When I first opened my Instagram account, the combination of quick modern technology and vintage aesthetics fascinated me.
I likened the app to the point-and-shoot instant products of a Polaroid camera: Instagram felt like it was keeping with the times, a Polaroid for the social media generation. The difference is that with Polaroids you would get a tangible, printed image; with Instagram you get an instantly shareable, social network-compatible photograph.
My association between the two was really just a product of Instagram’s clever marketing. By giving us access to ‘vintage’ filters , they tapped into the hipster thirst for nostalgia. I think what attracted me to Instagram in the first place was all of the Facebook posts I kept seeing that made it look like my friends had Polaroid or vintage film cameras.
I like to think I use my Instagram account much like I would a Polaroid camera. I like the grainy, sometimes blurred and out-of-focus quality of a quick, snap-happy amateur photographer. The spontaneity of a captured moment, instantly shared, gives each photo a natural and fleeting quality.
The thing that I didn’t realise about Instagram was that it gives you the ability to not only take a photo to use on the app, but also to choose from any of your pre-saved photos, apply the filter and share them that way.
Even though Instagram gives us the aesthetics of old-school photography, the authenticity of having one taken (or more, but photo film is expensive) as you would with a film camera is lost.
A new book, Instant: The Story of Polaroid, chronicles the history of instant cameras. The fastest form of film photography, easily adopted by pop culture, Polaroids also caught the attention of fine artists from Chuck Close to the pop-assembly-line of Andy Warhol’s factory portraits.
The book’s author, Christopher Bonanos, writes about how the introduction of Polaroid revolutionised photography:
“The intimacy of the technology—point, shoot, and print— allowed experimentation, and that was also part of its draw.”
After experimenting with instant photobooth cameras, Andy Warhol was often seen at parties and events with a handheld model of the Polaroid, however the photography world benefited beyond pop art.
Lucas Samaras’ 1974 image ‘Photo-Transformation’ (above) is a prime example of a new branch of photography bred by Polaroid. Because the the gelatin-based emulsion of the film stayed wet for hours after the image was printed, Samaras famously began pressing on his photographs, distorting the end result.
According to Bonanos, “This kind of manipulation wasn’t seen again until the advent of Photoshop.”
In 1979, Chuck Close used a large 20×24 Polaroid camera to take extreme close-up images of his own face before stitching them together for a revealing self-portrait (below).
According to Polaroidnet, “in the 1960s and 1970s, Polaroid was what Apple is today: the coolest technology company on earth.”
Potentially as a result of their accessibility, the ‘cool’ factor of both Polaroid and Instagram is undeniable. Recent rumours about the development of a ‘Socialmatic’ Polaroid/Instagram hybrid, with the Polaroid-like ability to instantly print photos applied to a digital camera, are as yet unconfirmed. Even so, the technology of modern cameras our photography is only getting faster.
As Polaroid’s founder Edwin Land predicted in 1970, cameras were something we would one day use like a “telephone” and would become “something that was always with you.”
Polaroid no longer produces film, and instantly-printed images are very different now to what they were in the ’60s, but the legacy of the original instant cameras is still evident in modern photography.
This piece was written for LUNA magazine