While waiting for the elevator at my daughter’s daycare I got talking with a fellow with a camera strapped over his shoulder. It was clearly not a contemporary digital camera but it wasn’t until he started talking about which film it took that I saw that it was a classic peel away Polaroid. We soon realized that not only were we both photography lovers but we also have a number of friends and colleagues in common as he works as a writer and editor with New York Magazine.
Christopher Bonano’s embrace of this camera has been given full bloom in his book INSTANT: The Story of Polaroid. It came out this autumn and is selling very well, as it deserves to be – and, it makes for a perfect stocking stuffer! It’s an exciting story, told in a concise way, with a mix of science, business and the excitement of creativity. I recently sat down to talk with Mr. Bonanos on the record over tacos in West Soho in New York, and will post the interview in two parts here.
Chris Buck: Was there something happening five years ago that made you think, “I want to write this book”?
Christopher Bonanos: Yes. It was when Polaroid stopped making the film in 2008. I wrote a tiny little story about it for New York Magazine, and at the same time there was a show up at the Whitney of Robert Mapplethorpe’s Polaroids. I called Chuck Close and a couple of other fine artists to talk about it, and they expressed real anger that this medium was being taken away from them. One thing Close said to me was that this did not have to happen. It was about greed and bad corporate behavior, not just obsolescence.
And then I started reading, and found my way to one website, and then onto another website, and then another. I went down the funnel of the vortex of the Polaroid cult.
What I discovered really fast was that there was a good story, up-up-up and down-down-down, with a little revival at the end in The Impossible Project. But also there is a fantastic central character in Edwin Land. When you are a writer and you have a story arc and a great character at its spine…
…the thing writes itself.
If only it had!
I will say also that I was thinking about writing a book around this time. It was when the recession was hitting in 2008-2009, and I thought maybe I should have a lifeboat, in case things were to go badly at the magazine. Also, it was the right time in my life to start doing something long-form, and then this idea just showed up in my face.
I’ve only just started the book, and what I find already intriguing is that Land is a scientist and a curious person, but he is also an entrepreneur—that comes in very early. Do you feel like you learned something about human nature and what ingredients it takes to be a successful entrepreneur like that?
First, he had some special inventions, in the sheet polarizer, and then in instant photography. Two great inventions among many others, but those were the principal ones. In both cases, they were things no one else had. There were bits and pieces in other people’s work, but he really had a fresh fully fleshed-out idea. What he did in both cases was build the company around the product rather than the company around the marketing of the product, or the niche of the product.
What he did not try to do was come up with a camera that could challenge Kodak, with a slightly better lens or a better range finder.
What about his personality? Obviously he was eccentric but he was also successful. Most people who are eccentric like that tend to just circle in on themselves.
Some of it was that he was clever. It was the simple fact that he was inventive and came at problems in odd ways that no one else did, and it often paid off fantastically.
His colleagues all tell stories of his eccentric behavior but also his ability to sit back and think about something and come up with a solution in ways no one else could have. If you look at certain Polaroid products, especially from the earlier days, they contain odd, excellent solutions to technical problems.
I grew up in a Kodak family; my father was an engineer there, primarily working in film coating.
You know, when I was a child the whole instant camera, we were never allowed to call it a “Polaroid”. We were allowed to call it an instant camera.
That was probably during the great lawsuit: 1976 was the introduction of Kodak’s camera.
So what is your take on Kodak as a company?
In terms if film quality, in terms of inventions—in the beginning, especially—Kodak was unbeatable. Kodachrome’s introduction in 1936 was epic. And they invented the digital camera.
Where they historically fell down was that they were somewhat slow to bring ideas to the market.
They had so much of the business to themselves. They had 90 percent market share for film in the U.S. at one point. For color paper it was 98 percent—and when you have that, chances are you are not going to work to improve your color paper very much.
Watch this space for Part 2 of the Christopher Bonanos interview.