Review: Why Polaroid faded away

November 16, 2012

By Quentin Webb
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Polaroid reinvented photography, but faded away. Christopher Bonanos’s “Instant: The Story of Polaroid” is a pacey history of the Apple of the analogue age.

Polaroid’s not-quite “instant” images seem quaint these days. They could not be duplicated easily, let alone transmitted electronically. In 1948, though, they were revolutionary. It took hours, not minutes, to develop conventional film.

The upstart company became a tech sensation. The public was smitten, as were artists such as Andy Warhol. Colour film arrived in 1963. The cameras peaked with the stylish, foldaway SX-70, introduced in 1972. Technological triumph bred stunning financial success: for three decades sales grew 23 percent a year, while earnings and stock prices rose an annualised 17 percent.

Founder Edwin Land was central. His incredible inventiveness – 535 patents – may be hard to emulate, but other ingredients are more replicable. Research was lavishly funded. Diversity helped: Land hired smart female graduates long before stuffier corporations would. And he brought new innovations to market fast, even if they required later tweaks or fixes.

But Land fell from favour after championing “Polavision”, a long and costly video project, which VHS immediately rendered obsolete. The company’s subsequent decline lasted as long as its ascent. A string of less dazzling leaders followed Land. A successful patent battle with photography giant Kodak lasted 14 distracting years. Cheap and gimmicky products – such as the girl band-endorsed Spice Cam – only hurt the company’s reputation for quality.

Like Kodak, Polaroid could see digital coming from a long way off, but fumbled its response. Fat margins in the core film business probably clouded thinking. So did technical snobbery: Bonanos thinks Polaroid’s best hope was to become a high-end printer-maker, but it disbanded the relevant unit amid gripes about “photographic quality”.

Financiers didn’t help either. In the late 1980s the company levered up as part of its defence against Roy Disney’s private equity firm. In 2002, Polaroid was bought out of bankruptcy by another PE shop, One Equity Partners. OEP sold out in 2005 to Minneapolis financier Tom Petters, who was later jailed for 50 years as a Ponzi schemer. Bankruptcy beckoned again. Nowadays a greatly diminished Polaroid battles on, having swapped film for inkless printers and roped in Lady Gaga as a “creative director”.

Bonanos skimps on financials, which is unfortunate: after all, Polaroid was a major public company. The book also gets one key figure wrong. It states that OEP made a 70 percent profit on the flip to Petters. “The Deal” reported that OEP earned a staggering five-fold return.

There is also a serious omission: the damage done to Polaroid’s image by links to the apartheid government in South Africa, which used Polaroid’s photo-ID kit. The instant photo company was an early corporate target for anti-apartheid campaigners.

The Polaroid story has some ironic codas. One is the persistence of the technology. Like vinyl recordings, it appeals to a small group of enthusiasts. An Austrian entrepreneur who is making increasingly good Polaroid-style film sees a market of 10 million packs a year. Meanwhile, services such as Instagram, bought recently by Facebook for $1 billion, try to breathe analogue warmth back into digital images.

But Bonanos shows that the strongest resonance is with Apple and its late boss Steve Jobs, who considered Land a “national treasure”. The striking parallels were covered at length last year by the influential Technologizer blog. Both Land and Jobs were driven, charismatic perfectionists who shook up consumer electronics, leading rather than following the market. Each started with ideal products that staff struggled to translate into saleable gadgets, and each turned product introductions into coups de theatre.

And both dreamt big. Land prized “manifestly important and nearly impossible” projects, saying the bottom line was “in heaven”. That sort of talk may depress shareholder-value advocates – but probably still resonates with entrepreneurs hungry to change the world.

Apple is clearly more successful now than Polaroid ever was. Still, given the echoes readers may be forgiven for asking: does the Apple story argue for a reappraisal of Polaroid, or vice versa?

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