Instant History

The decline of Polaroid.


It appears instant film is set to go the way of the VCR and cassette player—another casualty of the digital revolution. The last wheeze of instant photography came earlier this month, by way of an announcement from Polaroid that the company is shutting down production of almost all of its film manufacturing lines. The decision to cease production is “due to dramatic technological changes in the photographic industry,” announced the company, “which will see the organization transitioning from its analog instant film business into new and innovative digital instant photography technologies.” Hello, and welcome to the 21st century.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Polaroids demise has been the pace of its decline. In the years following World War II, Polaroids instant photography products helped the company develop a brand name recognized worldwide. In the 1970s, in particular, a whole generation became fascinated by the ability to turn white squares of paper into cherished family memories, and everyone from Andy Warhol to Kermit the Frog endorsed the products. 

By the 1980s though, hostile takeover bids and wayward investing had crippled the powerhouse brand and almost guaranteed that the company would be caught unaware by the advancement of digital photography. Polaroids revenue peaked in 1991; just ten years later the company was forced to declare bankruptcy. Yet pop culture was still enamored with its instant photo technology. OutKasts 2003 number one hit “Hey Ya!” featured singer André 3000 urging people to “Shake it like a Polaroid picture.” 

“The company was just too slow to adapt,” says Barney Britton, technical writer for Amateur Photographer. “The future of film photography is that it will either become a niche market or be phased out entirely.” 

Thats bad news for Polaroid's worldwide labor force. Factories will close in Massachusetts, Mexico and the Netherlands, leaving a core staff of about 150 employees in Concord and Waltham, Massachusetts. By contrast, Polaroid employed almost 21,000 workers at the height of its success in the late 1970s. 

Ironically, the cease production announcement sparked a sales rush, with enthusiasts rushing to snap up whats left of the supply of film before it runs out sometime later this year. Polaroids are still frequently utilized in a handful of industries, including film and medicine, and some are concerned that alternative technology will have to be found. For example, dermatologists use Polaroid film printed with grid patterns to help measure shrinkage in scars over time. At present, digital imaging doesnt provide a reliable alternative, which explains why dermatologists are now buying Polaroid products in bulk. 

But others have already moved on. Tony Murphy, a lecturer in art and digital technology, says that very few students are now taught traditional film photography methods. “For the last three years most teaching has been almost exclusively digital and the dark rooms at colleges are rarely used nowadays,” he begins. “Students can carry a digital dark room under their arms, so to speak, in the form of a laptop. The whole process is more cost effective.” 

According to Murphy, the secret to teaching is applying traditional techniques to digital technology, so that students put considered thought behind image making. “The students these days hardly remember film at all,” he says. “Their parents might have an instant camera in a drawer somewhere, but they have mobile phones with digital cameras. The student wants the fix now and doesnt want to wait an hour, or three hours, to get their results processed.” 

Going forward, Polaroid is looking to survive by gaining a foothold in digital photography, with plans to sell a tiny, eight-ounce, “zero-ink” photo printer capable of printing business card-sized pictures. The company also now has its name on DVD players, televisions and GPS systems, among other electronic products. 

As for Polaroids instant film technologies, president/CEO Tom Beaudoin says the company is hopeful that another firm might take on the patents and keep Polaroid products in stock. “Were working very hard to find alternatives with people who might be able to take the recipe,” begins Beaudoin. “But we cant promise anything.”