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Christopher Bonanos: LibraryThing Author Interview

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Christopher Bonanos is an editor at New York Magazine. His first book, Instant: The Story of Polaroid, was published in late September by Princeton Architectural Press.

How did this book come about? What first got you interested in the story of Polaroid?

I was always a Polaroid shooter, from my teenage years, when I got a secondhand camera. (A Model 900, from 1959, marked $5, bargained down to $3.) And when Polaroid film was discontinued for good in 2008, I wrote a little magazine story that led me to the story of the company's rise and fall and rebirth, and Land and his extraordinary invention. You find a good story with an amazing central character, and if you're a writer, you start to think "that's a book."

Tell us about your research process: what sources did you find most useful? What was the most surprising thing you learned?

Polaroid's archive contains a few million documents and photos, and during the company's bankruptcy, the whole pile went to Harvard Business School's Baker Library. The person in charge of it, a librarian named Tim Mahoney, is going to spend his whole career on this one collection, it looks like, and the first tranche of it came open to researchers around the end of 2009. So in January 2010, I started logging a lot of time there. Also, the company's museum collection (prototypes and such) went to the MIT Museum, where I also did quite a bit of digging. And then a lot of the extraordinarily smart people Land hired are still around, and I spoke to lots of them.

Surprising things I learned: Polaroid kept everything. EVERYTHING. In the company's early days, Land had been involved in a patent dispute, and after that, each idea was disclosed, signed, witnessed, and dated. I'll tell you, there's nothing like those files when you're trying to figure out how an invention got off the ground.

Another big surprise: Land made a point of hiring woman scientists, which was highly unusual back then. He was friends with an art-history professor at Smith College who would recommend his smartest students, and Land would scoop them up every year. A lot of them were, as you'd expect, art-history majors, and he'd send them off for some chemistry classes and build his own scientists that way. It was an end run around the usual pool of graduating talent, and it also made those women extremely loyal. A lot of them stayed at Polaroid for decades.

Edwin Land, Polaroid's founder and driving force, had some fairly unorthodox business methods. Describe his style a bit, if you would, and how do you think he made the company work so well for so long?

One of his friends once said he "never had an ordinary reaction to anything." He worked like a pack animal: all his close colleagues from Polaroid have stories about calls at 3:30 in the morning in which he'd say something like "I was thinking about something … can you come in and discuss it over breakfast at 5?" It exhausted people, but they also say they were always challenged, and nearly all of them stuck around for most of their careers. Many told me that he made them do things they thought they couldn't do—in part because he believed in them, in part because they so wanted to please him, in part because he gave them all the resources they'd need.

You write about the relationship between Land and Steve Jobs, of Apple fame. How did they get acquainted, and do you see in Apple some "Landian" principles or practices at work? Are there other companies out there today that you would compare in any way to Polaroid in its heyday?

They met by accident, almost: Jobs deeply admired Land, and at one point he was in Cambridge with Tom Hughes, a colleague who'd formerly worked for Polaroid. So he was able to broker a meeting of minds. And there are so many parallels: the obsession with product design, the perfectionism, the idea of creating an object you never knew you wanted but immediately understood you had to have.

There are relatively few companies that are as focused on R&D as Polaroid was back then—everyone's so beholden to shareholders and quarterly profits now that it's hard to spend that kind of money on the very long term. Polaroid, at its best, was like a think tank that periodically kicked out a billion-dollar profit-maker, and companies like Google, and maybe Microsoft (if it's finally getting its act together) have some of that same vibe.

Polaroid is known, of course, for its cameras and film. But the company also worked on other products in its early decades. Tell us about a few of those, if you would.

Right—for its first decade, Polaroid had little to do with photography. It was a company created to commercialize Land's first invention, the sheet polarizer—a filter that, when used in pairs, could become a sort of valve to control light very precisely. It had many applications: glare control, sunglasses, even 3-D movies. Polaroid grew up during the Second World War, when polarizers went into everything from pilots' goggles to bomb sights to aerial-reconaissance equipment. That product, incidentally, is where the name comes from: the words "polarizing" and "celluloid," blended together. When the instant-photo system came along, it was called the Polaroid Land Camera, but almost everyone elided the "Land" part, because it was confusing. A lot of people somehow thought you couldn't use it, say, on a boat.

There are some great examples in the book of artists doing some really neat experiments with Polaroid images. Do you have a few particularly interesting examples you find most intriguing?

You bet: When the SX-70 came along, an artist named Lucas Samaras noticed that you could sort of squish the emulsion of the print around for a few hours after the photo appeared. He started making crazy manipulations of his face and body, and created an amazing series of work in 1973 and 1974 that he called "Photo-Transformations." There's a nice little book that his dealer, Arne Glimcher of Pace Gallery, put together to showcase them. Highly recommended.

You're something of a Polaroid enthusiast yourself, I understand? How long have you been using Polaroid cameras? Are you still using them today?

I started shooting as a kid, though that camera is no longer useful: it uses a film format that's out of production. But I do carry another camera (Model 180, for the cultists) with me every day, and I try to shoot my son at least two or three times a week. I've been keeping an album since he was born, and I have to assume he's one of the very last kids who will be documented that way. (I take plenty of digital photos of him, too, of course.)

As you write in the final chapter of Instant, there's something of a revivalist movement out there among fans of analog instant photography. Tell us about these efforts, and where interested folks can go to learn more about them.

There are a few ways to shoot instant photos now. Fujifilm makes its own line of cameras and film, and also a film compatible with older Polaroid cameras, the ones where the film is peeled apart to reveal the print. (That goes in the Model 180 I mentioned above.) And then there's the Impossible Project, a company that bought up Polaroid's last film factory and has begun to make film for the SX-70 and 600-series cameras again. Its first products, a couple of years ago, were frankly kind of iffy and experimental, but the latest film is not—it does what it's supposed to, reliably. I'm shooting more and more of it.

What books have you read and enjoyed recently?

I'm in the middle of Jon Gertner's The Idea Factory, about Bell Laboratories, and I have to say that I see some familiar echoes in there—Bell Labs was the truly great American corporate R&D machine, one to which the far smaller operation at Polaroid had quite a few similarities. I'm also a big fan of Robert Sullivan, who's a colleague at New York magazine (though he doesn't work in the office, and we've never met), and I just got his new book My American Revolution, and I'm a chapter or so in. It's hilarious.

Do you have another book project in the works at the moment?

Depends how this book sells! But I have two ideas I like, and maybe a publisher will like them, too. Can't reveal the details yet, but both—like Polaroid—are mid-century subjects, located at the meeting place of art and technology. Both Land and Jobs said they built their companies at that spot, and I like it there too.

—interview by Jeremy Dibbell

Books by Christopher Bonanos

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