CAMBRIDGE – Unfolding through technology, magic, or perhaps both, the recently taken photograph transformed from indeterminate shapes into the recognizable face of a loved one. Millions of Americans took such photographs with a Polaroid camera and film, the brainchild of the late Jewish-American inventor Edwin Land and the subject of a new exhibit at the MIT Museum.
“The Polaroid Project: At the Intersection of Art and Technology” debuted at the museum earlier this fall and is on view until next June. It not only reflects Land’s breakthrough invention of instant film; it also shows the interplay between this technology and the artists who used it over the decades, from Ansel Adams to Andy Warhol.
In a statement, the museum’s director of collections and curator of science and technology, Deborah Douglas, called the exhibition “the first to deeply examine the impact that artists and photographers had on the development of Polaroid’s technology and vice versa.”
On tour for two years, the exhibition makes a final stop at MIT, a mere block away from where Land pioneered instant film. The museum hosted a special event for about 150 former company employees and retirees last month. As the museum notes in a press release, “Despite its demise in the early years of this century, Polaroid remains a highly respected brand, evoking innovation, utility, creativity and quality.”
“I go around and everybody has an uncle who worked for Polaroid, or their aunt did, or they say ‘we owned a camera,’ or ‘so-and-so worked [there],’ or ‘I used the film, I fell in love with the Type 55,’ ” Douglas said.
In addition to the artistic images shown during the two-part exhibition, there are artifacts including Land’s mammoth personal 20-by-24-inch camera, and what the museum calls “extremely rare test prints that document the invention of instant film,” a successful creation from the moment it was first demonstrated to the public in 1947.
At that point in time, inventor Land was not even 40 years old. Born in 1909 in Bridgeport, Conn., he was the grandson of Russian Jewish immigrants from what is today Ukraine. The family name was originally Solomonovich, Douglas said, citing the 1998 book Insisting on the Impossible: “The Life of Edwin Land by Victor McElheny.” According to the book, Land’s grandparents Avraham and Ella Solomonovich lived in a village near Kiev before escaping pogroms in the 1880s, their flight apparently aided by Jewish philanthropist Baron Maurice de Hirsch; the family immigrated via Ellis Island, registering as the Lands.
Christopher Bonanos, the author of the 2012 book Instant: The Story of Polaroid, said there is an account that the immigrant Solomonovich family “landed” in the US and that this was “misunderstood as their name.” Of this story, Bonanos said, “If it’s true, it’s a good one.”
“I knew Polaroid was invented by a Jew,” said Jonathan Sarna, the Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University. “It’s not something that was secret. I did not know the family name had been changed.”
Land’s father, Harry Land, became a scrap-metal dealer in the U.S. and was “kind of a tough guy,” Bonanos said. His son was accepted to Harvard but dropped out. Bonanos noted that this happened “because he would outrun his teachers, fellow students, grad students.”
Indeed, Land outran an entire industry when he held the first public demonstration of instant film on Feb. 21, 1947 in New York City.
“The New York Times the next day had front-page headlines,” Douglas said. “It was a very unexpected, remarkable development.” As she explained, “photography was normally a process where one would take photographs and return a spool of film to a developer,” which “could take a week or two in order to execute.”
With Polaroid, Douglas said, “it was possible to have a picture in a minute.” And, she said, “the film only gets more sophisticated over time.”
Sarna recalled when his brother David got a Polaroid for his bar mitzvah in 1962. “I still remember it as somewhat magical,” Sarna said. “You could take a picture and see instant results.”
Meanwhile, Douglas said, there was “gradually more exploration” of photography in art – aided by Polaroid-provided equipment and fueled by what she calls “the sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll era” of the 1960s. Artists of that time did “not have to explain to anyone, not worry that their images would be confiscated,” she said, noting that the Polaroid collection of art was “promoted endlessly” by the company. American Jewish photographer Elsa Dorfman used Polaroid cameras to take acclaimed portraits of celebrities, with her image of Allen Ginsberg included in the exhibition. Her fellow Cambridge artist Tom Norton used the 20-by-24-inch Polaroid to take photos of dancers moving across a stage in stop-motion action – a project that Douglas said was fully supported by the entire team at Polaroid, a synergy reflective of Land’s philosophy.
As Douglas said, “Land had a very democratic vision – all had in us something of an artist, a scientist, an engineer, a marketing entrepreneurial type. We all had those potentials in us.”