Instant Gratification

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Polaroid of Four Men, ca.1990s. Courtesy of The Portal to Texas History

The invention of instant photography, popularized by the Polaroid camera, marked an exciting new shift in the photography industry. People could take pictures on impulse and then moments later have a developed photo. Unlike other types of film, Polaroid prints did not produce a negative and (before the development of digital scanners) could not be reproduced. Rather, they were solely images “of the moment.”

Polaroid advertisements in the mid twentieth-century wowed buyers with the promise that they could “take and show party pictures while the fun is going on.” They also emphasized the use of their cameras in social settings, with advertisements saying, “You’re the life of the party with a Polaroid Land Camera.” In 1976, Editor-in-Chief of the British Journal of Photography, Geoffrey Crawley, observed that taking instant photos had morphed picture taking into a communal activity that could be enjoyed amongst groups of friends. Writer Peggy Sealfon also noted that instant cameras could be used as icebreakers, and “[w]ould motivate people to do unexpected things, just to see the immediate record of their behavior.”

Polaroid’s immediately-viewable images were the world’s introduction to the concept of instant images and a precursor to digital photography. Despite the rise of digital photos, Polaroid prints continue to enjoy a worldwide cult status as aesthetically distinctive because of their iconic white borders and particular size.