Friday, May 16, 2008

when instant gratification took a full 60 seconds

The Whitney Museum is free tonight (and every Friday nite) from 6 to 9, but the best reason to schlepp up there isn't the Biennial featuring jacuzzi-sized kitty litter boxes, it's Mapplethorpe's Polaroids on view through September. Unlike his later studio stuff that gave him a bad boy rep (and sold out shows) these portraits are disarming shots of friends and lovers taken by an artist coming of age. His earliest Polaroids date from 1970--which means that he must have been as seduced as the rest of us were by the young Ali McGraw who appeared in this commercial for The Swinger, a Polaroid designed with white casing and black plastic strap handle to make it seem more like a pop-art fashion accessory.

Polaroid cameras seemed magic to me (and to most people I knew) in the 60s when the standard wait time to have your photos developed was 5 days. (If you took Kodachrome slides as my father did, the process including mailing, took up to three weeks.)

So I was saddened by the news in February that Polaroid was phasing out its line of instant cameras, and that its film will stop being available next year. (To nab one of the last Polaroid cameras made, go to To keep tabs on the dwindling supply of film for it, go here. For undying Polaroid love, check out flickr. For Polaroid postcards sent snail mail--fascinating project--click here.)

For decades, Polaroid was a great client to work on, known for cutting edge advertising and clever re-inventions of its core product. More than 300 commercials were produced by Doyle Dane Bernbach beginning in 1977 using James Garner (Rockford Files) and Mariette Hartley who played the part of a bickering couple so convincingly that Hartley had a T-shirt she wore on set proclaiming "I am not James Garner's wife."

One of the best (if indecipherable) spots for Polaroid was shot in Asia by Michael Gondry (pre-Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.) The first 20 seconds of this 60 is a silent, seasick, hyper-speed view of workaholic Hong Kong where a young male exec is being chewed out by his older female boss. He returns to his desk, takes a Polaroid camera out of a file drawer, sneaks into an empty office and takes a photo that we never see, a photo he uses to resign from his dead-end job and learn to "live for the moment" --Polaroid's tagline at the time. But what does he take the photo of? Perhaps the soundtrack in Cantonese explains it? (If you figure it out, please let me know.) Still, the footage is surreal, unforgettable, and what more do you need, really, than standout visual to recommend a photography product.

And that's not the only Polaroid spot that left the photo to the viewer's imagination. (Did focus group testing prove this effective?) This one left out voiceover, too. The only audio is hysterical laughter.

Like many companies, Polaroid attempted to capitalize on the Y2K panic in 1999. It introduced its new disposable instant camera with a commercial about the millenium crisis. We're reminded of the all-for-naught national frenzy that year by the voiceover: "With just moments before the new millenium, the dreaded Y2K bug threatens worldwide bank disruption and computer failure" as a young reveller races through the Times Square crowd to an ATM and takes a Polaroid of a display of his bank balance. (It was widely feared that computer glitches embedded in bank software would compromise savings accounts.)

By 2007, digital cameras had pretty much eaten up Polaroid's market, but a valiant attempt was made to keep the product afloat in Brazil where Polaroid cameras replaced mirrors in shopping malls, reinforcing the brand's tagline: Instant Images.

via Advertising for Peanuts via a/d goodness

Polaroid, which declared bankruptcy in 2001 and was bought by an investment group, will try to keep itself afloat with the intro of a Polaroid Printer called ZINK which is the size of a deck of cards and designed to make instant prints from digital cameras or cameraphones. Sure, sounds like dubious product idea. But probably so did the notion of an instant camera in 1948 when Edwin Land, a photographer on holiday in Santa Fe with his family, came up with the idea after his 3-year old daughter complained about having to wait to see their vacation shots.


Anonymous said...

The Land Cameras from the 50s and 60s with the expandable bellows had nice lenses and took crisp, contrasty black and white photos that were all keepers.

I had a very expensive Spectra in the 80's. It took dull, soft lifeless photos with washed out color. And at over $10 for a ten exposure film cartridge, it was expensive.

Although you could do the melty thing, like the Peter Gabriel album cover. That was cool. Mariette Hartley is still gorgeous. I always mixed her up with Marilu Henner though....

Ad Broad, oldest working writer in advertising said...

Oh, right, the melty thing! image transfers

Joker said...

I still buy cd's, my car has a tape player and I still buy and read tangible books. Maybe it's a part of me that says technology might facilitate things, but we lose touch with the things we buy and own. Owning a cd I feel I owe it to an album to listen to it once a year. As files I could care less some times.