Instant Photography

While not an official biography, the following is reprinted with the kind permission of the Royal Society.

by F.W. Campbell, F.R.S.†

Photo copyright J. J. Scarpetti.

The origin of this idea is recorded by Land as follows:

I recall a sunny day in Santa Fe, N.M., when my little daughter asked why she could not see at once the picture I had just taken of her. As I walked around the charming town I undertook the task of solving the puzzle she had set me. Within an hour, the camera, the film and the physical chemistry became so clear to me.

The year was 1944, and Land was 35 years old. His daughter, Jennifer, was three years old. This agrees well with what he told me in Cambridge, UK, when he visited my laboratory in 1973.

Land wrote:

It was as if all that we had done in learning to make polarizers, the knowledge of plastics, and the properties of viscous liquids, the preparation of microscopic crystals smaller than the wavelength of light, the laminating of plastic sheets, living on the world of colloids in supersaturated solutions, had been a school both for the first day in which I suddenly knew how to make a one-step dry photographic process and for the following three years in which we made the very vivid dream a solid reality.

Of course, although the ideas were simple in retrospect, it required an enormous research programme to implement them. His energy to experiment, think and organize can be likened to that of William Thomson (Lord Kelvin, 1824-1907) who laid the first successful Atlantic Telegraph Cable and all its associated transmitting and receiving equipment in 1866. Both had a dynamic and charming personality that enabled them to organize talent, benefit mankind and start new industries; both died millionaires.

Strictly speaking, ‘instant’ is a slight exaggeration. The time depends on the ambient temperature. At room temperature you can see, after a few seconds, a low-contrast picture sufficiently well to know that you have aimed the camera correctly and that it was in focus, but it takes several minutes for it to asymptote to a high contrast. When he demonstrated to me this first colour camera (SX-70) he winked and held the emergent print under his arm in order to speed the magic. This immediate feedback meant that the novice quickly learnt how to use the camera correctly. This aim was very important to Land, as he did not want a user to waste the relatively expensive film. It was rumoured that he always took each prototype camera home to find out whether ‘the mothers of America’ could unpack it, understand the instructions, load the film and take perfect photographs with it.

On 21 February 1947, Edwin Land demonstrated his one-step instant camera and film at a meeting of the Optical Society of America. Less than two years later the Polaroid Camera Model 95 and Type 40 Land film were on sale at the Jordan Marsh department store in downtown Boston at a cost of $89.75: it weighed 4 lb. (Today one can buy a Polaroid 635CL Instant Camera for £29.50; Twin pack, 2 x 10 colour prints cost £15.25. The battery for powering the camera and its flash lamp is included in the film pack. The weight of the camera when loaded is 1.5 lb.)

He chose the right year, the right place and, very importantly, the right price. When I first met Edwin I asked him how to be a successful inventor. Land answered: ‘It must retail at just under $100. You see you can’t make money selling to the very wealthy, there are too few of them. You can't make money selling to the poor either.’

World War II had ended two years earlier and there was a dearth of new household things for the middle-class to buy. Suddenly, there was this magic camera that anyone could operate and afford! You did not even need to know how it worked. Although the film was expensive you could wait until you had a little spare money for the next roll. There were no credit cards in those days. Land had transformed family parties, reunions and weddings; everyone went home with a precious and unique photograph in their pocket. As a result, sales of Type 40 Land film rocketed.

The first Polaroid Camera Model 95 worked as follows. A negative is exposed and then brought into contact with a positive print sheet. Both are drawn through two rollers, by hand, and a pod of chemicals is ruptured and spread evenly across the positive print sheet. If you wanted a copy you just took another photograph. As the negative had to be accurately exposed, it was supplied with a simple but ingenious light meter. The paper sheet and negative were discarded to blow about in the wind; this worried Land as he was very tidy and green-minded.

Land was very proud of the chemistry that made Polaroid black and white images possible. In the first diffusion transfer, silver images were formed by a sepia brown colloidal silver. Polaroid black and white photography required receiving sheets that formed a new kind of silver.

The reagent in Polaroid pods has a pH of 14. The dye image is most stable at a slightly acidic pH. At the time of introduction of Polacolor film, Land and a colleague, Richard Young, rebuilt the film in a six-month period to incorporate a polymeric acid in the receiving layer. The system worked by spreading a basic reagent against a timing layer that disappeared after 30 seconds. Behind the timing layer was an acid polymer that neutralized the base and encapsulated the dye in the mordant layer. All instant colour systems use this principle.

The black and white image behind the coloured strips in Polavision Film was unique in that the entire film has the same amount of developed silver. The white areas in the image are formed by developing the silver halide grain in place to absorb roughly half the light. The black areas in the film contained the same amount of silver but are first dissolved and then developed to create a higher covering power with a transmission of one part in 1000. This was the first photographic system where the image was formed as a function of covering power rather than the amount of developed silver.

A visiting American scientist presented to me a Model 95 in the summer of 1954. I took a photograph of him standing in front of the famous Bridge of Sighs in St John’s College, Cambridge. At that time of year Cambridge is flooded with crowds of foreign tourists, all then equipped with conventional cameras. As soon as I produced the print there was a gasp of astonishment from all the tourists around me and I had to run off the rest of the roll and hand out the prints to them. They wanted to know the cost of each print and where to buy the camera. It was then that I realized that Land had arrived internationally. I must have been one of his first salesmen in Europe! Naturally, I rushed back to my laboratory to find out what I could do with his camera. But Land was already well ahead of me, thinking out the special types of cameras scientists would need.

His series of instant cameras had many uses in science and medicine. One could buy the film packs separately from the camera and attach them to microscopes, telescopes, oscilloscopes, etc., without all the fuss of requiring a dark-room with attendant technicians and messy chemicals. It is not surprising that President (1963-69) Lyndon Johnson presented him with the country’s prestigious technology award, the National Medal of Science, in 1967.

In 1976 when he entertained me one evening at Polaroid in his private study, which he called his ideas-room, he showed me with great pride his dream camera. It was before it was publicly announced and he requested me not to talk about it. It was an instant movie camera. He turned on some floodlights and photographed us toasting his health. (Edwin himself was not a teetotaller but had strong views about alcohol during the working day. A few minutes later we were watching ourselves in colour on a screen. We toasted his health again but, this time, we meant his success. The Polavision instant movie camera was on sale by 1977, but it was not a success in the long run. Why not?

Polavision was introduced in the last days of 8mm photographic movies. It was the most advanced projection system in that it had a cassette that eliminated awkward loading procedure. However, it was only a three minute cassette. It was quickly superseded by magnetic tape recording.

In Britain the BBC and ITV had two TV channels each. The programmes were of high quality and variety. It often happened that in a family there was a dispute as to which channel should be viewed. When videotape recorders became available they sold very well in Britain, for one channel could be viewed while the other was recorded. Videotape recording technology was first introduced to the commercial market in 1965, but the home video market was not born until 1975 when the Sony Corporation took the tape out of large reels and put it into the much more convenient Betamax cassette (weight 205g, playing time 195 minutes). Later, portable Japanese videotape cameras became available and Japan quickly dominated the market using their expertise in electronics and camera-lens design. Their video cameras could operate at much lower light levels, the resolution gave much sharper pictures, the videotape was cheap and could be reused, they could be replayed on one’s own domestic colour television set and, finally, copies could easily be made at low cost for one’s friends. One had a complete television system that bypassed film processing. By pre-setting the programme timer, one did not even have to be at home; the demands of work, entertainment and education became compatible.

On 9 June 1991, Alistair Cooke (1908-), on his radio programme A Letter from America, was discussing how Japan had invested much more on basic research than the USA and how they were supplying more and more technical products to US commerce. In his inimitable way he summarized his argument as follows: ‘The Americans think 10 minutes ahead how to make a buck, the Japanese think 10 years ahead.’ Land could do both. An excellent review of the history of Japanese innovation is given by Akio Morita (1992), Chairman of the Board of Sony Corporation and a close friend of Land’s. He stresses the importance of having engineers in the higher echelons of a modern company rather than accountants. Land was the forerunner of this concept.

W.J. McCune, Jr., and B. Cassell (1991) give a very full account of the complete range of the Land cameras with a list of the key patents. The latest instant colour camera planned by Polaroid is dramatically less bulky than its forbears and resembles the popular 35 mm camera. The shape of the print has been changed from a square to a width to height ratio of 4:3. Instead of ejecting the print as it is developing, the camera bends it around rollers and stores all 10 developed prints in a compartment at the back. These can be left there or taken out. A new film had to be developed, with a coating 23 layers thick, to allow for the tight mechanical turns of the guide rollers. The camera is so small that there is no room for a lens to focus the image; the camera needs to be opened up into a larger unit to take pictures. The new film is so sensitive that the lens aperture can be made small to give a greater depth-of-field. To sharpen the image further, a pulse of infrared light is emitted. If the light reflected back to the sensor is too low, the object must be distant, and a long focus-correcting lens moves into the optical path. The sensor also measures the level of ambient light and sets the exposure time automatically or turns on the built-in flash gun. Polaroid put the new camera (‘Vision’) on sale in Britain in 1993 at a cost of £80. The new film cost £10 for a pack of 10 shots. This compact version of the latest Polaroid camera with its ability to take ten shots rapidly at low cost should enable it to keep abreast of its competitors where small is beautiful but the emergent prints are large and ready for viewing without having to visit a fast processing shop.