the powerhouse employer in the Boston area that it once was, but it seems that nostalgia still means something.  An online store selling film and other Polaroid merchandise can be found at https://us.polaroidoriginals.com.  Only time will tell whether the hipsters who have helped to resurrect the brand in today's environment will continue to support the brand over the long-term, but today, its very much around.

Author P.S. (July 30, 2014): There was news today that another iconic American brand that pretty much died as a result of the digital revolution is getting some help from some big-name film directors, including Judd Apatow and Quentin Tarantino, who are apparently pushing various Hollywood movie studios to commit to buying a certain amount of film from Kodak for the next several years.  The reason is that they want to preserve the option to shoot film recording.  Movies shot on film do have a certain artistic quality that doesn't exist with digital recordings, and a number of small theaters across the country are still only equipped to show movies shot on celluloid film.  However, American Public Media's marketplace.org reports that David Reibstein, a professor at The University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School says that having the option to use film in the long-term really depends on just what Kodak does with these sales now.  If the company continues to do what they were doing yet isn't working, that won't ensure that Kodak film (or film from any other film manufacturer including Japan's Fuji or Europe's Agfa which is based in Belgium) will remain available indefinitely unless the company behind the product remains in business, which means they must use the money to evolve their business.  As we've seen, another U.S. film manufacturer (Polaroid) has enjoyed considerable success as a brand.  Whether Kodak can do the same remains to be seen.  Listen to the story at http://ow.ly/zN53G.

Author P.S. (November 23, 2016):  Marketplace ran a story entitled "Nostalgia is driving up sales for Polaroid" http://bit.ly/2fHnyX2 which discussed the company's resurgence and acknowledged that hipsters with no experience with the original instant photography were a big part of their success.

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