Monday, September 23, 2013

Review: Instant, The Story of Polaroid

Instant, The Story of Polaroid, is one of those fun books that seems to encourage you to play Monday Morning Quarterback with a well known brand. In this case, Instant neatly lays out the rise and fall and partial-rise again of the iconic Polaroid company. All the key parts of the story are there: you've got the Harvard drop-out genius founder, the Aha! moment, the technical and aesthetic marvel of a product, the mis-steps in the later years and of course, the ultimate downfall (though not quite, Polaroid still putters along to this day).

Prior to picking up this book, I had two memories of Polaroid. First, my Grandpa had an SX-70, a truly revolutionary and remarkable camera. Of course, I didn't know it at the time, but as a kid watching it spit out prints was absolute magic. Second, I can recall our family owning a big, plastic, boxy Polaroid when I was much older. It too spat out prints, though they weren't great quality and they were awfully expensive. I naturally assumed that's what Polaroid was all about: you traded quality and cost for instant gratification.

After reading this book though, I now realize this only a small part of the story. Polaroid made cameras and film beloved by all sort of photographers and artists, including well known artists like Ansel Adams and Andy Warhol. They made large format cameras, super high sensitivity film and yes, cheap-low-quality cameras for kids. All in all, far more depth than I ever gave them credit for.

But enough about the facts, let's do a little hindsight preaching!

Prior to reading this book, I would have probably gone on and on about how both Kodak and Polaroid missed the digital revolution. See, I'd explain, they mixed up their goals and their methods.

A goal is what the brand is ultimately trying to accomplish: Kodak wanted to make photography accessible to all; Polaroid wanted to deliver instant images.

The method is how you accomplish said goal: for both Kodak and Polaroid, this was a combination of camera and film.

Goals are timeless. If you want to get from New York to Los Angeles, your goals are to do it quickly, safely and cheaply. Methods, on the other hand, change. Depending on the year, you might go across the country by wagon train, railway or airplane. Who knows, maybe one day we'll be beaming ourselves to the West Coast.

The problem, I assumed, was that both Kodak and Polaroid confused goals and methods. More specifically, they latched on to the method (film!) and forgot about the goal (making photography accessible). Digital arrived, print died, and while the goals of both companies were still relevant, they were too focused on film to react.

While I think this more or less describes Kodak, it doesn't actually capture what happened with Polaroid.

See, Polaroid's goal wasn't anything particularly abstract. In fact, it was simple: they wanted to allow photographers have instant prints.

And here's the thing, even with all the digital devices in the world, that goal is still a legitimate one. If I handed a kid an instant print from my cell phone camera, they would be just as wide-eyed today as I was when my grandpa handed me a print from his SX-70.

In other words, Kodak needed to somehow morph from a film company to a digital company. Polaroid, on the other handed, just needed to stay Polaroid. Their method may have changed from using film, to using some other printing technique, but logically speaking, there was no need for them to morph into a digital company.

Sure, Polaroid would have had to shrink as company as demand for digital exploded and film was rightfully killed off. But, they would no doubt have received a resurgence (which they have) as people re-learned the power of a tangible photograph.

Put another way, Polaroid wasn't agile or disciplined enough to weather the storm that was digital, even though it alone shouldn't have hurt them.

I suppose the lesson is simple: know what your goals and methods are; hold tight to the former and be constantly in search of replacing the latter.

Hindsight sure is 20/20, right?

As for the book: if you're a photographer, techie or business owner, it's worthy read.

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