The Polaroid Sx-70

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I feel strangely rejuvenated,” said the aging photographer Walker Evans after he began shooting pictures with Polaroid’s SX-70 camera. The instant color camera, he argued, meant that for the first time “you can put a machine in an artist’s hand and have him then rely entirely on his vision and his taste and his mind.”

This was just the sort of response Edwin Land had hoped for. Ever since his first, famous snapshot of inspiration in 1943—when his three-year-old daughter Jennifer asked him why she could not see the image immediately—Land had sought “absolute one-step photography.” He introduced his first Polaroid Land camera in 1948, but it would take a quarter of a century and $250 million in development costs to produce what he fervently believed was the ultimate realization of that ideal.

Introduced twenty years ago, in November of 1972, the SX-70 restored the magic to photography for thousands of amateurs and professionals alike—a magic that lay in the mystery of watching its images develop in plain sight, its depth of color, the sense of the print as a jewel-like object—a latterday heir of the daguerreotype.

Edwin Land was at once a very technical and a very romantic man. The SX-70, he claimed, would enable the user to become “an explorer of new countries—not geographical but human countries.” It would awaken “atavistic competences”—a technical way of saying release the artist in everyone.

Each SX-70 print seemed to have what Land called a “depth in its shadows” corresponding to its dozen layers of dyes and other coatings. Polaroid endlessly reprinted a complex schematic diagram of those layers, like something from a geology text. The freedom of the system came from its limitations: like a sonnet or a sonata, the SX-70 picture possessed a firm set of conventions: fixed format, fixed size, fixed palette.

The camera was itself lovely, the last work of the great designer Henry Dreyfuss. “The SX-70 is the most beautiful piece of photographic equipment ever designed,” says the photographer Neil Selkirk, who is more likely to use Hasselblads in his professional work. “The modesty of design is exquisite.” One of the first cameras to include solid-state integrated circuits, it weighed twenty-four ounces and could slip into a sports-coat pocket.

The photographer Neil Selkirk calls it “the most beautiful piece of photographic equipment ever designed.”

The user comes to take pleasure in the way the SX-70’s “penthouse” view-finder snaps up, like a hiker’s folding cup, the way the little cat-door of the front opens to expel the print, the way the basic folded structure combining saddlelike leather and brushed metal blooms from a flat one by four by seven inches to its full working configuration. Pushing the button ignites a surprising mechanical rumble, like the sudden lowering of airliner landing gear, that with the camera pressed to your eye travels through your cheekbone. And when you are finished, the device snaps shut with a sound as satisfying as the closing door of a fine sports car.

The neatness with which the camera unfolded was echoed by the magical way the picture materialized in front of your eyes. Touching the button produced a burst of power from a tiny electric motor adapted from a model locomotive, expelling the picture with brisk dispatch. Then the print’s Adriatic milky green slowly acquired the Caribbean blues and rose reds that characterized the SX-70 palette.

The SX-70 was launched with great fanfare, and even at $180 it sold well at first. But then shelf-life problems developed with the innovative battery in each film pack, and the camera’s image never fully recovered. The SX-70 was succeeded by less expensive models that lost something along with their leather facing and metal body. Today’s Polaroid Spectra is more competent but somehow less exciting.

Land believed his camera would become as much a necessity as the telephone, but it did so only for insurance adjusters, realtors, and people advertising lost pets. Instant-camera sales peaked in 1978; they now stand at only about a third of that peak. Faced with competition from small conventional cameras and from camcorders, Polaroid photography has found itself used most often for practical, not aesthetic, purposes. Today’s 35-mm point-and-shoot cameras provide crisper images and, with one-hour photo shops ubiquitous, do so quickly.

The SX-70 itself fell victim to an irony: the camera aimed at glorifying the skills of the amateur ended up as a favorite of professionals. You can find SX-70s in photo stores that offer older, collectible cameras, selling for $100 or more. Most of them end up not on a shelf but in the hands of photographers who buy them to use. Instead of the cameras, it is the images they produced, by Evans or Ansel Adams, David Hockney or Lucas Samaras, that are collected.