Land Demonstrates the Polaroid Camera

When Edwin Herbert Land invented his instant-print camera, he reinvented photography itself, altered a major industry, and astounded the scientific community.

Summary of Event

On February 21, 1947, at the annual meeting of the Optical Society of America at New York City’s Hotel Pennsylvania, Edwin Herbert Land held the first public demonstration of his instant-print camera. This first demonstration of instant photography was made with a large Deardorff portrait camera on a tripod, flanked by floodlights. Land sat in front of the camera and, using a cable release, snapped his own picture. Fifty seconds later, he removed two 8-x-10-inch sheets of paper from a metal chamber attached to the back of the camera, peeled them apart, and displayed a large sepia image of himself. The society’s program declared that this demonstration was a new kind of photography, as revolutionary as the transition from wet plates to daylight-loading film. To counter any suggestion that his black-and-white system might be old-fashioned, Land himself proclaimed that the process could be adapted to both color and motion pictures. Polaroid camera
[kw]Land Demonstrates the Polaroid Camera (Feb. 21, 1947)
[kw]Polaroid Camera, Land Demonstrates the (Feb. 21, 1947)
[kw]Camera, Land Demonstrates the Polaroid (Feb. 21, 1947)
Polaroid camera
[g]North America;Feb. 21, 1947: Land Demonstrates the Polaroid Camera[01990]
[g]United States;Feb. 21, 1947: Land Demonstrates the Polaroid Camera[01990]
[c]Photography;Feb. 21, 1947: Land Demonstrates the Polaroid Camera[01990]
[c]Inventions;Feb. 21, 1947: Land Demonstrates the Polaroid Camera[01990]
[c]Science and technology;Feb. 21, 1947: Land Demonstrates the Polaroid Camera[01990]
[c]Manufacturing and industry;Feb. 21, 1947: Land Demonstrates the Polaroid Camera[01990]
Land, Edwin Herbert
Wheelwright, George, III
McCune, William J.

Even though Land explained that the new instant camera, to be called the Polaroid Land camera, would not be available for sale for some months, the technical community was astounded by his scientific virtuosity. The public was immediately informed of the new development, which was reported in newspapers and magazines throughout the United States and Europe. The morning after the New York demonstration, for example, the sepia self-portrait appeared in The New York Times along with an editorial titled “The Camera Does the Rest,” an obvious play on the famous Kodak slogan, “You press the button, we do the rest.” The following week the photograph was published in Life magazine as a full-page picture. In spite of the public demand for the new camera generated by all the publicity, the first instant camera did not appear on the market until 1948.

Edwin Herbert Land demonstrates his instant-print process.

(Library of Congress)

Edwin Land, born into a middle-class family from Bridgeport, Connecticut, attended Harvard University but did not graduate. Fascinated by science and invention since childhood, Land went to Harvard seeking a field in which he could make significant intellectual contributions and establish his reputation and fortune. Deciding that his greatest opportunities lay in investigating polarized light, he set up a laboratory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and went into business with a young Harvard physics instructor, George Wheelwright III. The Land-Wheelwright Laboratories Land-Wheelwright Laboratories[Land Wheelwright Laboratories] patented an extensive sheet polarizer, consulted for Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Massachusetts General Hospital, and, in the mid-1930’s, began making polarizing camera filters for the Eastman Kodak Company and “Polaroid Day Glasses” for the American Optical Company. In 1937, Land decided it was time to incorporate. He was named president, chairman of the board, and director of research of the new Polaroid Corporation.

Land had conceived the idea for the instant-print camera while vacationing with his family in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1943. As he and his three-year-old daughter Jennifer walked about the city one afternoon. Land photographed the sights with his portable camera. When Jennifer wanted to know why she could not see the pictures immediately, Land began to think about the possibility of making a camera that not only took pictures but also developed them instantly. He later declared that after an hour of walking alone and considering the problem, the design of the camera and its film became clear to him, and it took only three years for the camera to become a reality. As Land noted, however, years of rich experience in working with polarizers, acquiring a knowledge of plastics and of the properties of viscous liquids, preparing microscopic crystals smaller than the wavelength of light, and all the other activities of the Polaroid Corporation were compressed into those three years.

In 1948, working closely with William J. McCune, Jr., Land produced the first instant-print camera, the Model 95, which retailed for $89.75. A folding camera larger than most roll-film cameras, it weighed four pounds and had an f/11 lens and shutter speeds from 1/8 to 1/60 of a second. The camera used Polaroid Land film, which consisted of two rolls of negative emulsion and positive paper together with a pod of chemicals called the reagent. After a picture was taken, pulling a tab brought the exposed negative, the positive paper, and the reagent through two tight rollers. As the pod broke, the chemical spread, transferring the image from the negative to the positive paper. After a one-minute wait, a door in the camera back was opened, and the print was peeled away from the negative strip. The first film produced eight sepia images and cost $1.50 per roll. In 1950, Polaroid introduced a new orthochromatic film called Type 41, which made black-and-white pictures.

Throughout the 1950’s, Polaroid expanded its range of cameras at regular intervals. The Model 110 Pathfinder of 1952 was a more advanced camera intended for the professional, and the Model 80 Highlander of 1954 introduced a new, smaller picture format. By 1960, the development time for the black-and-white film had been reduced to fifteen seconds. In 1963, the color that Land had promised earlier became a reality when Polaroid Polacolor Land film appeared on the market along with the Polaroid Land Automatic 100 camera, which was the first to take film packs rather than picture rolls. With the introduction of the SX-70 in 1972, Land finally made the camera he had visualized on that solitary walk in Santa Fe in 1943—a camera that truly made “one-step photography” possible.

The most outstanding innovation among the many introduced by the SX-70 was that the film was developed outside the camera. After exposure, the camera ejected a sealed picture unit consisting of a multilayer negative and positive; the image appeared as the photographer watched, and there was no extraneous paper to be peeled away. Other innovations had to do with the design of the camera itself. For example, it was the first folding single-lens reflex in history. When folded, it was flat and compact; when unfolded, it had a roughly triangular shape, with a viewfinder on top. As McCune declared, everything before the SX-70 had been a compromise for Land.


Like George Eastman before him, Edwin Land appealed more to the amateur photographer than to the professional when marketing his instant-print cameras. Although it should be noted that both Kodak and Polaroid made cameras for professional use, a large part of the output of both companies was directed toward the mass market. Eastman, with his first Kodak and, later, the inexpensive Brownie, had made photography a truly democratic art form. Land, while demonstrating Model 95 at the Royal Photographic Society in London in 1949, suggested that with his camera, the average amateur could become an aesthetic experimenter, developing creative ideas on the spot, just as a painter or sculptor would.

Land made it possible for photographers to observe their work and subject matter simultaneously, removing most of the manipulative barriers between the photographer and the photograph. The photographer could thus think of the art in the taking rather than the making of photographs. He believed that all that should be necessary to get a good picture is to take a good picture. Polaroid camera

Further Reading

  • Adams, Ansel. Polaroid Land Photography Manual. New York: Morgan & Morgan, 1963. A manual of the Polaroid Land process. Adams demonstrates how instant photography can be a serious creative medium. Well-illustrated throughout, with a concise explanation of Adams’s famous zone system.
  • Coe, Brian. Cameras. New York: Crown, 1978. Outlines the development of the camera and some of its more important accessories from photography’s beginnings in the 1830’s. Contains an account of the early attempts, before Land, to achieve instant photography. Helpful illustrations, including diagrams of Polaroid and Kodak instant-print cameras.
  • Crist, Steve, ed. The Polaroid Book: Selections from the Polaroid Collections of Photography. London: Taschen, 2005. A well-illustrated collection of Polaroid art photography, black-and-white as well as color, with an essay on the medium by Barbara Hitchcock. A beautifully designed book.

  • Innovation/Imagination: Fifty Years of Polaroid Photography. New York: H. N. Abrams and Ansel Adams Center for Photography, 1999. From a 1999 exhibition of Polaroids at the Ansel Adams Center for Photography in San Francisco. Chapters include “The Polaroid Collection,” “Edwin Land’s Polaroid: ’A New Eye,’” “Polaroid and the Artist,” and “Polaroid Milestones.” Well illustrated, mainly in color.
  • Livesay, Harold C. American Made: Shapers of the American Economy. New York: Pearson-Longman, 2007. A collection of essays detailing the lives and works of Americans who greatly influenced the U.S. economy. Includes an essay on Edwin Land, inventor of the Polaroid camera.
  • McElheny, Victor K. Insisting on the Impossible: The Life of Edwin Land. Reading, Mass.: Perseus Books, 1998. A biography of the founder of Polaroid and a history of the company.
  • Olshaker, Mark. The Instant Image. New York: Stein & Day, 1978. Examines the factors and attitudes that made Land and Polaroid different from other businessmen and companies. The author interviewed Polaroid employees as well as Ansel Adams and several Kodak officials. A balanced and objective account of Polaroid’s evolution.
  • Wensberg, Peter C. Land’s Polaroid. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987. A well-written account of Polaroid’s growth from a small private company to a giant corporation. Provides many personal insights into Land’s character and practices. Also contains photographs of Land with some of his inventions, including the Life cover with the SX-70.

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